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  • NOTE: This longish story rolls up three postings for a blog I am considering starting. Each would be posted separately. The blog will explore psychological, societal, economic, environmental and other upshots of assorted technological developments. If you've read any of my stories about high technology, you know me to be a skeptic. Whether you agree with my opinions or not, you have my sincere thanks for your patience with my reports, satires, and polemics. To help me move this project along, I would greatly appreciate your reactions, not just to this story's content but also to my premise and the name of the blog.


    Technoquences: uncontrolled consequences of creating, deploying, and adopting technological innovations.


    So Long Secrets


    On a downtown street, just as you walk past a gay bar, your iPhone displays a cute male stripper. A few paces later you glance upwards and see an electronic billboard advertising a lingerie sale at Macy's. Funny thing, you were planning to stop by to look for a bra. Then the sign morphs to advertising ale at O'Rourke's pub, where you and your friends had decided on Facebook to meet in about an hour.




    It isn't serendipity; it's technoquences. This and a whole lot more is what you can look forward to in the next few years, thanks to the many miracles of information technology. We learn in preschool that it's nice to share, and so we do because information technology makes it painless. Unlike sharing a lunch, sharing data doesn't mean giving any of it up, so we can be as generous as we like.

    We are much more generous than we realize. Every time we share information with someone we know, somebody we don't know has or can get it. Consider an Irish bloke named Leigh Van Bryan who, before taking a holiday in LA in 2012 with his girlfriend, shared on Twitter "Free this week for quick gossip/prep before I go and destroy America" (British slang for partying hard). At LAX the couple was welcomed by FBI agents, interrogated for five hours, and sent home. Of course, tweets are out there for all to see. Still, had Van Bryan uttered that in a private email or text message, something like that probably would have happened to him too.

    In the new millennium, virtually your entire life is an open book. No document you put in the cloud actually belongs to you; it's the property of your service provider and can be data-mined and disclosed to third parties without your consent (actually, you did consent when you accepted the service agreement). Should such a party be a government agency, by law you are not even allowed to know it happened. Google Drive is just that: Google's, not your drive. Back up your computer files on removable storage devices (and then remove them), not there—unless you don't care where they go to visit.

    I've been a technologist of sorts for most of my life. One thing I have learned is to eschew early adoption. My Dad used to tell me to never buy the first year's model of a car, and I followed his advice. In fact, only one in the ten cars I have owned did I buy new. I bought the computer I use in 2012 but it was made in 2009, and I maintain its operating system one version behind the newest one. My cell phone is quite primitive. I try never to put fruits of the newest advances in food science into my mouth. In short, I abide by being retro.

    But I digress. Knowledge of pervasive online surveillance really isn't power, unfortunately. It may in fact cause one to feel victimized and powerless. But it can also prompt us to rethink our relationships with our gadgets and our habits. The next time a new gadget, system or app makes you want to exclaim "How cool is that!" wonder instead "How cool is that, really?"
  • Waves of Concern


    Besides compromising our privacy, as I recently discussed, technological changes can compromise our health, and there is little incentive for powers-that-be to inform us about possible risks. Because they happen so rapidly now, integrating technology's advances into our lives with due diligence keeps getting harder and harder. By by the same token, it is ever more necessary to do that to avoid getting overwhelmed, obsolesced, and variously victimized.




    Less than two centuries ago, technological innovation came slowly and was often viewed with suspicion. Now many people consider it vital for survival of our species. My great-grandparents could no longer assume that the world my grandparents would inhabit would be anything like their own. And so my parents came to expect and get more new stuff. The telephone was invented when my great-grandparents were adults. My mom got a cell phone when she was 85. Land line telephones have had a run of almost 150 years. Mobile phones have been around for less than 30 years, but will probably by superseded by devices embedded in our bodies before too long. We don't just witness change; we are change.

    Speaking of mobile phones...

    As I write this, there are five devices emitting high-frequency radio waves (RF) less than five feet from my body: a cell phone, a cordless phone, a computer, a router, and a wireless printer. Twenty feet away, two "smart" electric meters regularly emit 2 watts of microwave energy when they phone home. Nobody can tell me if this sum of radiation could affect me or even how. I would have to buy a broad-spectrum RF meter (starting just above $100) even to know how much RF energy I am getting. How many people are going to do that? The FCC sets emission standards for all RF-emitting devices, and even if most comply, put a few of them together and they may not. Some groups say the standards are far too lax and only address radio interference and skin damage. If that's all we need to worry about, why are people advised not to sleep next to their cell phones?

    How often do you think about side effects of things like microwaves, pesticide residues in foods, factory waste, carcinogens in plastics, or GMO crops? If you have tried to research such things you know that sorting out such matters is tough. The issues are pretty technical, and because of that too many people simply assume that potential harm to them has been taken into account and feel no need to know details about downsides. That laissez faire attitude is no accident; it has been deliberately cultivated. Powerful forces don't want us to know, government regulators are compromised not to be curious, and few journalists bother to investigate and sort out the issues for us. But at least some scientists do, and sometimes their research has good technoquences that has mitigated problems and fixed bugs in technologies. I'll look at how this can happen next time.
  • Global Warming Is a Gas


    Arguably the biggest technoquence of all time is what's called global climate change. It doesn't all come from burning hydrocarbons, but whatever its source it's stuff in the atmosphere that stresses the biosphere. Whatever earth events may have led to the dinosaurs' extinction were probably more dramatic, but we can unequivocally say that the dinosaurs didn't do it to themselves. Now that we're the big guys, it's different.




    We have in fact fixed the atmosphere before by stifling our waste products. Nitrogen oxides and particulates that power plants used to emit are now scrubbed, thanks to science-based public environmental policies. And when scientists noticed the layer of ozone in the stratosphere thinning near the poles, they identified the main causes of that ozone depletion (molecules called halocarbons, containing chlorine, fluorine or bromine, that convert ozone molecules into other compounds). They circulated their findings and mobilized to eliminate halocarbons that could enter the atmosphere from manufactured products.

    The science had been in place for more than a decade, but the discovery of the ozone hole in 1985 drove home the possible technoquences to many more people. Within another decade, national regulations and international agreements—with industry on board—were being put in place that banned halocarbon aerosols, solvents, and refrigerants. As a result, the ozone layer is slowly recovering and dire consequences may be avoided. (Did you know that whales get sunburn, just like people? Skin cancer too.) And besides zapping ozone, halocarbons are also powerful greenhouse gasses that heat the atmosphere when they react with ozone. Because we now produce less of them, the rate of global warming has slightly decreased. This goes to show that good science plus political will can lead to effective policies having multiple payoffs. Given how our political climate also has been heating up, it's less than likely that this kind of concerted action could happen again.

    Speaking of heating up...

    It's no wonder climate change is a contentious topic, and there are more than two sides in this controversy. You might be a true believer, a skeptic, a denier, not sure, have no opinion, or have never heard of it. Most informed people wouldn't deny that average global temperatures and the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere are rising. These are pretty incontrovertible scientific facts except for conspiracy theorists. (You know, the folks who claim that climate scientists are a worldwide cabal trying to mislead everyone so they can keep getting oodles of funding.)

    Even among those who agree that the earth is heating up, and even if they think that CO2 and other greenhouse gasses explain why, many still doubt that human activity primarily or substantially is driving climate change. If you wonder too, perhaps hundreds of climate scientists, 500,000 lines of code, and a supercomputer might convince you. More than 28 groups of scientists developed and then combined about 60 models of climate change, each one focused on a different aspect. The models simulated natural and human factors that can contribute to climate change, sharing data from 30 different experiments.

    The master model "hindcasted" trends backward from 2005 to 1880 (when average global temperature was 2° F colder than it is now) to estimate the impacts of specific causal factors on observed temperature changes over the 125-year span. I won't spoil the punch line, but take a look at this easy-on-the-eyes infographic from Bloomberg News that recaps the study's findings with simple graphs of key results. Every middle-schooler in the world should view these graphs, because they will be stuck holding the bag and this will make them want to know whom to blame for not doing more.

    The international community is successfully tackling the ozone problem. Why can't it roll up its sleeves to put the brakes on global warming? It's time for truth or technoquences.


    @image: A random but germane cartoon regurgitated from the Internet whose creator I could not determine.
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