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Thursday, March 22, 2018


Smile and grin at the change all around

by Tom Sullivan

It's dizzying. Maybe more so than than when Pete Townsend wrote "Won't Get Fooled Again." The struggle to come to grips with change drove millions to embrace a cult of personality and the economic populism of Donald Trump.

Damon Linker writes at The Week that technological change brought about the death Sunday of 49-year-old Elaine Herzberg in Tempe, Arizona. Herzberg is the first known pedestrian fatality caused by driverless car technology. Even so, the idea that this genie (or any other) can be put back in the bottle cuts against our reflexive sense that technological change is inevitable and ultimately beneficial.

The rush to embrace drones as hobbyist toys, tools of war, or for government surveillance won't be seriously questioned, I've argued, until a small one takes down an airliner (first drone-linked crash here) or a large, military drone crashes into an American school.

Shrugging at the inevitability of technological advance, Linker argues, leaves us rudderless and adrift as the currents of change carry us we know not where:

Technological innovation benefits us in innumerable ways, but its downsides receive too little attention. Twitter facilitates the communication of information, but it also provided Trump with a megaphone to help build political support for his presidential campaign, just as it powerfully amplifies the voices of extremists of all political stripes. Facebook allows us to easily share personal and political news, but it also sells information about our habits and opinions to the highest bidder, spreads populist poison around the globe, and may have played a significant role in helping the Trump campaign across the finish line in 2016.

In a subtler but no less significant way, the advent of advanced automation (including driverless cars) may benefit many of us while also destabilizing the lives of millions and contributing to the further radicalization of our politics.

The proper response to this threat is not to dismiss the danger or deny anything can be done about it. It's to recognize the hazard and act to minimize it.
That is, to be agents of change, not its victims.

But minimizing hazard is easier said than done. Facebook and Cambridge Analytica may have been the hidden midwives of the Trump administration. Twitter enables an emotionally and ethically stunted president to proselytize for a culture of systemic deceit and grift. Together with his political party, he is dismantling what once was a beacon of hope in the world.

Brian Beutler writes of the party that once claimed exclusive rights to family values, "They are teaching millions of Americans just how far you can get in life on the strength of what should be the most disreputable kind of behavior, perhaps dooming us to a crisis of public ethics that will plague American society for a generation."

And the grossest of data-driven psychological manipulation put them in the position to do it. Technology used for amping up fear and a hunger for revanchism rather than engendering hope further divided the nation rather than creating community.

Elections have consequences. So do technological "advancements." Unintended ones made worse by taking our hand from the tiller.

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Request a copy of For The Win, my county-level election mechanics primer at tom.bluecentury at gmail.