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Tailoring Technology to our Needs

By Sarah Finley

The brutally unsophiscated attacks of Sept. 11 using three hijacked jet airliners gave Americans a stunning glimpse at the susceptibility of our proud technological developments to unforeseen use. A logical response has been to increase security measures through technology development and legislative actions. Although this will help in efforts to thwart future perversions, technology infrastructures will always be somewhat vulnerable due of their construction in a free and open society.

Vulnerability is not the only problem facing U.S. technology. There are broader social issues, which the United States also approaches with new technology or legislation. No matter what is applied or enacted, however, these issues are just as likely to arise as vulnerability. Instead of patching up the networks with better technology or tougher laws each time a repair is in order, we would be better off considering alternative infrastructure designs that can better manage science and technology in our society.

Consider the following social issue with our current relationship with information and communication technology. Internet surfing, e-mail correspondence and universal database access are absolutely invaluable today. These technologies allow information exchange at rates once unimaginable. Soon, if not already, our perceived need for technological developments will crystallize into pure necessity.

This technological dependence, however, is quite precarious. One hit to an integral part of the network can shutdown any to all of this information exchange. A computer virus like the recent "Goner" virus is a perfect example. It was strategically released to corrupt computers across the nation and successfully prevented many of us from going on with business as usual. In response, those affected ran security software to remove the virus and hoped to get through the day without another stint of infection.

Most Americans would like to limit these threats from and to technology and if possible, totally eradicate them. However, these incidents are inevitable as wrongdoers learn the latest techniques to disrupt everyday tasks that depend on technology. We must ask: What kind of arrangement between society and technology could effectively manage unavoidable threats, and also allow us to benefit from technology?

Clearly, new technology and new laws cannot exclusively handle the task. An arrangement between technology and society that is growing in popularity involves a significant change in the structure of technology networks such as energy grids. By dividing these transnational and regional networks into small, sustainable networks at the community level, individual needs are better served. Furthermore, by disengaging from extensive networks, these communities are equipped to defend against the effects of national catastrophe. Without a doubt, decentralized infrastructures would be costly, but so is the price of united vulnerability, as Sept. 11 demonstrated.

There are also democratic grounds for alternative technology infrastructures. As networks expand, there is a respective decrease in the power of individuals to influence future decisions of technology. As a result, we see the development of organizations with the mission to collect these voices and challenge the network operators when society is not sufficiently served. While these organizations have successfully assisted individuals and communities, their mere presence should be a warning sign.

Science and technology infrastructures are too large and complex to address the unique and important concerns of individual citizens. Small-scale technology networks can account for citizen views in decision-making processes. These are networks that are designed to not only address individual needs, but also to maintain our right to representation in decisions with national implications, and the design has proven effective.

The establishment of public power utilities in over 2,000 communities nationwide confirms that small-scale networks are both feasible and successful. If we hope to use technology for the betterment of society, the United States must take more drastic steps than increasing security or developing more technology. A fundamental redesign into smaller, socially compatible infrastructures that truly accounts for the interest of communities is due.

These alternative structures will do more than better manage problem areas; they will empower Americans with the means to address unique concerns and foster the creation of resilient, convivial communities. With all of these privileges recently challenged and the integral role of technology in society today, there seems no better time to start rebuilding than now

This article first appeared as a guest column in the Daily Hampshire Gazette on December 28, 2001.