The Unintended Consequences of New Tech


Feb. 3, 2004 -- Since the turn of the century, every movie and story about the future has, to some extent, dealt with the unintended consequences of technology. We watch these films and read these stories, I think, because of the "what if" element.

What if genetics experiments resulted in monkeys intelligent enough to take over as the ruling species?

What if computers advance to the point where they not only have consciences, but can go mad, like humans?

What if our interplanetary exploration turns up real aliens intent on exterminating us?

These possibilities remain fiction, but other more pedestrian consequences of technology have become as real as the planets are distant.

Devices we consider ordinary technology these days, like cars and oil furnaces, have — to our dismay — produced a warming Earth and a hole in the ozone. But we're entering an entirely new era in which some of our most advanced technologies will have far more immediate repercussions than our shrinking ozone.

I am hardly the first to notice this. In an April 2000 Wired Magazine article, "Why the Future Doesn't Need Us," former Sun chief scientist Bill Joy warned of how technological innovation could lead to catastrophe. But unlike Joy, I do not see world disaster or human extinction, just continual unhappy surprises.

Elusive Electronic Eyes

Here's one small example.

A friend of mine related how, in checking out a store's latest digital video camcorders, he began fiddling with one that could easily fit in a small handbag and had remarkable zoom capabilities — 20X optical and 700X digital. He aimed the camera, pushed the optical zoom to the max, and flipped on the digital enhancement.

As the image came into focus, he clearly saw not just what a person at the register was buying, but more alarmingly, the numbers and name on the purchaser's credit card — not necessarily a use the camera maker intended.

After telling me this, my friend said, "You don't feel the electronic eyes." I looked at him quizzically. "You know. If someone's staring at you from a few feet away — even further — you feel the eyes. It's that human thing."

It was a keen observation — one the government, for example, made long ago and has put to use with its spy satellites, undoubtedly guarding our security by seeing if Castro is smoking cigars on his veranda. Our bearded neighbor probably guesses he's being watched — but he never really knows when.

The realization of my friend and the intelligence community has likely dawned on criminals, too. With the shrinking size and increasing power of camcorders, identity thieves will be trolling stores and recording critical information, safely separated from their victims by dozens of feet.

From Family Use to Aiding ID Theft

Mobile phones equipped with digital cameras provide another fertile bed for the growth of unforeseen outcomes. Commercials for the new combo devices laud their useful features — contact management, gaming, and images of up to 2.1 megapixels. And what could be more touching than TV spots showing dad getting a photo of his daughter doing something sweet?

But some consequences may be less than sweet. The tiny lenses on the backs of many digital phones easily let someone who seems to be talking photograph you, your paper work, or even that receipt you signed at the checkout counter.

Already these phones are being banned from places like locker rooms, but should we be allowing people to make calls inside Macy's and Best Buy? Maybe not. The ability to surreptitiously record still and moving images has gotten to the point where you never really know who is watching and capturing you, your information, or both.

Ponder the Perils of Consistent Connections

Always-on connectivity is a blessing for people like me who have to continue working after hours but don't want to be away from family. And the proliferation of 802.11b networks lets us to work virtually anywhere in our homes, including on the couch, next to the kids.

But this has seen its own set of unanticipated negatives. The most obvious is intrusion into these networks by outsiders, an exploit facilitated by most users failing to apply any sort of security. I would guess that roughly one third of all wireless networks (and I'm including those in major organizations) have uninvited guests using their bandwidth to surf, download, and do God knows what else.

The greater, more worrisome consequence will be people using these security holes to tunnel into our precious infrastructure. The next blackout could be launched from some laptop outside a power plant in Idaho.

All of this is far more frightening than the proliferation of spam that was an unintended consequence of e-mail, or the unforeseen rise in carpal tunnel syndrome that resulted from the proliferation of PCs.