Every year — in fact, almost every day — we gain more and more power over nature and over our lives through technology.
This is true not only for individuals, but also for societies and governments throughout the world.
On the one hand, it seems as though this is progress that solves real problems (as well as problems we didn’t even know we had), and that it enhances peace and prosperity by enabling instantaneous worldwide communication and sharing of information.
On the other hand, sometimes it feels as though each new solution simultaneously makes us more vulnerable to a potentially catastrophic problem.
The more of an interdependent worldwide community we become, the more reliant we become on the technological systems that bring us together — the Internet, satellites, computers and the like.
At the same time, this reliance makes us more vulnerable to threats that may now or in the future have the ability to partially or temporarily take over (or even destroy) the systems we rely upon. Internet cables below the sea can be cut. Satellites are vulnerable to intercontinental missiles. Computers worldwide are subject to viruses we can’t erase.
A recent alert from the FBI and Department of Homeland Security warned that the destructive power of malevolent viruses is believed to already lurk in the computers that service much of our government and business sectors. These viruses may (someday) affect the functioning of our electrical grid, as well as water, aviation, nuclear and critical manufacturing sectors.
The alert focuses on a “multi-stage intrusion campaign” believed to have been placed there by Russian government actors, but we may house similar Trojan horses from N. Korea and China as well.
I suppose it’s possible, or even likely, that we have developed the same power over those and other countries. What happens if one of us moves to act and then the other responds in kind? Will human beings be able to function anywhere on the planet other than in the most rural, off-line communities that haven’t developed dependence on computers?
How did we come to this point? I don’t think it’s due to something inherently evil in technology. I believe it’s far more likely because of many things inherent in human nature.
A surprisingly large number of ordinary people engaging in perfectly normal behavior appear to play a role. They include the following:
- the careless government employee or contractor who fails to protect access to his computer or account,
- the clueless ordinary citizen who is easily scammed by responding to a phishing email or opening an attachment, allowing a virus not only to infect his computer, but to spread to every person on his contact list,
- the government or business employee who feels personally aggrieved over something and posts secret passwords or hacking tools online or otherwise shares critical data with outside groups like WikiLeaks,
- the agent of a rogue nation or enemy just “doing his job,” and
- the con man out to make a buck, sending viruses worldwide and demanding ransom dollars, without regard to the damage he does.
All of this is the stuff of nightmares and spy novels, but it is also, apparently, today’s reality. Major figures from the military, Congress and the press are warning us of our growing vulnerability. People in a position to know are telling us that we are not taking the dangers seriously enough.
What, if anything, can we do as individuals?
We have a voice in electing our leaders, in calling/writing/emailing members of Congress, in writing to agencies and newspapers, and in speaking about these issues with friends — not just as cocktail conversation, but in order to form and support groups that may have meaningful influence.
We may not be able to individually effect change, but we can communicate our views to those who can.
We also ought to be more careful about our personal use of technology, and rethink how much of our private information we’re willing to share in order to be able to access the convenience of the latest app or website.
Today’s (and tomorrow’s) technology enable us to do both far more good, as well as far more harm, in the world than ever before. Let us use our minds and our voices to call attention to the latter, and to share with our leaders how vulnerable we feel we’ve become as a result.