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December 9, 2009

Today, I’m wandering over to the Dark Side.
Anxiety and technology are a potent mix. They will enable great things—from allowing consumers to make more-informed decisions to giving citizens the tools to hold their elected leaders more accountable. The same mix can produce explosive harm. In fact, for every pro-social application of the new technologies there are a like number of anti-social ones.
• The online database technologies that allow citizens to get more data than ever before on pollutants in their communities are equally useful for giving violent vigilantes access to the home addresses of doctors who provide abortions.
• The video and photo sharing tools that allow activists to bring human rights abuses out of the shadows are equally valuable to networks of pedophiles lurking in the shadows.
• The filtering technologies that allow us to customize our news feeds are equally effective for screening out views we don’t share and facts we don’t want. “The Polarization of Extremes,” by law professor and Obama official Cass Sunstein, is an excellent brief on how this self-sorting is likely to accelerate the hyperpartisanship that has hamstrung our political system. “When people end up in enclaves of like-minded people,” he writes, “they usually move toward a more extreme point in the direction to which the group’s members were originally inclined.”
• The “Augmented Reality” technologies that are starting to give iPhone users stunning arrays of information to enhance what they see in front of them (my favorite example is the iPhone app Star Walk) will also be used to polarize and Balkanize us. Jamais Cascio explores the harmful potential of AR in a recent issue of The Atlantic. He warns that once facial recognition software improves, we are likely to have AR applications that people can use to see which people in a room gave money to a particular candidate or cause. “It won’t take a majority of people using [it] to poison public discourse,” Cascio wrote. “Imagine this summer’s town hall screamers on constant alert, wherever they go.”
• The message boards and social networking sites that allow consumers to report on faulty products or blow the whistle on unethical corporate practices are equally useful for inciting violence and ruining careers. A recent law review article by University of Maryland Law Professor Danielle Keats Citron is packed with chilling accounts of how Web 2.0 technologies have made it easy for people to form digital mobs that hide behind anonymous online identities the way Klansmen hid behind their white hoods. These mobs prey on individuals—often women—with “a destructive combination of threats, damaging statements aimed to interfere with their employment opportunities, privacy invasions, and denial-of-service attacks.”
In this new era, the problem is not that we’re bowling alone, to borrow Robert Putnam’s famous metaphor. The problem is that we’re increasingly bowling only with those who think exactly the way we do—and we have ever more effective ways of finding and demonizing those who don’t.
In my next posts, I’ll return to the Sunny Side and suggest proactive ways that foundations can maximize the good and minimize the harm that can be done with the new tools and technologies.
Tuesday’s post: The Transparency Revolution.
Monday’s post: The Inevitability of Transparency.

Mario Morino