SILICON LOUNGE: Profaning the Altar of Technology

"What's the real difference between swapping CDs with friends and swapping songs with people who you just met over the Web?" whined Paul Somerson, in another painfully adolescent defense of Napster�s thieving technology, in a piece ironically distributed by "SmartBusiness."

If you need the answer to Somerson�s, er, riddle, see the "solution" below. But this column isn�t about the hackneyed Napster debate: It�s about the pervasive mindset that technology is somehow sacred. As Somerson, er, brilliantly proclaimed about tech tools at the end of his polemic: "To paraphrase former Nixon Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman, the toothpaste is out of the tube. Live with it."

Live with what? Every possible use of technology, regardless of how illegal, immoral or outright dangerous? Live with its use by an ingenious few to rob the ability of individual artists to be paid? Live with private industry and government using tech tools to profit off our private information? Live with a no-holds-barred exploration of dangerous new biotech, nanotech and robotics technology that can wipe out the human race?

It seems the taxpayers who provide much of the seed money and corporate welfare for these innovations are supposed to stand by like Stepford wives, regardless of what we don�t like or trust about technology. We should assume companies are "self-regulating" on our behalf (as if anyone with a human brain could believe in that utopian concept in the wake of the Firestone and Ford revelations).

But even as a (reluctant) geek, I am not so idolatrous of technology that I can advocate an anything-goes world. Imagine the status-quo beliefs that traditionally have drawn responses like "get over it" and "get used to it": Women aren�t supposed to vote; blacks sit in the back of the bus; gays don�t belong in submarines; Jews aren�t welcome in Germany; "reds" don�t belong in Hollywood. Don�t-ask-don�t-tell folly notwithstanding, enough people saw the idiocy in those beliefs to buck the conventional "wisdom" and effect change.

These days, like children being called "chicken" on the playground, we�re routinely admonished to "get over" our fears of unbridled technology. Worried about privacy? "Get over it," Sun Microsystem's Scott McNealy famously condescended. This attitude even invades the Fourth Estate. At last summer�s Investigative Reporters & Editors national conference in New York, a panel of media experts debated the merits of reporting on privacy issues. If we do, several argued, we may encourage the government to regulate our ability to access public records, a slippery slope we should just avoid. Of course, this argument ignores vital gray areas -- that is, shouldn�t the media report on the commercial use of personal information by, say, DoubleClick and, regularly distinguishing between the need for free access to public information and the corporate abuse of personal information?

This privacy debate, or desired lack of one, illustrates our prickly tech dilemma: We�re either with �em or agin �em. As with any dogma, if you try to straddle the two sides, you�re isolated like the kid no one picks for the softball team. The techies call you a poor Luddite who doesn�t "get" this brave new wired world.

Every fascist scenario needs a hero with the credibility to challenge the propaganda from within. Delightfully, in this debate that oracle is Sun cofounder and chief technologist Bill Joy. In April, Joy published a 10,000-word manifesto in Wired, warning that society is speeding toward dangerous technologies � specifically robotics, genetic engineering and nanotech � that can destroy us if we�re not careful. "We are being propelled into this new century with no plan, no control, no brakes. Have we already gone too far down the path to alter course?"

He optimistically says no, but adds an "if." Pointing to the atomic "advances" of the 20th century, he implores scientists to take "personal responsibility" for their creations. "We must do more thinking up front if we are not to be similarly surprised and shocked by the consequences of our inventions," Joy writes. He sacrilegiously suggests that tech genuises find "alternative outlets for our creative forces" and that society "develop a stronger notion of universal responsibility and of our interdependency." Joy is ambitious. "If we could agree, as a species, what we wanted, where we were headed, and why, then we would make our future much less dangerous � then we might understand what we can and should relinquish," he suggests.

Predictably, Joy is labeled a heretical kill-joy by those who want unbridled "innovation." "Joy�s policy prescriptions are breathtakingly naïve, blinkered and totalitarian," writes Reason magazine�s Virginia Postrel.

Maybe Joy�s ideas are idyllic in this tech-obsessed age. But so was Martin Luther King Jr.�s in the 1960s. (All blacks vote? Get out.) Joy�s self-restraint challenge is certainly more daring than blindly following any dangerous or unethical idea that comes down the collective pike. And it�s infinitely more intelligent than arguing that the mere existence of tools to steal artistic creations somehow trumps the rights of the creator.

Granted, these battles are difficult, especially when the naysayers are isolated on the playground. And the smartest answers likely lie between the extremes. But compromises will happen only if we pay attention, complain and even consider, or at least threaten, regulation of the tech industry when necessary to protect safety and individual rights. As always, it takes bigger balls to talk back than to meekly acquiesce.

Riddle solution: Paying for the privilege.

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