Monday, March 19, 2012

John Duffy: Politics of technology poses serious questions for us all

By John Duffy, Globe and Mail, March 19, 2012
John Duffy is a founder of StrategyCorp and one of Canada's leading government relations and public affairs consultants. He has worked inside the Liberal Party of Canada for many years, as an adviser.

For weeks, Ottawa has been consumed with “robo-gate” – an unfolding probe of abuses of new voter outreach technology. Think of it as a question: How do we regulate these powerful new technologies and ensure that they do not subvert democracy?

The broader question – how we regulate technology as a whole – is popping up all over the political landscape. Here are a few examples:
Last month, Israeli scientists more or less discovered the fountain of youth. Researchers treating mice with a sirtuin protein found increased lifespans of up to 15 per cent – the first time this effect has been found in mammals. An anti-aging pill, enabling humans to live easily past 100, could be in the works within 20 years.
The politics of this issue seem straightforward. The question is mainly one of access – will we simply allow the price of life-extending medicine to float, or will it be regulated in the name of equal access to life? It’s easy to see a free-market conservative answer – let the market decide. A progressive suggestion involving price regulation seems likely as well. On the margins, some may refrain for spiritual reasons and choose death over “playing God.” So far, nothing too earth-shaking.
Now, look at cloud computing – treating computing less like buying a fireplace, and more like paying for electricity on an as-needed basis. The issue is that, like the electricity grid a century ago, the computing cloud will rapidly become a vital public common whose stability simply must be maintained. Many of those hostile to government intervention – large corporations, libertarians and basement bloggers, to name a few, most identifying as conservatives – might find themselves pressing for public regulation to guarantee the cloud’s integrity.
Similar dynamics will likely apply as headlong intervention by individual humans in the natural order continues to generate more unforeseen, negative consequences. Stockbrokers with homes on the outer banks of the southeastern United States will call for government buybacks of their land in the name of environmental good. Conservation activists will clamour for the commodification of water to permit the full-cost pricing needed to stop the resource’s wholesale depletion. A lot of us are going to wake up and find we’re in the wrong party.
And for a real coalition-buster, consider artificial intelligence. Unmanned drones are popular when it comes to hunting down al-Qaeda, but is everyone comfortable with robot airplanes that can land on moving aircraft carriers? That’s happening now. So, who’s in charge here? This is the basic question posed by the emerging politics of technology: Are we running the technology or is the technology running us? And what, if anything, do we want to do about it?
Attitudes toward technology cut right across existing partisan lines, which are essentially carved at present by views about the role of government. Thinking critically about technology changes all that: It puts free-market conservatives at odds with traditionalist evangelicals and pro-technology liberals against state regulators. Left-wingers are left seeking to impose democratic control on technological systems that are splintering and recombining at lightning speed.
The great question of the 20th century – How do we govern our economy? – is giving way to the great question of the 21st century – How do we govern our technology? All over the world, the challenges currently posed by our tech-enabled way of life – such as limiting climate change, maintaining the biosphere, containing pandemics and securing energy and water supplies – are running out ahead of our institutions’ abilities to manage them. And a whole new crop of major changes are coming on fast. Parties and governments need to engage these issues in a serious way, and soon, or risk losing the ability to influence outcomes entirely.
While there is no doubt that technology is changing many of the traditional perceptions, both negatively and positively, of our society, it is not yet sufficiently understood how it does or should affect political policy.
While not attempting an exhaustive list of guidelines, here are some givens, and a list of perceived needs that might serve as an opening salvo in the public debate that naturally follows Mr. Duffy's provocative piece.
  • we do value our privacy, and do not want technology used by anyone, including governments, to snoop into our private lives.
  • we also value the research into life-enhancing, learning-enhancing and life-span-enhancing technology, while at the same time reserving omnipotence for our definition of God.
  • we value personal, individual accomplishment, enhanced potentially by group participation and learning systems that create a balanced approach to learning and its certifications
  • we also value honesty and integrity in our organizations and in our professional interactions never to be replaced by some form of technology that compromises this value
  • we also value creative ingenuity and the ambition that generates many of the experiments that both design new technology and tweek it for broader and more sophisticated applications, presuming, probably naively, that both will serve only to enhance the highest aspirations and goals of human, family, organizational and societal life
  • we value measured progress that brings a new perspective to our conventional ways of both seeing and doing, tested presumably by respected and legitimate "gate-keepers" who can and will advise the public on approvals of new technologies and their applications, so that governments can and will approve those for which their is public acceptance and concensus
  • we have for too long taken the "NIMBY" approach to change, and need both educating and experience to demonstrate that international co-operation, collaboration and decision-making, especially on the major global issues affecting every country and every human, are the only option available to a world seeking joint decisions that preserve clean air, clean water, clean land and a limit to the potential ravages of climate change, nuclear proliferation, disease generation and distribution and economic catastrophe
  • we place considerable value on making new research findings available from respected experimenters and theorists, and require and expect from government, the release of all such findings in order to better enable public debate and public decision-making to inform government decisions as opposed to restricted flow of information leaving government as the principal source of the findings
  • we need broad thinkers who willingly and eagerly seek the opportunity to connect the dots that link academic disciplines, including those of technology, into some coherent and organized data base, including the competing theories about the applications of that data and our education systems need to begin to develop curricula to generate such cross-disciplined thinkers
  • we need to foster and encourage the development of artists, poets, philosophers and futurists in all our academic institutions, so that their perspectives can imbue our discussions with their critical in-and-fore-sights on the potential of all our available, planned and merely envisioned technological advances, developments
  •  we need a protocol for public/private partnerships in research, where public dollars command the release of the implications of that research, if not the actual results of the experiments, and we need the parameters of that research to be publicly debated prior to the establishment of such funding and prior to the design of the terms of the research grants.
  • we also need a public/private agency through which all corporate monies designated for research would flow, to the various applicants in the universities and the private laboratories, thereby providing a firewall between the corporation underwriting the research and the findings of that research, this is first needed in the pharmaceutical sector, and then in the military sector and finally in the technology sector generally.
  • we also need to establish a set of objectives for every government for benchmarks of achievements, with respect to the development of protocols on which research public funds will underwrite, what terms will govern that research and the public contributions of each research project 
  • we also need national and international discussions leading to joint agreements to support the establishment of public/private research institutions, their ethical parameters and their willingness to collaborate on their findings, especially on those issues directly or indirectly impinging on the health and longevity of humans living everywhere
  • we need a research reporting segment in every major daily newspaper, to follow and to report on all aspects of publicly funded research, and to discern which research remain under confidentiality guidelines, because it is privately funded and this not open to public scrutiny

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