Without a doubt, some of the most useful and creative technologies have originated in the imagination of some geek (the word is used affectionately), in pursuit of “cool.”
So have some of the most vexing of unintended consequences.
It seems like it is a natural law that for every breakthrough, there is also a breakdown. At first, I bought into the grand vision of the Internet as the ultimate, egalitarian tool for the democratization of information. Set it free, was my attitude.
Today, I think that society has fallen behind technology, and I could use a time out to catch up.
We often embrace new technologies with scant appreciation of their ramifications.
For example, when peer-to-peer file sharing protocol was developed, the goal was to facilitate the exchange of digital information. That it did very well, but it also enabled the virtually unpreventable piracy of copyrighted materials.
Two recent legal initiatives in Washington state represent society’s attempts to correct, or at least marshal some unintended technological consequences.
First, the Washington state Supreme Court found that it is permissible for libraries to install filters on public computers to prevent access to objectionable sites. Admittedly, filters are imperfect and can mask legitimate sites, and I confess that the civil libertarian within me cringes a bit, but this is a common sense solution that is solidly based upon widespread public consensus.
It doesn’t deny a person’s right to view those sites; it just prohibits it in certain public environments. It’s like saying, “I don’t mind if you smoke, just not in my house.”
Second, in March the governor signed a law making cell phone use or text messaging while driving a primary offense. Studies have documented that distracted driving is dangerous, even though by my casual observation, if you drive through the length of Cooper Point Road in the middle of any day of the week, you’ll encounter at least a half-dozen unabashed violators.
I’ve heard some people argue that cell phone use anywhere is their “right,” constituting free speech.
They confuse the media with the message. It’s a matter of public safety, not an attempt to stifle.
In many ways, what we often refer to as common sense in the antithesis of technological “cool.”
Somewhere in between, though, the legal system is gradually evolving to address those niggling unintended consequences. The vision of a free and open Internet, governed by common sense rule of law, is one that I can live with.
Gregg Sapp is a freelance writer and a member of the Pacific Northwest Science Writers’ Association. A member of The Olympian’s Board of Contributors, Sapp can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.