Paranoiac [par-uh-noi-ak]: A tendency on the part of an individual or group toward excessive or irrational suspiciousness and distrustfulness of others
If you’ve followed the entertaining saga of former White House communications chief Anthony “The Mooch” Scaramucci, you’ll be familiar with the term “paranoiac.” Apparently the Mooch thinks ex-Chief of Staff Reince Priebus is one.
The question is: Am I one, too?
Recently my colleague Paul wrote that he’d be perfectly happy to have a microchip implanted in his body if it made his life easier.
I disagree, to put it mildly. Does that make me a paranoiac, a Luddite … or prescient?
Privacy or Convenience?
Three Square Market, a Wisconsin company that makes self-checkout gear for corporate and prison cafeterias, recently started implanting microchips in its employees.
The company claims it’s doing this to make life easier for those employees. They won’t have to use cash or cards to pay for snacks, enter a password in their computer, or use a key or card to unlock doors.
All they must do is consent to a rice-sized radio-frequency ID (RFID) microchip in their hand.
(A skeptic might argue that this exercise is really a form of viral marketing — by creating a media stir, it attracts attention and business. It might just work … especially in the prison warden market, where such technologies are the stuff of dreams. But I digress.)
This has led to a big outcry. Paul feels this is wrong: He says initial resistance to innovative technology is always misguided:
… I’m skeptical of media stories that question new technology that can make our lives better … especially when it comes to something that’s as frequent as paying for things, like how RFID chips are being used. … The bottom line for me on this is that there is a revolution brewing in financial technology. And it’s clear that many people are ready to throw off old ways in terms of paying for things in order to have greater convenience, and the freedom of being able to do things without a wallet or a form of payment.
Paul says: “… When you look back at history, the pessimists have been utterly and completely wrong on technological developments.” He cites initial skepticism attending the invention of printing, email and Facebook, which critics thought would make us crazy, stupid and immoral, respectively.
No Such Thing as a Neutral Technology
It’s true that people have worried about the impact of new technologies throughout history. Usually those initial concerns turn out to be unfounded … at least when considered over a long enough time frame.
But technologies do change us … usually in unforeseen ways.
Consider Paul’s examples:
- The invention of printing enabled mass communication, disrupting Europe’s socio-political order and resulting in the fragmentation of Christendom and the collapse of feudalism.
- Email may not be worse than marijuana, but it has radically transformed the way we communicate, both qualitatively (“IMHO”) and quantitatively. (“Inbox bankruptcy” is an actual thing.)
- I happen to agree that Facebook has made us less moral, at least politically. The initial worry was that rapid information flows would eliminate time for introspection. Whether that’s true or not, nobody can deny social media’s role in self-segregating society ideologically, giving rise to ever more extreme political opinions and making democracy increasingly unworkable.
The Science of the Possible
In my writings, I’ve consistently argued that as technologies change, so too do the principles that govern the use of that technology.
For example, the authors of the U.S. Constitution would undoubtedly consider the electronic surveillance practices of the U.S. government to be antithetical to that document. Most modern decision-makers, however, accept them because of their purported benefits for law enforcement, combating terrorism, etc.
Those benefits, of course, only became apparent once the technologies were invented — thus posing a brand-new moral and political question asking for an answer.
Predictably, those in power answered it in a way that meets their own interests, and found ways to justify their choice. That’s always how the emergence of new “benefits” from technological innovation leads to a shift in attitudes toward other things, like privacy and personal choice.
Crucially, however, these attitudinal changes depend on how power is distributed in society. After all, the rest of us have views on these matters too. The question is whether anyone at the top pays attention to us.
Electronic surveillance is attractive to unaccountable bureaucrats and politicians, who like the power it gives them (but quickly change their minds when they are the targets!).
Whether or not a technology like this is deployed for good or ill, however, depends on whether ordinary people like us are powerful enough to influence matters.
Right Idea, Wrong Time
This is precisely why I object to the implantation of microchips.
Any technology is as useful as the uses to which it is put.
If we lived in a society where I could be certain that implantable microchips would not be abused by powerful forces in the public and private sectors, I’d agree with Paul.
But we don’t.
We live in a society where an increasingly unaccountable corporate-government elite gets away with pretty much whatever it can. Good intentions are swamped by self-serving assessments of the “benefits” of innovative ways to erode our liberty.
That’s why I’m not getting a microchip … even if it makes paying for coffee a little less convenient.
I want to know what you think. Would you ever consider getting a microchip implanted in your body? Let me know in the comments section below, or you can send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Editor, The Bauman Letter