Today at E2 sister site Information Week, Robert Atkinson wrote an excellent column titled "Tech Fear-Mongering Must Stop."
It's a passionate, intelligent, well-researched, well-supported, and well-written commentary, and I urge you to read it top to bottom. While I agree with some of what Atkinson is saying, I think he takes it a bit too far.
Atkinson warns that technological innovation in the US is screeching to a halt because the media, political lobbyists, and even academics are more interested in sensational attention-grabbing fear-mongering than in real science. He writes:
Founded by risk-takers and optimists, Americans have long thought that newer is better and that you can't stand in the way of progress. Other nations, constrained by the shackles of the past and the resisters of the present, have viewed that American spirit as simply extraordinary. Even Joseph Stalin proclaimed: "American efficiency is that indomitable spirit which neither knows nor will be deterred by any obstacle... that simply must go through with a job once it has been tackled..."
Today, however, increasingly vocal neo-Luddites in this country argue that progress is a force to be stopped, not encouraged. They want a world in which a worker never loses a job, even when the new technology behind it leads to higher employment; a world in which consumer rights trump all other considerations, even lower prices; a world in which no personal information is shared, even if sharing benefits individuals and companies alike. In short, they want to slow advancement at all costs, even when those costs ultimately hurt the public they're trying to protect.
While Atkinson focuses on the speed of progress, I'm more interested in the quality of progress. And, while he views caution as a deterrent to progress, I see it as a sign of progress -- or more accurately, maturity.
Maybe America is growing up. Maybe it is learning how to move ahead more purposefully and deliberately, albeit in a slow and not very graceful fashion, and once it learns how to do this, the speed of technological innovation will pick up again.
This got me thinking about the speed of human thought and I came across an article in Discover Magazine about 19th-century scientist Hermann von Helmholtz, who tried to determine the speed of a thought and how it compared to the speed of a telegraph. He ballparked it at slower than the speed of sound but faster than a bird. However, as the author concluded:
So when Helmholtz recognized that thought moves at a finite rate, faster than a bird but slower than sound, he missed a fundamental difference between the brain and a telegraph. In our heads, speed is not always the most important thing. Sometimes what really matters is timing.
Timing. Today's telecommunications infrastructure gives us the power to act faster than we can think. Sure, it provides us with resources to help us make wiser, more informed decisions. But it gives us more speed than it gives us wisdom. I sympathize with Atkinson's impatience, but unfortunately the potential speed of technological innovation and the potential speed of society's ability to handle those innovations do not always match up. Sometimes, the world simply isn't ready -- not because of groundless, so-called "neo-Luddite" fears, but because of legitimate societal reasons. It's all in the timing.
Change is good, but time should always be taken to ask questions. Horrors like genocide and police states -- things that ultimately have to be dismantled by other horrors, like war -- don't just happen overnight. They happen as a result of smaller changes that may seem relatively innocent at the time. They might have been prevented if more people said "wait just a moment, here, think of what this could lead to." I'm not saying that all technological innovation will lead to genocide and police states. What I am saying is that technology -- even just one piece of code -- can cause big change all across the world, very quickly, and be very hard to undo once it makes its rounds on the Internet. We shouldn't let that fact terrify us into inaction, nor should we dismiss the possibilities.
Atkison worries that the United States will never again lead the world in government-funded science and technology nor create "sophisticated national innovation policies." As he states, "There's too much mistrust of government in the US for that. Where we could still trump other nations is in our unalloyed embrace of progress, but we're at risk of losing our American exceptionalism as we become cautious and fearful."
I believe Atkinson is right about that, but I'm not as dismayed about it as he is. I'm less concerned with leading the pack than I am with where the pack is going. The childish desire to always be in front is something we need to discard as we mature as a nation.
Again, I agree with Atkinson in part. When restricting or accelerating progress, we need to give just as much thought to the risk of not changing as we do to the risk of changing. We mustn't allow these decisions to be based on fear alone. However, I think there is a great difference between fear and caution, and caution is not just acceptable, but essential.
Maybe I'm just a ninny -- silly and skittish. After all, I couldn't get past the second question on the "Do You Like Progress" test Atkinson references; I simply couldn't commit myself to concrete responses. What do you think?