A researcher considers the dangers posed by technology and the ways in which users are increasingly unprepared for them.
The benefits of technology are too obvious to invite dispute, but an entire intellectual field has materialized to debate its pitfalls. Mitroff (Why Some Companies Emerge Stronger and Better from a Crisis, 2005) throws his hat into that already crowded ring with his own contribution, which focuses on the neglected perspective of risk management. The author contends that the world is increasingly plagued by torturously complex difficulties—“wicked problems”—that brook no easy solution and are typically embedded within a tangled skein of other challenges. The only proper approach is a relentlessly creative interdisciplinary methodology, but technology enthusiasts are rarely good at this. They blithely believe technology itself will solve every problem, and in their ardor for progress, fail to even see glitches when they arise. In addition, they tend toward “splitting,” the simplistically binary division of the world into dueling categories like good and bad, or hard and soft. Mitroff calls this the “Technological Mindset,” which dismissively ignores the possibility that technological advances can cause societal disruption. The author lucidly discusses a crisis management mindset as a healthy counterpoint as well as various schools of ethical analysis that could be useful in evaluating problems related to the social impact of technology. He also recommends the creation of a regulatory agency that audits every new invention’s social consequences, with that assessment a prerequisite for its commercial adoption.
Mitroff has a Ph.D. in engineering, and so is hardly a Luddite—embedded within his critique of technology is an earnest acknowledgment of its blessings. In addition, since 2006, he’s been a senior research affiliate at the Center for Catastrophic Risk Management, and his expertise in this area is beyond reproach. He thoughtfully dissects the way an obsession with technology has not only blinded many to its more troublesome features, but also has diminished what counts as rational analysis. But the book is freighted with needless digressions—Mitroff inexplicably manages to discuss the Islamic State group and gun control. He also includes an analysis of the Technological Mindset from the perspective of the Myers-Briggs Personality Test, which yields no additional clarity, and pauses to explain to readers the elemental principles of argumentation. He has a knack for finding the most ingeniously circuitous route to further expound on a point already well-made. And his recommendation for an FDA-like agency to make “Social Impact Assessments” of new technologies doesn’t seem thoroughly considered. He never addresses the obvious disadvantages of such onerous regulation—especially given the rate at which new technologies arise—or the details of the agency’s composition. He also never discusses with any specificity the rational principles of its judgments, a glaring omission given that this kind of issue forms the thematic spine of the author’s study. At one point, he confusedly suggests some of the agency’s members be children.
A provocative but rambling examination of technology’s perils.