Battle in Print: IT: Threat or Opportunity?

Robert Killick and Nathalie Rothschild, 30 September 2006

Never before have the opportunities for communication and information-sharing been so great. The internet, as a medium for social cooperation, offers the possibility of overcoming barriers to freedom of expression and for extending that freedom globally. Of course, technology is only ever a means to an end, and the internet is no panacea for political and other forces that still curtail freedoms worldwide. Neither should we assume that ‘online communities’ can replace real social bonds. Still, this does not deny the universalising potential the internet holds for access to information and communication, for forming social bonds that could previously never even come into existence, and for facilitating our everyday lives.

How unfortunate, then, that the internet has become a prism for viewing all sorts of panics and fears and that it is regularly vilified in a wide range of debates concerning personal, organisational and national security. Knee-jerk suspicion of the harm people can do to themselves and to others online stems from the assumption that the public cannot be trusted with the freedom that the internet offers, and therefore need regulation either imposed or recommended by authorities.

Consider, for instance, UK watchdog Ofcom’s refusal in 2005 to rule out the possibility of regulating internet content. Comments from the Ofcom chairman, Lord Currie, were revealing: ‘The challenge will arise when boundaries between TV and the internet truly blur and then there is a balance to be struck between protecting consumers and allowing them to assess the risks themselves’ (BBC News 27.1.2005). Regulation is phrased as a matter of protection for a public which is apparently incapable of ‘assessing the risks’ that they could subject themselves, and by implication others, to.

Another example is the US Department of Justice’s demand earlier this year that the internet search engine Google hand over data about web users’ searches. The Department wanted the data in order to demonstrate in court that it had the right approach in enforcing online pornography law. The US government also wanted to make use of more internet data for fighting crime and terrorism (BBC News 20.1.2006).

It seems the internet’s potential for opening up new channels of communication and consumption is precisely what inspires these endless warnings and precautionary measures. Everything from shopping online (is your identity secure?), to leaving your kids alone in front of the computer (will they start chatting to paedophiles?) to downloading and sharing information (will your computer get a virus?) has become a reason for caution. Yet consider the range of ways we use the internet and the way it now involves all aspects of our lives. This includes keeping in touch with friends and family via email, live chat, phoning and video conferences as well as shopping, banking, ticket booking, research, listening to music and watching videos. It would be surprising if we never encountered any problems at all, including faulty transactions and having to communicate with unpleasant people!

Of course, it is always possible that our privacy can be infringed on the net, not least if the US Department of Justice has its way. However, the fact that we are so often willing to believe the worst about people and mistrust each other in advance too often leads to risk assessments on micro and macro scales which stop us from taking advantage of the full potential of the internet. We imagine that paedophile chat rooms are just a click away, that the web is full of 10-step guides to building bombs for any would-be terrorist to tap into, and that with every credit card transaction we risk falling victim to identity theft. 

In a risk averse climate, the internet is seen more as a threat than an opportunity, but if we, as organisations and individuals, are too cautious, we may fail to gain all the potential benefits of information technology. Indeed, the development of the internet itself would have been prevented if technological development had always been governed by risk aversion. It was because of the entrepreneurship of those individuals who took the internet beyond the defence establishment and the scientific community that the World Wide Web became a mass medium for business and communications. As it turned out, those who set the wheels in motion took great personal risks – most of the early web companies and investors ended up going bankrupt themselves – to the benefit of society.

The internet and IT in general have also been mystified by over-enthusiasm for their ‘revolutionary’ potential, especially in the frenzy of the dotcom boom of the late 1990s and early 2000. The problem with all this hype about the internet as a panacea for just about every social problem – from reducing the gap between rich and poor, to engaging people in politics through e-government, to improving educational standards – is that it neglects what IT is really good for. It facilitates cooperation, raises productivity, improves communication and expands possibilities for publishing and research.

Communication tools are an essential, and often taken for granted, part of our daily lives. In the past decade there has been an explosion in communication and entertainment technologies and it is difficult to remember how we got on without mobile phones, MP3 players, email and broadband internet.

But thinking back to the dissemination of these technologies, it seems that each has come with its own wave of panics and health warnings. Mobile phones and headsets have been said to cause brain and hearing damage (BBC News 6.2.2002), while iPods have been claimed to cause antisocial behaviour and crime (BBC News 26.5.2005). The warnings about email range from vulnerability to spam and viruses to the leaking of sensitive information – which, it is said, can lead to everything from embarrassment for individuals to libel suits for businesses – and the stress of having to cope with flooded inboxes (Harris 2005; Goodall 24.10.2005).

Whether or not these claims hold true, the inclination for irrational panics is an unhealthy trend. The conclusion is that we should rein in technology and it is rarely suggested that where there are measurable risks we should overcome them by developing technology further rather than be fatalistic and self-restraining.

‘Innovation’ seems to be the buzzword of the day – it crops up in business, politics and the arts – and there is growing investment in research and development (R&D). But this often has more to do with image management than with productivity, efficiency or technological development. Indeed, R&D itself has become a kind of risk aversion, which is why it now often takes the form of customer-centred rather than technology- or product-led research. The fear of litigation plays a part in this trend, but it also reveals a loss of confidence on behalf of business and its obsession with having an acceptable public image.

This is most clearly expressed in the growth of the Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) agenda, which stresses corporate transparency. The idea behind CSR is that business should no longer just be about making profit for its shareholders or creating innovative products, but should also contribute positively to local communities or society as a whole. On the surface, this seems like an innocent and harmless demand, but CSR often stifles business by submitting it to external concerns shaped by political agendas that it doesn’t have a reason to either be affected by or shape. That companies need to demonstrate social responsibility to reduce the risk of potential negative impact is a response to today’s ‘climate of mistrust’, where businesses and other institutions are regarded with suspicion.

In this climate, research and experimentation that does not have a measurable ‘positive effect’ is seen as irresponsible. Yet it is precisely through experimentation, risk – and, yes, mistakes – that some of the major scientific breakthroughs and technological inventions have come about. Without risky experimentation, and without individuals willing to take those risks in the pursuit of knowledge, we wouldn’t have aeroplanes, penicillin, MRI scans or X-rays. Marie Curie, a pioneer in the field of radioactivity, died from aplastic anemia, almost certainly caused by exposure to radiation in her work. 2005 Nobel Prize winner Barry James Marshall proved that a bacteria, and not – as was claimed at the time – stress, spicy foods and acid, is the cause of most stomach ulcers. He experimented on himself to prove to the scientific establishment that his findings were correct.

Risk was once seen as a catalyst for competitiveness, innovation and change in enterprise culture. Now it is seen as a negative barrier to be avoided with all sorts of precautionary measures. ‘Risk consciousness’ is the order of the day, but the preference to always dig up the dark side of humanity betrays a lack of faith in human reason. Curiosity and foolhardiness are often derided as irresponsible and egotistical traits, but the great heroes of the past have taken personal risks that benefit all of us.

The ability to handle risk – though technology, human ingenuity, reason and resilience – is a measure of modernity and it can only be achieved through more experimentation, not less. The hard won freedoms to creative expression, communication and to technological innovation should be treasured, and the twenty-first century should be when we take them even further.

Robert Killick is founder and CEO of cScape. Nathalie Rothschild is editorial assistant as spiked

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