Friday, October 8, 2010

Secret Technology - Is It More Dangerous?

I was listening to NPR last week when a news story came on about how legal bans on texting while driving may actually be increasing the number of accidents and fatalities where such laws are now in place. ( NPR STORY LINK )

The concept here is simple enough: if someone is texting while driving, they are distracted. In the two to five seconds their eyes are targeting something other than the road, they can run through a red light or over a pedestrian. If someone is texting while driving, but taking extra care to not be seen doing it, their eyes might be further away from the road, and for longer periods of time.

What plagued me about this story was the idea that technology, secret technology, might be more dangerous than technology that is known and used out in the open. This seems to me to be very much a science fiction theme. But how would this play out with other technologies? What other credible parallels can be drawn?

Part of the answer depends on what one considers to be a 'technology'. I'm rather nerdly, yet I use a fairly low-tech standard ... if I can't make it in my garage using stuff left over from the last time I fixed my backyard gate, it's a technology. (This says not very much about my gate maintenance skills, I know.)

So what are some viable candidates for this discussion? Putting the moral issues aside, because that is not what we are talking about, there are a lot of things we do as individuals to utilize technology which are not necessarily done under public scrutiny. One example: drugs. Are secret drugs, those taken illicitly, without prescription and without public knowledge, more dangerous than prescribed, legal drugs? That seems likely for a number of reasons, whether the drug is heroin, alcohol, or steroids. What about abortions? Surely the procedure of abortion could be considered a technology. Would a secret abortion be more dangerous than one performed in a public medical facility? That would also seem a reasonable conclusion.

Turning this around, I thought to look at what might be considered protective technologies, something secret that is not necessarily being done to our bodies. Would these stand up to the same sort of basic "known-is-good ... secret-is-bad" test? Let's try a couple of examples. What about bullet-proof vests? You know ... the Kevlar things they wear on all the cop shows. Would wearing one secretly put the wearer in more danger? Or less? It depends, I suppose, on how many people are trying to kill you and if they are good enough to make a headshot.

How about home alarm systems? Would a secret alarm system make one safer? That is a good question, since here we have slipped into the area of deterrence. Would the "Protected by ACME Alarms" sign on your front lawn prevent would-be burglars from breaking in any more or less than the alarm system itself? Possibly, at least if your would-be burglar could see the sign, could read it, and believed it was true (that you had the system, not just the sticker). ( eHow Alarm Stick Link )

In keeping with my ready love of all things post-apocalyptic, extending the idea to nuclear deterrence as well seemed a next logical step. Is a country with nuclear weapons somehow safer from its neighbors than a country without them? The more I thought about this, the more the whole model of the technology-secret-danger relationship became muddled up and twisted in my mind.

I finally reached a conclusion that makes some sense to me. In this new, simplified model I look at myself as a natural biotechnology, a human body, using technology as an amplifier, a mechanism to extend my basic capabilities. If I choose to "juice up" my bio-engine with some sort of drug technology, and I amplify it too much, I could die. This is true if I choose to use some illicit street drug or if I overmedicate on a prescription drug. Some statistics suggest, in fact, that the number of deaths per year in the US from accidental overdose of prescription drugs far exceeds the number of deaths from illegal drug use. So, secret or no, if I jack up my body, I might die. On the other hand, if I put on armor, such as a bullet-proof vest, to boost my body's ability to reject projectiles, I probably am safer overall, regardless of whether people know I have the vest or not.

Does this model extend if the "organism" is a nation, using nuclear technology? Probably.

Why? Because ultimately, all technology amplifies something more fundamental than our attack strength, our defensive strength, or our ability to communicate with friends near and far. Technology amplifies our basic natures: if we are behaving in a fundamentally stupid way, our technology will help make those stupid things we are doing more collossally stupid and the consequences more catastrophic. This applies to individuals as well as Group Organisms like nations.

Ultimately, all technology has the power to extend the reach of our own stupidity. The preoccupied teenager driving past the mall up the street, texting behind the wheel of mom's Ford Bronco really is, by virtue of her rolling two tons of steel, somewhat more dangerous than her Amish counterpart reading a book behind the reigns of his horse and buggy on some rural road.

I would prefer not to be run over by either of them.
The Event - A new science fiction show from NBC. If you have not seen it, catch it. If we don't watch these emerging broadcast TV science fiction shows, they might stop making them.
Changing Your Mind - This CBC documentary, airing again on October 14, sheds light on some fascinating new developments in neuroscience. SF author Robert J. Sawyer says this show offers some clues as to the subject matter of his next novel.
Justin Stanchfield in October Analog - In addition to its other fine fact and fiction offerings, this month's Analog includes an interesting story of ecoterrorism, genetic destiny, and love in space from writing colleague Justin Stanchfield. His story appears to be at least part of the inspiration for Stanley Schmidt’s “Science and Simplicity” editorial in this issue. Buy a copy.
"Live" Mystery Science Theater 3000? Close enough. Check out this multi-theater event, being conducted nationwide this October 28th. RIFFTRAX LIVE: House on Haunted Hill
A special thanks to Ann for bringing me on board as Staff Blogger here at SFOO. I promised her I would keep my accounts of alien abduction, spiritual rebirth, political revolution, and personal hygiene to a minimum. My intent is to maintain her fine standards and continue to share information of interest to science fiction fans including those who are also writers of speculative fiction. If you have some good info, please send those useful data bits on to her and to me as well.

- D. E. Helbling

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