Chapter 8: Social Acceptance

Even though a technology might be ready, tested, and reliable, its social acceptance is not obvious at all. Fear, uncertainty, doubt, ignorance, and special interests all converge to stifle innovation and the betterment of our lives. Take what is arguably the greatest revolution in the history of humanity: the Internet. An ocean of possibilities: democratisation of information, distributed free sharing of ideas, instant communication across the globe, the levelling of race and class; anybody, anywhere, has the same opportunity. That was the potential. The reality? A handful of companies control the essential services for accessing the Internet, and an equally small number of private corporations make up a very large portion of Internet traffic. Even though we have the technology and the capability to provide the world’s 7 billion people with free and unrestricted Internet access, only one third of the world is connected to the global mind.1

And even when the Internet manages to reach the people, things do not quite exactly go as expected. Politics should ensure freedom of speech, but attempts to censor the Internet are widespread and increasing around the world. A quick look at the 2011 edition of Freedom House’s report Freedom on the Net gives us a very depressing view. Of the 37 countries surveyed, 8 were rated as “free” (22%), 18 as “partly free” (49%), and 11 as “not free” (30%)2 . The study’s findings indicate that the threats to Internet freedom are growing and have become more diverse. Cyber attacks, politically motivated censorship, and government control over Internet infrastructure have emerged as especially prominent threats. And even among those few considered “free”, there is a catch. For example, the United States of America is supposedly “free”, but there is a long history of proposed federal and state laws that attempted to restrict access to certain websites and services, or to control people.3 Some of these laws began with good intentions, but they were easily distorted and taken advantage of. The latest flavour of these obscenities was called SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act), and together with its twin sister, the PROTECT IP Act (Preventing Real Online Threats to Economic Creativity and Theft of Intellectual Property Act of 2011; United States Senate Bill S.968), that gave the power to censor the Internet to the entertainment industry. Videomaker Kirby Ferguson explained it quite nicely4 :

“Protect-IP will not stop piracy but it will introduce vast potential for censorship and abuse, while making the web less safe and less reliable. This is the Internet we are talking about, it is a vital and vibrant medium and our government is tampering with its basic structure so people will maybe buy more Hollywood movies. But Hollywood movies do not get grassroots candidates elected, they do not overthrow corrupt regimes, and the entire entertainment industry doesn’t even contribute that much to our economy. The Internet does all these and more. Corporations already have tools to fight piracy. They have the power to take down specific content, to sue peer-to-peer software companies out of existence, and to sue journalists just for talking about how to copy a DVD. They have a history of stretching and abusing their powers. They tried to take a baby video off YouTube just for the music playing in the background. They have used legal penalties written for large scale commercial piracy to go after families and children. They even sued to ban the VCR and first MP3 players. So the question is: How far will they take all this? The answer at this point is obvious: as far as we will let them.”

On January 18, 2012, the English Wikipedia, Reddit, and another 7,000 other smaller websites coordinated a service blackout, to raise awareness against this madness. That day, more than 160 million people viewed Wikipedia’s banner; the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Google and many others collected several millions of signatures; many started to boycott companies that supported the legislation and a rally was held in New York City with thousands of activists.5 By pulling together our strengths and collective efforts we were able to kill this monstrosity, but they are already coming back with other equally (if not more disturbing) idiotic proposals.6

Politicians are not only ignorant of how basic things work whenever a technology is concerned, they also essentially act as representatives of corporations in government. To be more specific, their supposed ignorance allows them to have the paying lobbyists write the bills in the manner that most benefits our purported representatives true constituency - the corporations and their owners, who are not satisfied with the majority of the pie, but want the whole thing. This is a problem with allowing money to act as a form of ’free speech’. It is an arms race with more and more money trying to buy the ’right’ laws, and the people (corporations) who financially benefit from those laws, will always have more money to buy more laws.7 This is not a cynical view, nor it is a conspiracy hypothesis, it is a well-documented fact that the top 0.1% of the US earns half of all capital gains.8

As if this were not enough, politicians and big corporations are only a very small part of the problem. Studies have shown that the public’s ability to understand everyday problems and challenges is depressingly low. In the US about 87% of the people cannot even perform moderately complex tasks (such as reading and understanding a newspaper article about foreign affairs, compare two viewpoints in an editorial, read a graph, compare percentages) and 22% are functionally illiterate.9 The same goes for Italy, the United Kingdom, Belgium, Australia, Canada, and many other developed countries.10 It should come as no surprise if the public perception of complex issues is skewed. How can you expect at least 60% of the population to be informed and act responsibly, if more than 60% of the people do not even know what 60% means? Consider the issue of climate change (which the popular press likes to call “global warming”). For years it has been at the centre of debate in newspapers and political talks. As if it was a matter of opinion. As if journalists, politicians, economists or any other person who was not a climatologist had anything to say in this regard. For years people have debated and discussed, and presented “evidence” in favour and against the “theory of anthropogenic global warming”. In March 2010 a Gallup Poll revealed that 48% of Americans believed that “the seriousness of global warming is generally exaggerated”, up from 41% in 2009 and 30% in 2006.11 Similar frightening results in the UK and many other places.12 We know that climate change is happening, we know that we are largely responsible for it,13 and even the top climate sceptics admitted they were wrong to doubt global-warming data, confirmed by studies funded by the very people who denied climate change and wanted to disprove it.14 Yet, a combination of bad news reporting, political trash-talk, pseudoscience, and public ignorance make it still very hard for science to go forward.

Fear, uncertainty, doubt, and ignorance are major obstacles to the widespread acceptance of life-ameliorating technologies, but they are not the only ones. Consider the automated checkout lines at the supermarket. If properly developed, using the right implementation with an intuitive interface, it would speed up the process, reduce inefficiencies, stress, but, of course, will displace millions of people.

Finally, there are other reasons why automation will not displace the totality of the workforce, even in those areas where it potentially could. Consider a restaurant. Some people think that a restaurant is a place where you eat, and that is what you pay for. Wrong. Such is the description of a fast-food line. In a restaurant, you pay for the experience of eating a good meal, you pay for the whole context, not just the meal itself. If they were to serve scrumptiously delicious food, but they had shit on the floor, you would most certainly ask for a refund, or walk away entirely. When you enter a restaurant, you expect to be given a pleasant context in which to enjoy your meal. The quiet atmosphere as you enter, the warm lights as you sit down at the table, the waiter who welcomes you and offers a suggestion on the wine to choose; all of these are elements that count in creating a compelling experience. Eliminating the human element from this picture may be harder than some technology enthusiasts like to think. People enjoy the company of other human beings, they like to empathise with them, hear and tell stories, exchange interests and different viewpoints. Even though the interaction you might have with a waiter is very limited, it could be nonetheless very compelling, and one of the reasons you decided to go to a high class restaurant instead of a fast food. Picture now a holographic image of beautiful lady, who knows all of our interests, remembers when we came in last time, with whom, and ask questions accordingly, always with a gentle voice. This is an example often given by techno-geeks in favour of automation,15 but I do not think that many people would be very happy with that – at least not for a while.

As you can see, the process of acceptance for any scientific evidence, disruptive technology, or anything that may change our way of living is not linear and predictable. Many obstacles are in the way, and opposition may come from all directions, for a variety of reasons.

With this in mind, let us analyse the whole workforce as it currently stands, and project into the future the possible consequences that accelerating technological change could bring.

Notes

1 INTERNET USAGE STATISTICS. The Internet Big Picture. World Internet Users and Population Stats.
http://www.internetworldstats.com/stats.htm

2 Freedom on the Net 2011 – A Global Assessment of Internet and Digital Media Freedom, 2011. Freedom House.
http://www.freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-net/freedom-net-2011

3 Internet censorship in the United States. Wikipedia.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Internet_censorship_in_the_United_States

4 PROTECT IP / SOPA Breaks The Internet, Kirby Ferguson, 2012.
http://vimeo.com/31100268

5 Stop Online Piracy Act. Wikipedia.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stop_Online_Piracy_Act

6 Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement What is ACTA?. Electronic Frontier Foundation.
https://www.eff.org/issues/acta

7 Extracts from the Slashdot discussion on SOPA, 2012. Slashdot.
http://tech.slashdot.org/story/11/12/16/1943257/congresss-techno-ignorance-no-longer-funny

8 The Top 0.1% Of The Nation Earn Half Of All Capital Gains, Robert Lenzner, 2011. Forbes.
http://www.forbes.com/sites/robertlenzner/2011/11/20/the-top-0-1-of-the-nation-earn-half-of-all-capital-gains/

9 A nationally representative and continuing assessment of English language literary skills of American Adults, National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NAAL). National Center for Education Statistics.
http://nces.ed.gov/naal/kf_demographics.asp

10 Human Development Report 2009: Overcoming barriers: Human mobility and development, 2009. United Nations Development Programme.
http://hdr.undp.org/en/media/HDR_2009_EN_Complete.pdf

11 Americans’ Global Warming Concerns Continue to Drop, 2010. Gallup.
http://www.gallup.com/poll/126560/americans-global-warming-concerns-continue-drop.aspx

12 Climate scepticism ’on the rise’, BBC poll shows, 2010. BBC.
http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/8500443.stm

13 Climate change: How do we know?. NASA.
http://climate.nasa.gov/evidence/

14 Climate Change Skeptic Results Released Today, 2011. Slashdot.
http://news.slashdot.org/story/11/10/31/1255205/climate-change-skeptic-results-released-today

15 Robotic Nation, Marshall Brain.
http://marshallbrain.com/robotic-nation.htm


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