Chapter 17. The Threat of Technology That Works Well
At the nursing home where my wife used to work there was an old man an Alzheimer's patient who wore an electronic bracelet. An irrepressible sort, he freely wandered the halls from morning to evening. While his whimsical and unpredictable journeying occasionally led him off-limits, no one worried about this; his passage through a forbidden door automatically triggered an alarm, whereupon a staffer routinely set the fellow upon a new course.
The gains in safety and convenience from such an electronic system seem obvious. Of course, as most people realize, there are also risks. What happens when the bracelet or alarm system fails? Or when the patient figures out, accidentally or otherwise, how to neutralize the bracelet? Suddenly the staff's convenient habit of ignoring him poses an extraordinary danger.
But what if the system continues to work exactly as hoped? Might that possibility pose the greatest danger of all? In particular, do those wrist bracelets, by increasing the efficiency of the nursing home operation, make it an even more inhuman terror for aging folks than it already is? Do family members or neighbors or staff members ever take that old man through the forbidden doors and outside, where he can experience grass, tree, and sun for a few minutes? Or, now that he is so well watched after by technology, do they increasingly forget him?
As important as our dogged pursuit of technical glitches is and will remain, I don't think the "what can go wrong?" school of technology criticism will carry us very far against the most crucial issues of our day. After all, for every technical glitch there is a technical fix. And while the more alert among us may rightly point out that the fix poses its own risk of new glitches, perhaps even making the dangers more acute, the fact is that the technological arms race between glitch and fix seems to give us a balance of risk and benefit that society is happy to accept. The death rate on our highways may be high (we wouldn't tolerate it if it were the result of a foreign war) but . . . well, do you really expect me to give up my ease of travel from here to there?
It will, then, be difficult to cultivate a more sober public attitude toward technology merely by pointing to glitches, however pervasive. The challenges I am most concerned about, on the other hand, arise not when something goes wrong, but when everything goes right. These challenges can often be shown to grow more acute with every successful fix and with every new, more sophisticated generation of devices. The technically perfect bracelet easily becomes a prison shackle or isolation cell.
The effects of successful technology are so fundamental to the human future that it is well worth looking at other examples.