Technology regulation for the public good

Feb 8, 2024
Futuristic glasses ( technology.

While global governments ponder on how to regulate ever evolving new technologies, it may be useful to draw a parallel view of two crucial developments of the last 130 years: radioactivity and digitalisation.

A comparison of the historical applications/consequences of radioactive and digital technologies reveals a common theme that may be important in developing regulatory policy and process. The comparison is shown here in a schematic table, Parallel View.

Parallel view table: Ethical applications decreasing order: 2-0
A – Radioactive technologies

B – Digital technologies

The common theme becomes apparent from the angle of cui bono: who benefits? From this angle, it is possible to establish a ranking of ethical applications — in the sense of ‘public good’ — for those two technologies. In broad brushes, this consideration becomes measurable, less precise but necessary to add to the more conventional profit and strategic values.

Over the years, we have experienced a range of technology applications: some wholly beneficial, others definitely harmful. The technology itself was neutral, but it turned up good or bad, depending on how it was applied and, fundamentally, for what purpose.

In the early 1900s, scientist Marie Curie discovered radioactivity, developed radioactive isotopes from the nucleus of particular atoms, and used them as analytical tools in life-saving applications. Her two Nobel Prizes showed to the world her purpose.

In the 1940s, on the largest scale possible, the US government built the first atom bombs by nuclear fission of radioactive material, thus fulfilling its goal of military superiority — an end still dangerously coveted by other countries.

Those are two extreme examples of good and bad technology applications. But, in the middle, ethical distinctions are more difficult. This middle ground, though, is where regulation is needed most. From the Parallel View table, we see that the bad(0) and the good (2) applications are unequivocal; the middle (1) is less so. In Digital Technologies, this is where the technology developers’ covert purpose and manipulation — especially of young minds — lie.

This is a topic I have widely researched in 2017/18 for my book DEVOLUTION: The Young Self in the Face of Technology. At the time, though, there wasn’t much evidence of the problems the new technologies might cause, especially in the young. Yet, my reasoning suggested otherwise.

So my approach was to go back to the basic biology of a young persons development. There is strong, widely reproduced evidence that the self is constructed through life experiences, filtered by perception, emotions and memory. These three functions are the main cogs in the self machine.

In the last decade these same functions have become the covert targets of social media and of other digital products such as video games, virtual and augmented reality. Whistleblowers and former executives of tech companies testified on this in no uncertain terms. Then, in the last few years, robust evidence has emerged, showing that virtual experiences have had some negative effects on those functions. The Parallel View table lists examples of these effects in the middle lane of the Digital Technologies.

The decade has seen an increase of those mental health conditions in young people. The phenomenon noted and studied, research has provided new, robust evidence of the link between excessive use of virtual media and mental health in young people.

The problem is serious and generational: letting it go undisturbed cannot be an option. We need regulation to limit the risks, to prevent or remediate the damage. It won’t be a simple task, and shouldn’t end with a law or directive. It needs to be an ongoing program, since technologies evolve and create ever new challenges. It must be conducted by experts, yet cannot be advised by the tech leaders who frequently visit government departments: they were part of the problem and benefit too much from inaction.

The governments’ portfolios regarding Technology need to grow in house, independent from tech propaganda, to oversee their right applications in society.

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