I have been watching a show called Orphan Black recently about a cloning project run amok. On one side are the scientists who have lost sight of humanity. On the other, religious zealots who consider the technology an abomination.
While it can be dangerous to take lessons from television shows or science fiction novels, there’s evidence that as technology advances at breakneck speed, there will be those who are afraid of what’s coming and people could choose sides.
To some extent, it’s because technology is always a few steps ahead of society, and we have yet to come to grips with much of what’s already here. Heck, we don’t even have adequate social norms around smartphones and an always-on, share everything mentality.
We’re still texting in cars, walking with our heads down staring into our phones, and talking (loudly) on trains. Some of us still can’t even remember to put our ringers on silent in meetings and movie theaters.
And if you want seriously inappropriate behavior, last year a man was caught taking pictures up a woman’s skirt on the Boston subway — a process called upskirting. Even though people were outraged, the court couldn’t convict the man of a crime. There wasn’t a law on the books against this type of behavior because nobody ever had to deal with this issue before. Thankfully the Massachusetts legislature acted quickly in this instance, writing a law for a new technology problem on the fly.
San Francisco At Epicenter
We have seen a big backlash in San Francisco, the epicenter of technology in the United States, which could be a sign of what’s coming. As knowledge workers pour into the city to work for high paying jobs in Silicon Valley, those displaced by high rents and fancy restaurants have gotten upset. People have attacked Google and Facebook busses, angry that they are using municipal bus stops.
My colleague Kyle Russell had Google Glass ripped of his face last year supposedly in the name of anti-technology zealotry.
Disrupted industries don’t always react well either. Taxi drivers have been protesting in cities where Uber has been allowed to operate, and cabbies have occasionally acted violently against Uber drivers. Tenants and neighbors have complained about Airbnb rentals. It goes on and on.
I got into a taxi in Austin last week, and when the driver learned I was technology journalist, he suggested I write an article about how Uber was messing with his livelihood. He then proceeded to complain about Uber for the entire trip. This was a person who was deeply affected by a technological change entirely out of his control.
We Fear What We Can’t Understand
I also reported on an anti-robot rally in Austin last week. There was some question about the real reason for the rally, and it turned out it was at least partly a publicity stunt. When I talked to a spokesperson for the group, he admitted while it was to call attention to his dating app, he told me the sentiment behind the rally was real.
They were supposedly genuinely concerned about technology advancing too quickly, especially around artificial intelligence and robotics, and the implications of that for people. Rallies like the one in Austin against artificial intelligence could have been fueled by comments from Elon Musk, who gave $10M to an organization in January to “keep AI beneficial.” Whatever that means, it clearly struck a chord with some people.
And like The Luddites in the 19th century who destroyed industrial equipment as a way to protest the loss of textile jobs, perhaps we are starting to see similar sentiments bubbling up around the development of various technologies.
We know, as The Luddites learned, that technological advancement stops for no one, that it will happen regardless of what we say or do. Surely, it will sometimes get ahead of our ability to understand it and regulate it in an appropriate way. As that happens, it’s likely people will lash out against various advances.
We’ve seen signs of that already and I suspect a bigger backlash could be coming, especially as technology disrupts more areas of our lives, displaces more jobs and grows increasingly intelligent. We need laws and norms around all of this and we are making it up as we go along.
I’m confident we will find ways as a society to adjust eventually, but the pace is relentless and without time to understand all of the changes being thrown at us, there could be various ways a backlash manifests itself until we figure it all out.