My Latest Malcolm Moment

The last several days have brought a number of troubling technological stories floating our way, from the unsurprising consequences of earbuds on youngsters and “constant displays ” on adults to Foxconn Technologies’ recent struggles with worker suicides to the rapidly-expanding number of tech-themed entries on the Beloit College Mindset List, technology and its inexorable progress seems to be an hourly topic of interest/consternation.

But this Wall Street Journal interview with Eric Schmidt, Google’s CEO, might be the most troubling I’ve seen in quite some time:

“I don’t believe society understands what happens when everything is available, knowable and recorded by everyone all the time,” he says. He predicts, apparently seriously, that every young person one day will be entitled automatically to change his or her name on reaching adulthood in order to disown youthful hijinks stored on their friends’ social media sites.

“I mean we really have to think about these things as a society,” he adds. “I’m not even talking about the really terrible stuff, terrorism and access to evil things,” he says.

“Entitled” to change our names because of foolish things we’ve done in the past? Why wait? I could make use of that little make-over strategy right now, no matter what the future has in store for us.

More troubling to me, however, are the assumptions he makes about what will be possible (and what we, as consumers, will want) in this ever-more-wired future he envisions:

“I actually think most people don’t want Google to answer their questions,” he elaborates. “They want Google to tell them what they should be doing next.”

Mr. Schmidt is a believer in targeted advertising because, simply, he’s a believer in targeted everything: “The power of individual targeting—the technology will be so good it will be very hard for people to watch or consume something that has not in some sense been tailored for them.”

Telling us what we should be doing next? With technology “so good” that we won’t be able to escape a tailored experience? Is this the future we’re striving so hard to achieve?

Now, I wouldn’t normally describe myself as a technophobe — I love watching streaming movies, listening to astonishingly available classical music, and discovering millions of fascinating rest stops along the Information Superhighway far too much to be one of those. But I also like using technology; I don’t want to be its pawn. One of the reasons I love Google so much is for all the unexpected and unexpectedly rewarding places it can take me. The last thing I want is for it to tell me what I should be doing next. Why should I be excited at the suggestion that the wildly expanding technological frontier is actually going to narrow my horizons?

I can’t help but be reminded of the words of Jurassic Park’s memorable chaotician, Dr. Ian Malcolm, as he warned his fellow visitors against the toothy side-effects of undisciplined technology:

 …your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.


Joseph Susanka has been doing development work for institutions of Catholic higher education since his graduation from Thomas Aquinas College in 1999. Currently residing in Lander, Wyoming -- "where Stetsons meet Birkenstocks" -- he is a columnist for Crisis Magazine and the Patheos Catholic portal.

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