Computing Applications Inside risks

Risks of Inaction

  1. Article
  2. Author

Scientists and technologists create a variety of impressions in the eyes of society at large, some positive and others negative. In the latter category is the perception (often clearly a mischaracterization) that many individuals in these occupations are not involved with society in positive ways, making them easy to target for many of society’s ills.

It’s not difficult to see how this simplistic stereotype developed. We technically oriented folks can easily become so focused on the science and machines that we willingly leave most aspects of the deployment and use of our labors to others who often don’t solicit our advice—or who may even actively disdain it.

In the broad scope of technology over the centuries, there have been many innovators who lived to have second thoughts about their creations. From the Gatling gun to nuclear bombs and DNA science, the complex nature of the real world can alter inventions and systems in ways their creators might never have imagined.

It of course would be unrealistic and unwise for us to expect or receive total control over the ways in which society uses the systems we place into its collective hands. However, it is also unreasonable for the technical and scientific minds behind these systems to take passive and detached roles in the decision-making processes relating to the uses of their works.

Within the computer science and software realm, an array of current issues would be well served by our own direct and sustained input. The continuing controversies over the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) is one obvious example. Even more ominously, the newly proposed Consumer Broadband and Digital Television Promotion Act (CBDTPA), formerly known as the Security Systems Standards and Certification Act (SSSCA), is a draconian measure; it would greatly affect the ways in which our technologies will be exploited, controlled, and in some cases severely hobbled. We never planned for digital systems to create a war between the entertainment industry, the computer industry, and consumers, but in many ways that’s what we’re now seeing.

Controversies are raging over a vast range of Internet-related issues, from the nuts and bolts of technology to the influence of politics. Concerns about ICANN (the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers)—the ersatz overseer of the Net—have been rising to a fever pitch.

Throughout all of these areas and many more, critical decisions relating to technology are frequently being made by politicians, corporate executives, and others with limited technical understanding—frequently without any meaningful technological input other than that of paid lobbyists with their own selfish agendas.

The technical and scientific communities do have associations and other groups ostensibly representing their points of view to government and others. But all too often the pronouncements of such groups seem timid and not particularly "street-savvy" in their approaches. Fears are often voiced about sounding too unacademic or expressing viewpoints on ethical matters rather than on technology or science itself, even when there is a clear interrelationship between these elements. Meanwhile, the lobbyists, who have the financial resources and what passes for a straight-talking style, have the ears of government firmly at their disposal.

Computers and related digital technologies have become underpinnings of our modern world, and in many ways are no less fundamental than electricity or plumbing. However, it can be devilishly difficult to explain their complex effects clearly and convincingly to the powers-that-be and the world at large.

As individuals, most of us care deeply about many of these issues—but that is not enough. We must begin taking greater responsibility for the manners in which the fruits of our labors are used. We need to take on significantly more activist roles, and should accept no less from the professional associations and other groups that represent us. If we do not take these steps, we will have ceded any rights to complain.

Back to Top

Join the Discussion (0)

Become a Member or Sign In to Post a Comment

The Latest from CACM

Shape the Future of Computing

ACM encourages its members to take a direct hand in shaping the future of the association. There are more ways than ever to get involved.

Get Involved

Communications of the ACM (CACM) is now a fully Open Access publication.

By opening CACM to the world, we hope to increase engagement among the broader computer science community and encourage non-members to discover the rich resources ACM has to offer.

Learn More