Technocracy Blowback: Five Case Studies

Technology is neither our friend nor our enemy. It is merely the tool by which our desire, paranoia and innovation shapes the world. It works great if we’re looking to level the playing and paying field in art and commerce. It often works better when we are using it to destroy ourselves. I broke down this techno-blowback for AlterNet.

“It’s not technology we have to worry about, it’s the humans,” Arthur and Marilouise Kroker, editors of the academic technology and culture journal CTheory, once argued to AlterNet, in an article about the Pentagon’s plan to fund packs of man-hunting robots. “Why blame technology? It generally does what it is coded to do. It’s the human sentient understanding of how to take cruel advantage of human weakness that’s the problem.”

Indeed, humans are exceptional when it comes to using technology to prey upon weaknesses, in themselves, their cultures and their markets. But even when technological solutions arise for navigating problems as mundane as they are obstructive, there tends to be some variation of consequence. Let’s just call it “techno-blowback.” As developmental biologist and cyborg theorist Donna Haraway once famously explained, “We are all chimeras, theorized and fabricated hybrids of machine and organism.” We can’t take technology out of our humanity any more than we can take humanity, and its dangerous games, out of our technology. So we walk the tightrope between both, trying not to fall as we steadily transform a cyborg future in which we may no longer be able to distinguish them anymore.

Below are five examples of that problematic merge, from least offensive to least humane, analyzing how everything from handy gadgets to user-friendly weaponry have changed the way we work, play and police.

iPods and iTunes

At first glance, Apple’s proprietary digital media player and application couldn’t come soon enough. Portable music players choking on clunky cassettes were driving us all crazy, especially since the music industry had steadily moved away from vinyl and tape to digital, although it decided to encode it all on wasteful compact discs. Apple’s iPod and iTunes changed that game forever, taking material goods out of the equation and providing in their place a seamless way to integrate music into our lives. Of course, it also killed the industry as we know it, according to some.

“Apple has destroyed the music business — in terms of pricing — and if we don’t take control, they’ll do the same thing on the video side,” NBC CEO Jeff Zucker complained in 2007. “Apple sold millions of dollars worth of hardware off the back of our content. They did not want to share what they were making.”

Complaints about Apple’s exclusivity continue to this day, enhancing the argument that its revolutionary innovations in digital music entertainment and distribution have padded its earnings reports rather than change the music industry for the better. And it’s also had arguable ancillary effects, from killing off the album to degrading sonic quality. “Apple has taken a detour down the convenience highway,” rocker Neil Young said in 2008. “Quality has taken a complete backseat — if it even gets in the car at all.”

On its way to redefining the rules of music ownership and sales, Apple has also dominated the discussion of what users can put on their iPods and iTunes, including how many people they can share songs with. Along the way, it has deleveraged the cultural power of music and its market, leading to increased piracy and less cash for everyone, especially the bloated major labels who fed like vampires on their harder-working artists for generations. For all its innovations, it’s arguable that we are still stuck with a music industry that is a technological upgrade of its former self, but still diminished. The fact that the music industry utterly deserved obsolescence is irony icing on the technology cake.

“iTunes is essentially the record store model ported to the Internet, with no other major innovation other than to sell songs individually rather than as albums,” Eliot Van Buskirk, music business columnist (and one of my colleagues) at, explained to AlterNet. “Other companies tried to sell music online way before Apple did, but it took Steve Jobs’ charm — and the fact that the labels saw the then-Mac-only iTunes store as a test bed for rollout to the wider market — to convince them to sell songs online. That was iTunes’ crowning achievement, and it continues to pay somewhat well for major and indie labels alike, and even unsigned bands, through thin middleman services like TuneCore.”

But at what expense? Digital distribution has unmasked how easy it really is to share art and commerce, but it has also made it easier to avoid paying those who create both with increasing impunity. And while the world is full of well-meaning consumers who want to fully support the creators they admire, digital distribution innovations, from iTunes to the BitTorrent protocol, nevertheless excel at preying upon market weaknesses for that art and commerce. It’s a price we have to pay for a leveled playing field.

“ITunes pushed the industry forward, big-time,” Van Buskirk said. “Before that, there was no way for indie bands to sell their songs to a worldwide audience of music fans alongside the majors’ stuff — never mind one that let them keep about 70 percent of their sales revenue without going through a label, the way iTunes does. iTunes also led to less material waste, because music files don’t need packaging. But if iTunes has failed in any regard, it has failed to provide a real discovery engine for fans. Luckily, the entire Internet handles that pretty well.”

Mobile Phones

Speaking of Apple, the iPhone is a recent, brilliant iteration of the mobile phone, one that has mashed communication, networking, gaming and commercial functions as seamlessly as the iPod and iTunes merged digital musical consumption and production. Unfortunately, it has also caused more than its share of car crashes, pedestrian accidents, “sexting” scandals and maybe even cancer. Wonderful.

“This meeting is probably the most important meeting in the history of the Department of Transportation,” secretary Ray LaHood explained late last year, after President Obama banned federal employees from texting while driving. “Distracted driving is dangerous and unacceptable.”

That move was summarily followed up in recent events, where states like New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Michigan and many more banned texting and talking while driving, by not just citizens but also interstate truckers. These laws have escalated atop mounting evidence from the American Automotive Association and others that drivers who text are 20 times more likely to crash than those who don’t. Add to that statistics indicating that drivers look at their phones instead of the road for more than four of every six seconds they’re texting, and that around 80 percent of crashes are caused by distracted drivers, and you have a recipe for disaster.

To make matters worse, the National Transportation Safety Board concluded its investigation into a deadly California train crash that left 25 dead and 135 injured with a damning finding: Metrolink engineer Robert Sanchez’s “egregious” texting was to blame. Taken together with the failure of an already existing Metrolink policy forbidding cell phones in control cabins, the NTSB summarily called for installment of surveillance cameras in all of its trains. Which, in turn, angered the Engineers and Trainmen union, which claimed the cameras wouldn’t help and were an invasion of privacy. (More on this techno-blowback below.)

But that’s just drivers. Pedestrians are increasingly becoming crash fodder too. In 2008, more than 1,000 distracted walkers massaging their phones entered America’s emergency rooms, after variously tripping, falling or walking into everything from poles to cars. That doubled the tally from 2007, which itself doubled the tally from 2006, and so on. And the numbers should be higher.

“It’s the tip of the iceberg,’’ Ohio State professor Jack L. Nasar said in a study, co-authored by graduate student Derek Troyer, on the tragicomic trend. Why? The majority of those afflicted are younger, and most of their mishaps don’t end in a hospital visit. Given the trend’s performance in the last few years, it’s reasonable to expect a runaway rate for future accidents, by foot, car, train or, God help us all, plane. But that’s just the benevolent kind of disaster that could happen.

According to the National Cancer Institute, “Numerous studies have investigated the relationship between cellular telephone use and the risk of developing malignant and benign brain tumors, but results from long-term studies are still limited….However, some, but not all, long-term studies have suggested slightly increased risks for certain types of brain tumors.”

Its cautious language is warranted, given that there have been no direct links established between mobile phone usage and cancer. But that didn’t stop the World Health Organization from promising to end its decade-long, much-anticipated Interphone investigation with a warning that there is a “significantly increased risk” of some brain tumors for mobile phones users who have held gadgets sending out heavy doses of radiofrequency waves directly into their heads for 10 years or more. It’s far from a sure thing, but it’s closer to scary than it is to conspiracy, especially since mobile phones have been in heavy commercial use since the ’80s. Let’s hope that early adopters of this technology still have time to save their possibly irradiated brains.

CT Scans

While we’re on radiation, here’s another ironic revelation perfectly built for techno-blowback: Computer tomography (CT) scans could possibly give you cancer while looking for it.

According to a recent study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine by University of California-San Francisco professor and radiologist Rebecca-Smith Bindman, patients undergoing a single CT scan might be absorbing the equivalent of 74 mammograms or 442 chest X-rays. They also may be contributing to nearly 30,000 new cancers and over 10,000 casualties per year. The scary part is that the numbers could rise as CT scans are increasingly, and perhaps unnecessarily, prescribed. Over 72 million were performed in 2007.

“Our prior research has demonstrated the dramatic increased in CT utilization, which has gone up around 10 percent per year,” Smith-Bindman told “AlterNet. “There is little data available about how many are necessary and how many may be unnecessary, although there is widespread belief that at least 20 percent of CTs may be unnecessary. But it’s an area that clearly needs more research.”

A continuing issue, Smith-Bindman said, is that CT scans are often repeated at short interval. Or performed when it’s unlikely to lead to a change in behavior or practice. And sure, her study hasn’t uncovered totally unknown territory: CT scans emit radiation, just like phones, laptops and other helpful gadgets. But as science continues to quantify its helpful gadgetry, especially its life-saving machines, it is often finding that it had been previously hypnotized by miraculous possibility while underplaying obvious dangers. And the user-friendliness of such devices certainly hasn’t helped. Sometimes, it has done the opposite: Technology likes CT scans could be overused precisely because they are so easy to use.

“In part, this is this case,” Smith-Bindman agreed. “The speed, simplicity and economic profitability have also almost certainly driven its increased utilization. But the images are also exquisitely detailed. and lead to better and faster diagnoses, so it’s not so simple.”

Of course it isn’t. But just because it’s complicated, doesn’t mean it’s safe. As further studies are undertaken, who knows? If it’s statistically possible that we may find enough data to show that we are creating as much cancer as we are preventing, well…that’s the kind of tightrope you can hang yourself with.

Traffic Surveillance Technology

From the office to the freeways to the streetlights and beyond, surveillance of most any kind has led to less freedom, not more. And it hasn’t really seemed to significantly reduce crime or prevent accidents. According to studies conducted in Oregon and Virginia, red-light cameras increased collisions rather than decreasing them, in some cases by 100 percent. Sure, fewer motorists ran red lights, but more of them crashed right into each other. Worse, whatever additional revenue the trend generated was sliced up by refunds to deeply offended parties entrapped by lame schemes like sped-up yellow lights, which encourage motorists to step on it or slam on the brakes. Instant accidents.

The idea that a patently invasive stop-light camera is incentivizing transgression is bad enough on the surface. It’s worsened by the fact that some states allow its snapshot to be obtainable under Freedom of Information Act requests, so that literally anyone can have access to the event. Like its birth, the techno-blowback on this has become political and financial: Washington state representative Chris Hurst, a law enforcement veteran, sponsored a bill decreasing fines from nearly $125 to $25, and more importantly demanded that yellow lights last at least four seconds, rather than the scant two they’ve been reduced to in search of lethal regional profit.

“Now they’re actually killing their citizens to make money off these things,” he told the Seattle Times in January.

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply