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Technology's Dark Underbelly

Mar 31 2010
A non-Luddite asks how media saturation shapes our minds and hearts.

When news broke that a Pennsylvania school district was using laptop computers to spy on students in their own homes, I did what seemed the only logical thing to do: I panicked. In a world where airports can view detailed images of passengers' naked bodies in the name of security, I confess I often wonder how long it will be until I find myself sitting in Room 101, tracing patterns in the dust and idly scrawling 2+2=5.

Initially intended as an anti-theft device, the laptops that Lower Merion school district was giving to high school students contained the capability to snap a picture, remotely, should the laptop ever be stolen. School officials reported their ability to recover missing computers in a meeting with school board members, but they didn't specify how.

Unresolved questions about the laptop scandal, dubbed "Webcamgate," prompted Senator Arlen Specter (D-PA) to hold a special hearing to investigate the topic of students and remote-tracking software. When the school decided to hand out laptops with anti-theft software installed, "it had no intention of dragging Congress into a national debate about wiretapping laws and webcams," Ars Technica's Nate Anderson wrote, "but that's exactly what it got."

InfoWorld's Robert X. Cringely notes that, even when the laptop scare is resolved, it will not be the end of the story: "The unintended consequences of technology can come back and bite you." The real issue is not whether laptops were used to spy on students; it's that they could have been used to do so. The technology was readily available, so that all the school, or any other nefarious user, had to do was switch it on.

The "new frontier" of technology is in the news so often it's nearly clichfamp;copy;. We know that everything from menu-planning to navigation is different in this Brave New World. But I wonder, in light of the recent technology-motivated scandal, if frequent exposure to these sorts of headlines has made us blasfamp;copy; about technology's implications for culture and the future of humanity.

I'm by no means a Luddite; I've embraced much of the technological revolution, and I appreciate its power to be used for good ends, or, simply, to make my life slightly easier. My 1-year-old son fell asleep in his car seat this morning, and rather than unbuckle him to bring him in the house and wake him up when I had to leave again shortly, I parked the car in the driveway and grabbed my laptop so I could work, in the car, while he snoozed. I appreciate the technology that allows me to write, save, edit, and send this post to my editor when it is finished, all without waking my son.

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