I realize this blog has been quiet for a while this year. I don’t have to tell anyone that 2016 has been a unique, and uniquely stressful year. So please excuse my decision to set aside this space due to the distractions of the recent election. Discussions of technology issues seemed trivial compared to the bigger issues at stake this year.
But if you’ll join me in wishing 2016 a NOT-fond farewell, let’s do it by looking at the year in tech. There are three tech stories of 2016 that I think loom large in importance, especially for ethical reasons. Before reading further, what would you guess they were? I’d love to know.
As your number one tech-ethics story did you pick the proliferation of fake news? That’s the one that disturbs me the most, and plenty has been written about it. We could see it coming for a while. I remember talking in my ethics class about the removal of gatekeepers for our sources of news and content, and how this had both a good side and a bad side. You must know this by rote. The good: the removal of gate keepers gave us all a voice, crowd sourcing would provide an equal or better view of reality, we would all be publishers and the barriers would fall. Vox populi, vox dei. The flip side: no responsible party fact checking, the proliferation of hidden agendas, the crackpot fringe side-by-side with the sober mainstream.
So we knew the dangers. What we couldn’t expect was the onslaught of purposeful disinformation and the degree to which a gullible public would be manipulated by these disreputable players. If Barnum were alive today he’d tell us that there’s a fake news consumer born every minute. The crazy fringe is no longer a fringe; it’s right in the center of our public life. Do you know people who follow fake stories and propaganda, no matter what the facts? I thought so.
Fake news is a poison to our political discourse. Here’s the cure, and it’s one not easily achieved: a healthy dose of skepticism. Sorry if this seems simplistic, but it’s true. When encountering “news” that purports to tell some unbelievable crazy story that doesn’t ring true – even if it fits perfectly with your political view of the way things are – question it. Fact check it. Verify the source and look for confirmation. There are plenty of ways to do this on the web and I won’t even bother to point you to them. But we must learn to question the nonsense that circulates on the web before swallowing it.
I don’t pretend to know how we establish this skepticism in our fellow citizens. Perhaps we teach our children while they can still learn. But this is what we must do. We can’t keep being fooled by those on the web who would manipulate us with easily disproved nonsense. Just one example: a child sex ring run out of a Washington DC pizza parlor. Come on, really?
The second big tech news story of 2016? Did you pick the hacking of the US electoral process by the Russians? This is huge, dangerous – and not disputable.
I’ve written before about the vulnerability of our election process to a determined hacker, but never has it been more obvious that we were manipulated by a concerted effort from a foreign adversary. Make no mistake: this was a carefully planned strategy to penetrate email systems, release damaging information and influence the electorate in many malicious ways, aimed at getting the Moscow-preferred candidate elected over his opponent. The Russians didn’t even have to hack the computers at the polling booths – the link in the chain we always thought was most vulnerable. Instead they hacked our heads and poured in all manner of disruption and distraction.
And it worked. Can you imagine how this has encouraged the Russian tech masters? Can you doubt that they are already planning their moves for future US elections?
This is tremendously concerning, especially since our president-elect shows no signs of understanding or caring about this issue. Our democracy is at risk, and only we citizens and the good people who remain in government can do something about it. Let’s hope we can keep the flame of democracy burning and find a way to turn things around next time.
My third story? The Samsung Galaxy Note 7 –
that sleek, beautifully
manufactured, android masterpiece by one of the world’s biggest gadget makers
– that damn smartphone that kept overheating and catching on fire! It’s an
understatement to say that this was a big black eye for Samsung. Consider the
huge bad press, the US government intervention, the recalls, the five
generations of replacements that also caught fire, and on and on. And if you’ve
flown a commercial flight recently, you know the gate crew and the flight attendants
announce that the phone is banned from the plane by the FAA. Could it be any
I won’t go into the reasons for Samsung’s failure. But clearly, even the best can stumble; quality control is not something that can ever be taken for granted. In my class at Immaculata, I have the students read up on the case of the Therac-25, a notorious tech failure. It was a new radiation therapy machine that was badly designed and poorly tested that wound up killing or injuring scores of patients that had the misfortune to cross its path. I try my best to scare my young students into never being a party to a Therac-25 project. The Samsung Galaxy story tells us that tech safety is still an important issue.
So there you have 2016 in tech: two attacks on our democracy and a firebomb in your pocket. Is it any wonder that we all feel that 2017 can’t come soon enough?