Is Technology Neutral?

By Megan McCormick

The panel began with a statement by Reg Whitaker, professor of political science and an author on privacy issues. Whitaker argued that surveillance technology has increased in prevalence throughout the twentieth century, and that this growth was marked by a decrease in state power over its citizens. Rather, the power made possible by an increase in surveillance technologies has been falling more and more into the hands of corporations, leading to what Whitaker called a loss of citizenship, replaced by a growth of 'consumership'. These economic powers do not coerce consumers, but rather have set up a structure of consent, whereby people willingly allow their privacy to be eroded. In order to counter this development, Whitaker suggested that, rather than consider privacy an individual right, it be refigured as a social right that serves a public good. In this way, some of the negative side effects of willing loss of privacy of individuals might better be addressed as being dangers to the community.

Community was also at the core of the remarks of the second speaker, Marita Moll, educator and member of the Canadian Teacher's Federation. It is a popular belief in education, Moll said, that computers with Internet capabilities must be brought into the classroom as quickly as possible. This, according to supporters, is critical in order to provide children with all the opportunities that such technology brings. However, Moll says, the forces that drive this push seem less concerned with the educational needs of the children than with the needs of the businesses that support and supply this technological training. This is brought clearly to light when one considers that, in Canada, the push to bring such technology to the classroom falls under the authority of Industry Canada (the Canadian government's equivalent of the Commerce department) rather than the department of education. [Editor's note: in Canada, there is no department of education at the Federal level.] In addition, there are negative side effects to bringing technology into the classroom, especially technology that, Moll says, has a very 'globalizing' effect. Introducing school children to the Internet may have the effect of homogenizing education, removing traditional cultural distinctions between different areas, and undermining the community structure of education.

The final speaker, author Paulina Borsook, addressed the ideology of the high-tech industry itself. Barsook claims the industry has a certain image of virtuality - virtual workplaces, virtual communities - which it itself does not carry out in practice. No matter how much the high-tech industry may claim that new methods of commuting made possible by technology are changing the face of work, workers in the industry know that in order to be taken seriously they must be with other technology companies, in specific geographic locations. In addition, the rhetoric of the high-tech industry ignores the actual resources and costs of the industry, be they the way cities change to support certain types of workers, or the way families are affected by the demands of high-tech work. To Barsook, the industry suffers from a gap between rhetoric and reality, which is consciously ignored, and which has real-world consequences which are also dismissed.

Audience response to the panel was mixed. Having been presented with these many negatives of technology, said one woman, how should the audience proceed? Are these negative effects an inevitable result of technological development, or, as one man asked, was there another way things could have gone? The remainder of the discussion considered these questions, as both panelists and audience members struggled with the underlying themes of balance, between the advances made possible by technology, and the consequences that are too often unnoticed until too late.