Blog, Psychology, Sociology

Completely Out of Control: Technology Gone Amok

Originally Published November 25th on the Huffington Post

In the 1980’s, because I taught at USC, my family and I were fortunate to live in Manhattan Beach, a small beautiful jewel of a city in Southern California that borders directly on the Santa Monica Bay. Thus, we were greatly saddened to learn from a close friend who has a teenage daughter at Mira Costa High School, the same school from which our daughter graduated, was shut down recently because of repeated bomb threats on the social media site Yik Yak.

Yik Yak is so bad that many have called it “The Bullying Site.” This doesn’t begin to describe how truly wicked it is.

This is not the first time that social media have been implicated as a major contributing factor in the cause of extreme anti-social behavior. For instance, the cases in which young girls have been driven to suicide after have been bullied repeatedly on social media sites are well known. For this reason, I prefer to call them “Anti-social Media.”

Clearly there is something very wrong with technology from its invention, implementation, and general overall management or control.

Recently, my wife and I attended a talk about a relatively new super high-tech university. While the technology discussed was utterly fascinating–e.g., 3 D printers and the like–the talk made perfectly clear why we get the mismanagement of technology that we do. Nowhere in the curriculum were there any courses in the history, management, philosophy, or sociology of science and technology. None!

This is not to say that such courses would somehow have magically prevented cyber-bullying or any of the other negative side effects generally associated with social media. Rather, such courses are indispensable in helping us to confront the dark sides of technology.

It is no longer sufficient merely to invent technology, unleash it on the general public, and then only belatedly try to deal with its negative consequences. I don’t accept that before Facebook and others were invented that it was not possible to imagine how they would be used in ways their inventors never foresaw, or didn’t want to foresee. If one of the primary audiences of social media were young people, then why weren’t parent oversight groups formed and empowered from the very beginning?

Yes, scientists and technologists are driven primarily by the thrill of discovery, invention, and nowadays, the enormous profits to be made. But that’s precisely why they are not necessarily well suited to the management of their inventions, especially if they are averse to thinking about the social consequence of their inventions, which unfortunately is too often the case.

And no, I am not inherently anti-technology per se. I have in fact a PhD in Engineering Science from one of the world’s leading bastions of science and technology, The University of California at Berkeley. The difference is that when I was studying for my PhD in Engineering, I took a three and a half year minor in the Philosophy of Science, an action that I constantly had to defend to the College of Engineering since no one had taken such a minor before, and to their way of thinking, “What did Philosophy have to do with Engineering?” Even though I couldn’t give it then, my answer is “Everything!”

We cannot leave the management of science and technology to scientists and technologists alone. But then, we cannot leave their management entirely to managers or politicians either. While not prefect by any means, the best we have is to strengthen the role of intelligent government and citizen oversight groups before, during, and after the invention and deployment of technology.

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