Tech wreck: Is technology delivering a better world?


Do you have a love-hate relationship with technology? You love having thousands of channel choices but hate having so many television remotes. You love the freedom of an Apple Watch and an iPhone but wish you had more real friends. Music on demand is great unless Alexa is spying on you.

Technology is a double-edged sword.

On the positive side, numerous studies and reports laud the high value of living in a digitalized society.

Artificial intelligence, machine learning, robotics, quantum computing and meta-data promise to better our lives and solve the world’s problems.

From daily workflow to meeting your perfect match, from fighting wars to tackling climate change, from humanitarian assistance to immigration policy, technological skills are supposed to lessen our load.

Predictive data is especially critical. Data can tell us the direction of pandemics, the flow of migrants and the paths of tornadoes. It can aggregate massive bytes of information to predict the eruption of everything from volcanoes to conflicts. Add social media into the mix, where we can reach each other in a nanosecond, and we should be able to win hearts and minds anywhere, anytime.

But to date, most of the challenges America faces in the economy, security, intelligence, defense, climate change, communications and public health remain unsolved despite technology.

Look around the world:

Why, despite the march of technology, do we still have Russian troops in Ukraine, conflict in the Middle East, escalating tensions in Asia, refugees fleeing Central America and extreme poverty in Africa?

At home, tech stocks are crashing — down 30 percent this year.

Overseas, technology is creating both gains and losses. One reason is that machines learn well but they lack judgment, and they are, ironically, more transparent than human beings.

Take Ukraine. With data sets, hardware engineering, software programming and the equivalent of x-ray technology, our intelligent experts knew the exact longitude and latitude of a Russian warship. We were able to pass along that digital intelligence to Ukrainian forces, which blew up the ship.

But public knowledge of the U.S. role in the strike, spread by social media, complicated American efforts to keep some distance from the fighting. The administration was forced to downplay the effort.

Machines learn well, but they lack political judgment. People come with biases that get programmed into the learned behavior of computers.

Human beings also have motives that machines don’t always share. Despite the best technology in the world, we don’t know what is in Russian President Vladimir Putin’s mind. We can use technology to chart the trajectory of nuclear missiles with extreme accuracy. But we can’t yet get into the soul of a madman. Dictators don’t seem impressed by technologies developed by democratic societies. Or they use advanced technology to quash dissent, censor information and hack computer systems.

Ukraine is a good case study of the benefits of technology. Despite repeated attempts to hack their systems and shut down their electricity grid, Ukrainian technologists outsmarted Russia. They knew what to ask for from Silicon Valley, including highly sophisticated computer terminals that billionaire Elon Musk shipped to them. Those terminals enabled Ukrainian forces to improve their command and control, and made a key difference in slowing down the Russian offensive.

Digital news is another societal benefit of technology. Even with propaganda, and Russia’s disinformation campaign, cellular technology is managing to let information about the war finds its way onto Russian phones. Daily downloads in Russia of highly popular virtual private networks (VPNs) have been steadily rising since the war began, and, according to data compiled for the Washington Post by Apptopia, those downloads have jumped from below 15,000 just before the war to as many as 475,000 in March. The data used by the analytics firms are compiled using information from apps and algorithms. Hence, we will eventually learn whether technology turns Russians off from the war with their neighbor.

And that is really the point. At the end of the day, we don’t yet know where the outer edges of technology lie and how to cross the final frontier to peace. We live in the middle of a tech transformation without the benefit of knowing how it will truly unfold. And we have not yet married the technologists and the social scientists to address the greatest of human challenges: behavior. What do we want and need most?

Until we can answer those questions, good luck with your remote.

Tara D. Sonenshine is the Edward R. Murrow Professor of Public Diplomacy at The Fletcher School of International Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.


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