Since Labor Day has now passed it occurred to me once again that autumn is near, the landscape will soon present skeletal woods, and we too will be changing our circadian rhythm to follow the sun's trajectory and day-night effects, most dramatically when the time changes back to standard time. We plant new annuals and vegetables, and turn over the summer's growing plots.
We're always changing. Some common idioms such as "change is good," "if you're not changing you're dying," and "change your thoughts to change your world" come to mind. President Obama hinged much of his campaign messaging to the concept. I agree to varying degrees about how others have seen or utilized change to emphasize their positions on society or even humanity itself. It's tough to be ensconced in tech and to not unreservedly favor change. The whole industry requires change for, oddly, its stability. There is no questioning the merits of change, whether in Silicon Valley or the developing Silicon Holler.
Is change good, then? Despite the admonition that I dare not question it, the question stands. There's a trope in TV and films, and maybe it's a truism in the human experiment, that as one grows older they become less inviting of change: "Back in my day…" "Kids today!" "The good old days" and on and on. Heck, our mere getting older means that we're changing so pining for olden days seems part irony and part meta. Still, still, the question. Has change benefitted us?
I think that part of this questioning comes to me as we get nearer the 50th anniversary of the internet, which is coming in late October after scholars from UCLA sent a computer message to their Stanford peers. After that moment the world was definitely on a pronounced path of change. To narrow down my question, then, has change that arose from technological advances benefitted us? This is a complex, possibly insoluble question, but that won't stop me.
Today I saw some news items about the Ring doorbell. This technology, borne of a company whose offices are in California and Ukraine, has found its way into our homes through its smart doorbells. Surely around Christmastime you've seen news stories about how unsuspecting scofflaws approached with malicious intent a suburban home donned with "Amazon"-labeled boxes. We see the crime go down thanks to Ring and its video capabilities built into the doorbell. The doorbell "watched" the opportunistic criminal walk up to the house and abscond with the boxes. We see it because the doorbell sent the video image to the homeowner likely at work or running errands (though, sometimes, they're in the house) who in turn put it online or shared it with law enforcement or the media. At first blush, this seems like a good change. Bad guys caught. Crime averted. Justice served.
Think more though. Was it good that technology brought us to a place when we could so easily buy goods online to be delivered? Has the change that caused Amazon to be so grotesquely, cosmically enormous as to dwarf many, and I mean many, nation-states' economies? How about so much of the information that Amazon has collected, and shared, since we so unabashedly submit our personal, financial, familial, and even medical and other sensitive information? Good? Many lamented the days after Big Box came to town and began swatting away the local merchants, which was also brought about obviously albeit not exclusively by change. Also partially thanks to technology. I don't hear the pitchforks clanging about Amazon, though, who not only work against Mom-and-Pops, but also against the local tax rolls. Maybe that means those changes--i.e., that facilitated you clicking "checkout" at your Amazon shopping cart--were all good. Maybe not.
Keep thinking. The Ring smart doorbell, one of literally trillions of forthcoming Internet of Things devices that gets connected to the vast, pervasive network of ones and zeroes, keeps the front porch safer. It gave those would-be victims and law enforcement the evidence to rid the streets of some crime. What else though? That comes to some of the more recent news about that tech. Soon, if not already in some pilot areas, your Ring (or other brand) smart doorbell will communicate directly with the local police. Say a criminal creeps up the sidewalk salivating over the boxes resting on your stoop. If you configure it properly the motions of the crook trigger immediate, direct video feed to law enforcement, presumably toward dispatching guns and badges. That's good, eh? How else, though, does that information affect society? Where in sci-fi literature, movies, or television has police omnipresence failed? That's rhetorical. How soon (now?) before the internet's underground figures out how to hack the Rings and send false flags, obfuscate criminal behavior, or leverage the new flows of information in their favor?
It's been nearly two years since I was given the opportunity to yammer on, hoping for your attention here, and idealistically inform your opinions about information security, privacy, and other tech-bound facets of life. Never, as far as I can recall, have I posed as many questions as in these hundreds of words. Not to belabor that point, but why? It's because change, while generally necessary for fundamental survival, can never be as binary as technology. We cannot certainly say that a new gadget, smartphone app, or car feature is either good or bad. They too often are a hybrid: more security begets less convenience; less privacy begets greater accessibility; additional emojis beget fewer words.
Going back to the historical point when the internet was born a great band sang about the inescapable force and the complexity of change. In their aptly named greatest hit they summed it up well. The Guess Who's song, "No Time," observed, "Seasons change and so do I." For good or for bad?
Ed is a professor of cybersecurity, an attorney, and a trained ethicist. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.