The more we understand about nature and the more we master technology, the more we tend to take advantage of our knowledge and capabilities to solve serious problems. Sometimes, the benefits seem to far outweigh the risks, as with the eradication of smallpox through a global vaccination program. At other times, as when powerful pesticides like DDT were used to eradicate mosquitoes, we’ve discovered, to our regret, unintended side effects.
The simpler the problem, the less likely subtle concerns will emerge over time to surprise us. Unfortunately, many of the most important issues we face today are complex and embedded within larger frameworks.
Arguably, the most demanding problems of today are primarily social. The technologies that promise help are rapidly being developed, but their applications may be far from simple.
As an example, violence –from individual threats to riots to warfare— continues to be a challenge. This is despite relatively effective organizational solutions. For instance, where police and judicial systems are trusted, people are much less likely to take matters into their own hands. Nation states have successfully reduced tensions and found solutions to disagreements thanks to more effective approaches to negotiation, better communication, and the use of formal mechanisms, such as treaties. Technology has made contributions through new mechanisms (complete with standards) for gathering evidence, the use of satellites to monitor the building of aggressive facilities and troop movements, the pervasiveness of surveillance cameras, and so on.
More recently, we are working toward a better understanding of how computer networks –in particular, the collection and analysis of data– might be used to deter acts of violence, including terrorism. However, getting the balance right between security and protection of freedom and privacy is proving to be difficult. Naturally, there are different cultural responses, but even within cultures, agreement is not universal.
The development and use of nonlethal weapons, both for warfare and for law and order, provides lessons on the dual nature of technologies that reach into the social realm. On the one hand, providing an option “between shouting and shooting” would seem to be good. Immobilizing a person who could be a threat or driving him or her away would seem to be preferable to killing that person. Supplying soldiers and police with the opportunity to ensure their own safety without using lethal force would seem to have benefits that outweigh the risks. But there are problems. For one, nonlethal weapons are not harmless. Tasers, pepper spray, rubber bullets, and pain rays make their targets miserable —arguably, to the point of torture. There is evidence that nonlethal weapons are used inappropriately, to control people who are uncooperative but not really threatening. And in some cases, they may be used to stifle legitimate protest. In addition, real life shows that these weapons can be more harmful than expected when used in the field (as opposed to in test scenarios).
There also are legal concerns. For instance, teargas, which is commonly used in riot control, is illegal in warfare. Some nonlethal weapon use by police is dictated by potential lawsuits more than effectiveness, reasonableness, and social concerns.
So, even something as straightforward as moving from the use of technologies that kill to technologies that control has complications that highlight general concerns about who uses them, what for, and under which circumstances. Imagine then the difficulties raised by the aforementioned use of data or mechanisms to connect the dots for mental health care or forensic accounting, or even mechanisms to improve fact checking and reliability of online information.
We are on the verge of possible action that could reduce fraud, miscommunication, and culture clashes. We have the potential to better support important decisions, promote justice, and guide people as they seek to form healthy relationships. Technology has an important place in illuminating and prioritizing information related to the use of power and taking political action.
We have simulation and automatic translation and augmented reality and data visualization at our disposal, to name a few technologies. But, as we come to see these as solutions –technological fixes— for our most intransigent and disturbing problems, perhaps the most important thing we can do is look at these broadly, in context, and with lively discussions between diverse people with different values and perspectives. Often, the answers we find will not be perfect, but creating solutions that resemble fumbles in the past –DDT or thalidomide or radioactive watch dials– for challenges that are social in nature could lead to surprising and unpleasant disruptions.