Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski spoke on Monday, Dec. 5, to an audience that had assembled to witness the swearing in of the United States Holocaust Memorial Council, of which he is the chairman.
In his speech, Genachowski related thehorrific struggles of his ancestors as they escaped Nazi oppression in Europe at the beginning of World War II. But as moving as his speech was, he also delivered a warning about the misuse of technology today.
Genachowski noted that the Nazis, who at the height of their power during World War II occupied or otherwise controlled most of continental Europe, applied the latest available technology to round up, catalog and exterminate political opponents and ethnic groups that were the focus of their racial hatred, including Jews and Gypsies. While the Germans were well-known for their mastery of technology and industrial efficiency, the fact was that mastery was in itself perverted, Genachowski said.
“The Holocaust proves many sad truths,” Genachowski said. “One is that modernity is not an inoculation against genocide. The pillars of modernity-technology and science-are powerful forces. They were perverted for evil by the Nazis, but technology and science are also sources of unlimited hope, opportunity and transformative change.”
Genachowski’s hope is that these positive aspects of technology and science can be used to fight this perversion. “We must fight so that technology is used to shine a light on oppression and intolerance, to illuminate persecution and dehumanization, to take oppression and mass murder out of the shadows,” he added.
If this sounds a lot like the famous Google unofficial motto of “Don’t Be Evil,” it is. Genachowski is calling for a level of responsibility by people and companies, and for the use of technology to hold accountable those who conduct their business in a way that is evil or exploitive. Sadly, the fear that technology will be used to commit evil acts is well-founded.
Author Edwin Black, who chronicled how Germany used technology to commit genocide, is now researching how this is happening in the present day. Black said he suspects that the fight to prevent the perversion of technology around the world may already be lost.
Black points to tracking technology that will allow anyone with a wireless phone to be located indoors or out and to the vast collection of data that can be mined to find out nearly anything that can be found out about a person.
Technology Being Perverted by Contemporary Despots
Black points to Carrier IQ as just the latest means of spying on people and latest perversion of technology. “We need to be afraid,” Black said. “The Internet is corralling, and has the ability not to set you free but to make you captive.”
That captivity is and has always been the goal of oppressors, whether they were the Nazis of the mid 20th century or the contemporary despots who would shut off the Internet to prevent this year’s Arab Spring. But that captivity can always be broken, at first a little, as the trickles of information, text messages and voice-over-IP calls demonstrated that Egypt and other repressive regimes can’t really cut off the Internet.
Genachowski, speaking in January 2010 at the 65th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, pointed out that the Nazis fought to shut off the flow of information, just as the dictators who run many of the countries in the Middle East do today. “We know that for the Nazis, control of the flow of information was an imperative,” Genachowski said. But the same thing can just as easily be perpetrated today by those who would control information so that they can have their way with the people they seek to control.
Unfortunately, the quest to control the flow of information goes beyond oppressive governments. So likewise does the quest to gather, catalog and sequester information. That information, which in many cases started out as freely available facts, now often resides in the information mines of corporations that want to know just a little more about us. They want to know where we shop, how we spend our money, where we travel and where we are at any moment. Often these same organizations that are gathering and using this information are loath to share that fact with the very people whose information they gather.
While those organizations are many, and while they gather this information for many reasons, sometimes claiming that they’re doing us a favor, they gather it nonetheless. Once the information is gathered, it’s saved, and more information is added to it, until whoever is doing the gathering knows all there is to know about you. But will they tell you? Not if they can avoid it.
And this is why the reaction to the secretive gathering of information has been so strong. A year ago, Apple was pilloried for recording the places some of its users went. Now it’s Carrier IQ coming under fire for stealthily gathering personal mobile communication data without the knowledge or consent of phone users. Companies like these take advantage of the free flow of information, but they don’t reciprocate in terms of being open about the data collection or by asking permission to do it.
Perhaps it’s time that we find a way to take that bright light Chairman Genachowski speaks about to shine on what they’re doing.