The closer IT gets

It’s got to stop somewhere. At least, you’d think it would.

We use technology almost everywhere, including work and our personal lives. It’s become ever more pervasive as components are shrunk and inserted into mobile devices. We’ve seen companies like Xybernaut and IBM take things a step

further by creating PCs that are worn as head sets, bracelets and vests with machinery stitched inside. But with the news late last week that a family in the United States had voluntarily implanted themselves with computer chips to store their medical information, the concept of market penetration was taken to a deeper — and more disturbing — level.

The processors, called VeriChips, are designed by Applied Digital Solutions and are inserted in the human arm during a very brief operation that is performed while patients are under anesthetic. They will reportedly contain only telephone numbers and information about previous medications. The Jacobs family in Florida have apparently agreed to the procedure because the father, Jeff, has a long history of hospitalization due to cancer, a cash crash and a chronic eye disease.

Meanwhile, in the maternity wing, technology is allowing parents to virtually enter the womb. A company called Novint Technologies Inc. has reportedly created an application called e-Touch which replicates the sensation of touch through a stylus traced over the ultrasound image of a newborn child. Long before the birth, moms and dads everywhere may have the chance to preview the sensation of a one-on-one encounter with their child. At least one expectant couple is trying it out in Chicago.

Discussion of these sorts of developments in any kind of negative light can arouse scorn within the IT industry, where a notion of machine-driven “”progress”” is both accepted and tacitly demanded of everyone else. And yet, even with all the obvious benefits these hardware and software tools can bring, I can’t help but feel a slight chill pass through me when I learn about them. When I think of the VeriChip, I imagine Applied Digital Solutions being acquired one day, and shudder at the thought of how the “”Intel Inside”” slogan could be given a creepy new lease on life. On the face of it, there is nothing wrong in simulating the sensation of touching a fetus, but there is also something to be said for the delayed gratification of flesh-and-blood contact.

These technologies may be too young to be properly judged, but that doesn’t mean we lack a means of approaching such judgement. One of the best books on the subject comes not from an IT guru but an academic who admits he never uses e-mail. In Building a Bridge to the Eighteenth Century, Neil Postman argues that we may have a better chance of improving the future by taking an informed look at the past — specifically, the period of intellectual development commonly referred to as the Enlightenment. Drawing upon the theories of Voltaire, Benjamin Franklin, Jean-Jaques Rousseau and many others, he forms a list of questions to evaluate technology innovations. Some of them sound simple, but they serve as a highly useful starting point to open up a discussion of the pros and cons.

For example, he asks not only what the problem a technology is trying to solve is, but whose problem. What problems might be created because we have solved this problem? What sort of people and institutions might acquire special economic and political power as a result of technological change?

To merely rattle these off doesn’t do Postman’s ideas justice. He fleshes out each line of inquiry with examples of why they are important. As we continue to ask more from technology — and invite increased interaction with it — we would be remiss not to consider them if we don’t want to run the risk of researching and developing our way into a corner we can’t get out of. Answering these questions won’t be easy. But someone’s got to ask.

sschick@itbusiness.ca

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