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5/12/2006
04:25 PM
John Soat
John Soat
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IT Confidential: Is Technology Evil, Or Just Naughty?

We hear it everywhere: Irrational fears that technology will be our ruin. IT is facing its own backlash with concerns being raised about privacy and personal control.

Technology is A) good; B) bad; (C) both; (D) neither.

I went to see the movie Mission: Impossible III (a.k.a. M:I:III) with my son the other day. We saw the previous two installments together, and it was sobering to realize my son was 8 years old when we saw the first one. He's now graduating from high school. Tom Cruise sure looks good for his age--damn him.

The plot of M:I:III revolves around a weapon potentially capable of wiping out the entire planet (I won't give away too much, but suffice it to say the planet does not get wiped out). One character calls it an "anti-God device" and makes a point of telling the Mission: Impossible force that an old Oxford professor of his predicted the inevitability of such a weapon, the logical result of technology run amok.

On the drive home, I asked my son what he thought of the idea that technology will logically and inevitably lead to the downfall of mankind. He's a smart kid--he knew it wasn't an idle question, and he probably figured out I was fishing for fodder for my column. Still, he tried to be as straightforward as possible. "I know you like technology and all," he said (I'm paraphrasing). "But sometimes I wonder who's in control."

When President Bush spoke during the commencement exercises at Oklahoma State University recently, he encouraged the graduates to become involved in science and technology but with this caveat: "Harness the promise of technology without becoming slaves to technology."

It's a surprisingly popular and widely held belief: Technology is evil. Not benign, not flawed, evil. Technology may have some merit, the reasoning goes, may even be capable of a certain amount of good, but at its core, technology is ruinous.

It's irrational but not that hard to understand. Technology is the bottle the atomic-bomb genie jumped out of, and we're experiencing firsthand the futility of world leaders trying to put that genie back in. Even my son's generation, despite its wholehearted embrace of consumer technology, is increasingly worried about the negative effects on the environment of technological advances and increasingly skeptical that more technology is the way out of the problem.

Information technology, as a subset of the wider category, is experiencing its own wave of skepticism and fear. After 20 or 30 years of widespread acceptance and participation, a backlash is brewing against IT, mainly in terms of privacy and personal control. There's more and more talk of living "off the grid." Radio-frequency identification chips as the mark of the devil may be hyperbole, but it's a logical extension of a wider distrust of exactly what ends these means seek to justify.

Anti-God device: It's a chilling and resonant phrase. An off-hand piece of dialogue calculated to elicit a response from a movie audience isn't necessarily indicative of any wider trend, but popular culture very often incorporates the hopes and fears of the general population, and speaks them back. I didn't hear anyone in the audience laughing.

Oh, and by the way--who is in control?

Not me, thank God. I have a hard enough time keeping track of my E-mail, my voice mail, and my direct deposits and debits. But I'll track down an industry tip, if you send it tojsoat@cmp.com or phone 516-562-5326.

The News Show is a heat-seeking missile aimed at technology personalities and trends. Watch it at noon EDT every weekday, at TheNewsShow.tv or on InformationWeek.com.


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To find out more about John Soat, please visit his page.

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