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The Dark Side of Technology

2013 May 5

On July 16th, 1945, when the world’s first nuclear explosion shook the plains of New Mexico, J. Robert Oppenheimer, it’s creator, quoted from the Bhagavad Gita, “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”

And indeed he had. The world was never truly the same after that, although mostly for the better. We now live longer, happier, healthier lives and are vastly less likely to die a violent death or to face persecution for our religious beliefs, skin color or sexual orientation.

However, the immense power troubled Oppenheimer, as it did many other scientists who understood it.  I can’t shake the feeling that today, as we unlock even more powerful technologies, we have lost some of that reverence. For even as technology opens up new worlds, it closes doors to old ones. We should choose thoughtfully and carefully.

The Power of a Click

I love the Web. I think what I like most is that it gives you instant access to just about anything in the world.  We have more information at our fingertips than even a large institution had a decade ago.  Whenever you get into a silly argument and come upon a basic disagreement about facts, it can usually be resolved with a quick Google search.

Yet even as we watch the world, the world is watching us. Go to just about any Web page or click on just about any link and you set off a chain reaction that travels at light speed through the ecosystem that Luma Partners has outlined in this chart (click to enlarge):

Much is what you’d expect. There are marketers and ad agencies on the left, publishers and sales agents on the right.  However, buried in the middle, you can see data suppliers and aggregators.  They track your online behavior and collate it into a unified profile, which follows you around the web, advising marketers about things you’re likely to do.

It’s just a short hop from there to your location data that can be collected from smartphone GPS data, which in turn can be modeled by use of a Lévy flight model to predict your location at any time with a high degree of accuracy, even if your phone is off.

These predictions can be confirmed by the picture on your Facebook profile, which can be used with to find you anywhere on the planet with the help of the millions of cameras on our streets and facial recognition software.  If that seems scary, the new iris scanning technology is even creepier.

I should note here that marketers, as a whole, do try to be responsible with our data. In practice, they don’t connect your online identity with your actual one. However, the ability is there and the genie is very much out of the bottle. Your full identity is only one cookie away.

What Your Friendly Call Center Really Knows

We’ve all become used to hearing the phrase, “This call may be recorded or monitored for quality and training purposes” and it is somewhat comforting that our fates haven’t been left fully in the hands of a minimum wage call center worker. It’s good to know that someone might be listening in to make sure we’re being taken care of properly.

But what if it is not a person listening in, but a machine that can analyze our personality into one of six categories that can determine how we will react to different approaches? What if that same technology was used to monitor our corporate e-mail traffic to detect when arguments might erupt?

That’s what the company Mattersight, whose technology has already been deployed to over 50,000 call center seats. calls predictive behavioral routing.  With the capacity to monitor millions of calls a month, chances are, you’ve already been analyzed by Mattersight’s algorithms, probably several times.

Somewhere out there, a computer knows you. Not only your name and address, but at least part of your commercial activity and important facets of your personality.

Insecurity Scans

In this age of frequent travel, airport security scans have become a familiar facet of our lives. It’s a minor intrusion given the intense need for security at airports.  However, in the future, they might be scanning for a lot more than just weapons and explosives.

The same T-Ray technology is being deployed for medical imaging that can detect specific molecules in our bodies and diagnose conditions we might have or even certain aspects of our past behavior.  And that’s not all.

With the price of genetic sequencing coming down dramatically, we can soon expect a full DNA profile to cost no more than a simple blood test.  That means that all of our genetic information, including insights into our health, our intellectual capabilities and other facets of our personality, will be available to anyone with $50 and a cotton swab.

Hacking the Body

And beyond our DNA, scientists are quickly gaining insights into the molecules that our genes produce. The ENCODE Project seeks to seeks to create a new understanding of how our DNA affects our body chemistry and will unlock many of the secrets of our most intractable diseases, cancer especially.

However, the same information can be used to target people of a certain genotype.  Future white supremacists, for example, could develop pathogens that affect people with the sickle cell gene prevalent in people of African descent or Islamic terrorists could target those with the Tay-Sach’s gene particular to those of Jewish heritage.

Today, there is concern about breeches of privacy concerning our public and financial behavior.  What happens when we face similar security issues about facets of ourselves that were determined at birth?

The Eternal Arms Race

It is easy to get caught up in conspiracy theories by examining only one side of the equation.  In truth, for every measure there is a countermeasure and the positive effects of technology far outweigh the negative ones.  We are far safer, healthier and enjoy more freedom than ever thanks to the advances of scientists and engineers.

Still, as Google’s Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen recently pointed out in an essay in the Wall Street Journal, many widely available technologies, such as voice recognition, image recognition and big data mining can easily be deployed to repress entire populations.

Although, other technologies, such as social media, have been shown to be effective in subverting central authority, they are less helpful in helping to form the leadership and cohesiveness that is required to build a civil, productive society.  Consensus, after all, is not a software protocol, but the product of vigorous debate amongst people who share values.

The philosopher Martin Heidegger quite rightly pointed out that technology is a process of uncovering.  Nobody owns it.  Once it is released it is here to stay and we will need to make our peace with it.

How we build is how we dwell.

– Greg

7 Responses leave one →
  1. May 5, 2013

    This article is a mere nick in the surface of the Dark Side of Technology. One could actually devote a whole series of books on the subject.

  2. May 5, 2013

    That’s very true Chaz. I like to think that I’m just doing my small part:-)

    – Greg

  3. May 5, 2013

    Good Morning Greg,
    Although I am not another Robert Oppenheimer I am a product designer and have been so for 20+ years. My products are simple, sedate even, they appeal to your basic consumer and usually offer solutions to visual problems.

    I started my first business after being fired from one company for having a stupid idea and quitting another due to immoral management business practices (I have paraphrased both). Not a good way to be thrown into the work pool. I started my first business on the basis of the idea that I was fired for, this business was in something new called the personal computer industry (a stupid idea). Back then the only way you could buy a computer was in pieces hung from hooks in plastic bags at Radio Shack. This little sales business was semi successful until I crushed 2 discs in my back playing volleyball. My partner couldn’t keep it going without me while I recovered. I lost my house and business that year.

    So I took a job with a quasi-government agency which was funded by the DED in Washington DC. I was hired as a “Director of Monitoring” which later included Business Development. We were funded by the government to create jobs in an economically depressed region. In this job I evaluated new products and ideas and I interfaced with a variety of financial institutions to assist entrepreneurs with funding their new businesses. Prior to my leaving the company I was asked to do a feasibility study on a 12,000 acre cattle ranch. After 4 months of research and 300 pages of analysis I proved that it was not feasible. I was asked to re write the study to show that it was feasible. I was personally and professionally shocked that management asked me to do this. I resigned after being offered the assistant directorship of the agency as a reward for doing the new study.

    During the years that followed I had the luck to identify numerous products which solved major problems or created innovative products representing marketing industry solutions. I am proud to look back and say “I did that”. Some of these have faded into obscurity due to lack of funding or unfortunately 100% of the benefit from these inventions went to big businesses.

    I am 69 years old and still active in new product design and development. For the most part my previous inventions depended on heavy equipment manufacturing and slim margins – meaning you have to make thousands of them to make money even if they were intended for a mass market. Today I sit here holding in my hand a new rather mundane toy I designed for dogs. Why do I describe it as being mundane? Because it isn’t an Atom bomb, it isn’t a new iris scanning technology nor does it analyze your personality…it just makes a dog and his owner happy. The founder of 2 large pet retail chains, called them: “innovative and a new category of toys for dogs.” In fact every dog and industry pet professional I have shown them to loves them.

    The only people that do not understand them or love them are funding sources. Banks, VC groups and private investors. Is the reason for this that they are not profitable? Because consumers do not like them? Because dogs do not like them? That they are not frilly enough or are the wrong color? Possibly because they cannot be mass produced or that retailers will not buy them? Maybe they do not like me as the founder?

    The answer to these questions is quite the reverse. The answer is complicated and simple at the same time …it has to do with psychology and of course experience. In my search for funding I have reached out to a vast assortment of investment groups and individuals and they all have said the same thing: It doesn’t fit in our wheel house or doesn’t fit our investment profile (or portfolio). Some have been more specific but all have said no because they have no interest/experience in the pet industry.

    Today’s investor has made their money historically or recently in four fields; Computers, Real Estate, Medical and Gas & Oil, but mostly in Computers and Software. They seem to think that unless it is High Tech it isn’t worthy of their consideration. Am I being harsh or am I inflicted with tunnel vision…I think not. What really bothers me is the apparent lack of funding available for product development in the entire consumer products category outside of electronics.

    When investors turn down ventures with products earning 70 to 90% net and gross margins with a mass market demand I can only wonder what mythic project they are waiting for? This kind of margin means my products costs about $1..00 and sells for $7.00 (wholesale) to $15.00 (retail). Have I missed something in my years in the computer industry, do they now actually make those levels of profits and are there a lot of them that are doing so?

    As a writer you have performed business industry research and I was wondering if you have noticed the same “trend”.

  4. May 5, 2013


    Investors, just like most people, follow trends. It just may be that a pet product is not on their radar (most funds have specific areas in which they are allowed to invest).

    Have you tried a crowdfunding approach like Kickstarter or Indiegogo? There are also service bureaus that can manufacture in any quantity. This post might help: (look at the bottom of the “maker” section.

    Hope that helps. Good luck!

    – Greg

  5. May 15, 2013

    Brilliant article. Really loved the way it was presented. Reminds us of why our great great ancestors would have sharpened the stones to make weapons for finding food. And the same used later to kill each other. It depends on how we use it. However it is good for us to realise the bad side of technology.

  6. May 15, 2013

    Thanks Sanjay.

    I’m not sure which came first, the hunting or the killing, but I do think that one unfortunate, but salient aspect of modern technology is that much of it (i.e. computers, GPS, etc.) came from military spending. It would be nice if we could muster the enthusiasm for investment in technology when the primary objective is something other than killing each other.

    Maybe not absolutely necessary, but it would be nice:-)

    – Greg

  7. February 3, 2014

    They do not need technology to know that I detest incompetence and have no stomach for trying to talk sense into what one of my IBM customers calls a “no-help desk”. As more and more databases are merged and facial recognition cameras proliferate, we are less free than at any time in the history of the world. While they may seem innocuous now, power corrupts – ultimate power corrupts ultimately – and whatever exists WILL be used against us.

    I wonder how many realize what is already recorded about them can cause them to be denied employment, make them unable to rent housing, or to be refused health coverage or even treatment. How many who have their DNA on file have considered that corruption and a medical need could lead to organ harvesting.

    The corruption at every level is astounding – yet most do not see it and should they get a glimmer they quickly slam their minds shut because they do not want to know. I have a page where I collect ’causes’ – all the evil perpetrated on many that no one wants to see. Unless we do, as Joan Baez sings….”there, but for fortune, go you…or I”.

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