Technology Giveth, and It Taketh Away

With great power comes great responsibility.

Dentistry has become a high-tech profession over the years — a long way from swigging “anesthetizing” whiskey just before someone yanked out your tooth with a pair of pliers. My dentist’s office is replete with digital X-rays, massage chairs, noise-canceling headphones, and several ways to kill the pain. Although it’s easy to feel I’m the chief beneficiary of these technologies, they are a competitive necessity for my dentist. Because of them, I’m more willing to come in, spend more money, and most important for her, recommend her at the expense of other dentists.

It used to be that if I loved or hated my dentist, only a small number of people would ever know. But the Web has put the power of the press in the hands of everyone. As Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin might proclaim, any Joe Six-Pack has the stature of the cultural elite. Good-bye tyranny of a few experts. Hello tyranny of mob authority.

That said, there’s more at work with improved techno-logy than a simple leveling of power among people, corporations, and governments. From the time our ancestors crafted the spear to give them advantage over animals and enemies, better tools and expertise have never been a simple neutralizer. They have always been the handmaiden of power: Use technology to maintain authority and the status quo, or use it to acquire the strength to upend the status quo. Now that technological advancements occur so rapidly, these power shifts are increasingly unpredictable.

In a recent online dustup, for example, a disgruntled customer posted a scathing (and possibly libelous) review of his San Francisco chiropractor on Yelp, leading to a year-long dispute involving the threat of lawsuits. Ultimately, the two parties settled out of court, but the patient and self-appointed Yelp reviewer, Christopher Norberg, was clearly stung by the inadvertent result of his posting.

“I regret leaving myself so wide open,” he said to a reporter during the media flurry after the event. “Had I known the outcome, I might have taken a couple of days to think about what I could say, but it’s Yelp. I experience something, go home and write about it while it’s fresh in my mind, then I don’t think about it again. If I’d waited a couple of days, I might not have put anything up.”

Unfortunately, Norberg learned the hard way what every sci-fi novel fan already knows: With great power comes great responsibility. Yelp and the Web technologies associated with it afford great power to its users, who impulsively post reviews and in doing so feel a mixture of anonymity and control. Norberg, however, got more than he bargained for.

If there’s a lesson to be learned here, it’s that technology can control us as much as it can unchain us, and history bears this out. The Luddites of the early 19th century smashed newly introduced mechanized looms not because they were against technology, but because they were against the power shift that mechanization caused. This led to Karl Marx’s ideas about how technology is used by capitalism to control the masses so they can be easily exploited for production and consumption. In the 19th century, the power of technology moved primarily in one direction, enhancing the power of the status quo. However, today the situation is more nuanced and, thankfully, more egalitarian (if more chaotic). As Nike and Kathy Lee Gifford both learned, the technologies of mass communication used to promote their clothing can just as easily be turned against them to publicize the sweatshops making their products.

The French philosopher and social critic Michel de Certeau, writing in the late ’70s, was superficially in the Marxist mold, but he pushed the argument away from a simplistic worker/tyrant mentality. He was the first to advocate the use of the word user to replace consumer because it implies the power to wield technology as an individual and not just ingest it passively. Certeau also recognized that there are ways for laypeople to exploit technology.

“It is that which happens beneath technology and disturbs its operation…,” he writes in The Practice of Everyday Life. “This is technology’s limit.”

We can all get a good laugh out of pimply teenagers sticking it to The Man with their BitTorrent downloads, but if only it were that simple. The Yelp debacle is a relatively harmless reminder that when we’re handed something that can cause harm, we need to be respectful of its capabilities and circumspect in our use of it. There are other, more recent examples of far more egregious acts of technological exploitation.

In his book The Lexus and the Olive Tree, Thomas Friedman used the term “Super-Empowered Angry Man” for someone who combines rage with technology to advance his goals in a way heretofore impossible. Friedman writes, “In the Cold War system, a Super-Empowered Angry Man — a Hitler or a Stalin — needed to take control of a state in order to wreak havoc on the world. But today’s Super-Empowered Angry Man, or Woman, can use the powers embedded in globalization to attack even a superpower.” Using laptops, cell phones, email, and air travel, these people seek to destroy the very system that created the technologies enabling their attacks. And who, according to Friedman, is the quintessential Super-Empowered Angry Man harnessing technology for ideological ends? It’s Osama bin Laden.

Adam Richardson is a creative director in frog’s San Francisco studio.