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In March, NPR ran a news story about drones. Apparently, the latest military weapon of choice is now going commercial. Private companies are now making and selling unmanned drones to … wait for it … paparazzi! The story notes that among the most frequent and serious inquiries have been those lurking photo stalkers of the rich and famous.
As shocking as the initial moment of revelation is, it does make an obvious kind of sense. The unmanned drone could just as easily carry a camera as a gun or a bomb, and the ability to control it remotely could allow the paparazzi to avoid risking life and legal repercussion. It’s almost as if the drone were tailor-made for the purpose!
This story clearly speaks to our fascination with the new roles of new technologies in our lives. And what it reveals is that technology is moving into every facet of our lives, in sometimes surprising ways.
As the recent toppling of the Egyptian regime and the subsequent maelstrom of democracy movements across the Middle East have demonstrated, the new technologies behind social media are not just tools of distraction for disaffected western youth. No matter what the founders of Facebook and Twitter may have intended, these innovations have certainly morphed in ways that, to say the least, would have been hard to predict.
Just as it quickly seems simple, even obvious, that military drones are perfect tools for the stealthy business of targeting stars, we have quickly come to think of social media as “made” for revolution.
Of course, Twitter would make it easier for protestors to organize quickly and fluidly. Of course, it would be harder for the government to monitor and/or restrict this form of media.
We have come to associate such technologies with youth, democracy, and freedom.
But, consider the widespread coverage of the way that al-Qaida and other terrorist organizations have used YouTube to air promotional and “educational” videos. Another recent article noted that despite calls to remove videos uploaded onto YouTube, “There’s no way as a practical matter to wipe this material off the face of the Internet.” The problem is that there is simply more being uploaded onto the site than any organization could possibly keep up with.
Of course YouTube would make it easier for terrorists to organize and quickly and fluidly. Of course it would be harder to monitor and restrict this form of media.
The point is not that we should decide whether we are fans because of the positive potential or opponents because it is dangerous in the hands of evildoers. Instead, perhaps we should consider the lessons from these technologies and apply them to our visions of the future.
Clearly we live in a world in which the technology we use has broad, global power. We need to begin to reflect on these possibilities, not in the news, but in advance of it. What are the potential uses of GPS technologies? How might it help us promote global rights to have millions of cell phones with Google Maps? Could this help us understand exactly where people in need are congregating? Could it do the same for those who would oppress them?
Could the idea of crowdsourcing, putting out a call to the population at large to complete projects traditionally done by specific people (think Wikipedia), be a model for anti-terrorism? Maybe it could offer new possibilities for global collaboration.
On the other hand, what potential misuses can we imagine? Would terrorist organizations and their plots be more difficult to identify if they were the collective result of individuals from different locations, backgrounds, beliefs and motivations, connected in no other way than by one shared project? Is this possible? What might it look like — and what technologies do we already have that might be used in slightly new ways that could revolutionize the future … again?
For more information on unintended uses of current technologies and a chance to share your perspective with leaders in the field, come to the next Exploring Ethics event at the Fleet Science Center on April 6 at 5:30 p.m. It’s free.
Tate Hurvitz is a Project Director for the San Diego Center for Ethics in Science and Technology and an Assistant Professor at Grossmont College. He lives in Chula Vista.