By Stephen Smoot
Once upon a time, the idea of technology advances used the same optimistic dynamic of “Whig” history. Today is better than yesterday and tomorrow will be better still. Moving forward means a better potential life for most, if not all.
Those living in today’s world understand that progress does not necessarily move the world irresistibly toward a better future. Making the wrong choices can bring worse results than standing pat. The world often needs someone standing astride the path of history, putting up their hand, and hollering “stop!”
Technological advances for more than the past generation emphasize the digital over the non digital, the centralized over the local, and screens over printed paper. While these choices can often lead to more effective and efficient results, sometimes they also bring unintended declines and dysfunction.
Two weeks ago, this space featured an evidence-based argument critical of both the educational and even recreational replacement of books with reading material on computers of phones. Those who use screens for reading are less likely to gain in depth understanding and thought from the materials chosen.
Last week, the British Broadcasting Company ran an article on “the spectacular failure of self-checkout technology. They quoted American author and sociologist Christopher Andrews as saying “they’re finding that people need help doing it, or that they’ll steal stuff. They ended up realizing that they’re not saving money; they’re losing money.”
Dollar General reviewed their self-checkout policy and concluded “we had relied and started to rely too much on self-checkout in their stores.” Company CEO Todd Vasos shared this insight on a recent earnings call and said they will increase the number of employees in the stores.
Last summer, soon after California approved the use of 24/7 robotaxis, a Cruise self-driving car collided with a San Francisco fire truck on its way to a call.
Moving to advanced technology usually makes for positive headlines. People are often fascinated by the bright and shiny. They forget the similarities to the raccoon trap in Where the Red Fern Grows. In the children’s novel, nails are driven diagonally into a log’s knothole and a shiny coin dropped inside. Raccoons will grab the shiny object, forming a fist that cannot escape the nail barb unless it lets go.
The raccoons remain too entranced by the object to let go of it, despite the fact that it causes pain and that they can never escape.
One of the most dangerous choices made by the government in recent years lies in the adoption of electronic voting machines. Many jurisdictions saw them as a cleaner and more reliable way to tabulate elections after the debacle of the 2000 presidential election.
Even worse, the 2020 election saw hundreds of thousands of Americans casting their votes online. Bradley Tusk, founder of Uber and founder of a University of California- Berkeley based working group on the subject said “the current cybersecurity environment (makes) it infeasible . . . to draft responsible standards to support the use of internet ballot returns.”
Cybersecurity expert Ron Rivest compared online voting to “asking a kid to play in traffic.”
Electronic voting machines themselves also present serious challenges. In 2022, the United States Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Agency sent an advisory to state secretaries of state that a popular vendor of electronic voting machines has software vulnerabilities that left them vulnerable to hacking.
- Alex Halderman, computer science professor from the University of Michigan, has repeatedly testified that there is no fully safe way to tabulate votes with electronic devices. He asserts that hand-marked paper ballots are the most secure way to vote and that only paper ballots allow for “meaningful post election audits.”
Halderman explained that “sophisticated attackers, such as hostile nation-states (or) election insiders” could create chaos in key elections, which “would carry very serious consequences.”
The legendary Italian air power expert, General Giulio Douhet, correctly said in the 1920s that in future wars “the bomber will always get through” even the best of air defenses. Not every bomber, but enough to cause damage, take lives, and disrupt a society. One may say the same about hackers with the resources of a nation-state or other source of largess behind them.
Adoption of technology should always come with the consideration of the law of unintended consequences. Policy makers need to go beyond savings, efficiencies, or other arguments for and examine the most important question of any big decision, which is “what is the absolute worst that can conceivably happen?”
Honestly looking at the worst case scenario and its costs should accompany every such discussion. Technology can bring amazing benefits, but it can also wreck havoc in such situations.