By J. D. Fencer

In December 2018, John Browne, the former CEO of British Petroleum (BP), wrote in a Financial Times article, “On the one hand, coal, oil and gas have provided the fuel to power civilization. On the other hand, they risk destroying civilization if we don’t reduce their impact on the environment.” In those few words, he summed up humanity’s tentative relationship with nature. In a word, that relationship has always involved a trade-off.

Without a doubt, science and technology have improved the lives of billions of people. Many inventions and scientific discoveries, however, have dark sides. The Stone Age invention of arrow and spear heads greatly increased humans’ effectiveness at hunting animals for food, but also at killing each other. More recently, few people question the benefits to humanity of the Industrial Revolution. Yet the resultant mechanization enabled the mass slaughter of modern warfare, and most experts believe that the relentless growth of industry worldwide since the 19th century is a major cause today of global warming.

For centuries, the benefits of technological innovation and scientific discoveries seemed to outweigh any downsides. That perception changed in the middle of the twentieth century when scientists discovered how to split the atom. For the first time in history, the human race possessed the ability to annihilate itself.

Obviously, the annihilation of humanity is the ultimate potential downside of technology, and global nuclear conflagration the most extreme example. Climate change is a menace too, but on a different scale. It’s unlikely to threaten humans with extinction, but it could make life very difficult for large numbers of people in many places.

The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warns that if humanity continues on its present course, global temperatures could exceed 4 degrees above the pre-industrial-era average by the end of this century. If that happened, a huge part of the northern hemisphere south of the latitude of the North American Great Lakes would become semi-desert. The southern hemisphere would suffer a similar catastrophe. Countries would struggle to manage both the huge population displacement this would cause within their own borders as well as the millions of refugees fleeing their own country.

To avoid this disastrous scenario, and to mitigate the worst of the problems related to climate change, the IPCC stresses that the world must keep temperature increases to below 1.5 degrees above the pre-industrial-era average. That requires more measures to limit CO2 emissions than are currently in place.

Other technological developments pose different kinds of threats. The internet appeared at first to have the potential to greatly facilitate positive human advancement but has morphed into an insidious quasi-Orwellian surveillance and indoctrination system. In a kind of modern-day Faustian pact, it offers users great convenience and short-term gratification, but simultaneously all but eliminates personal privacy. In her 18th of January 2019 New York Times column, Kara Swisher writes “…the United States lacks any truly toothy privacy law. We don’t even pretend that we think privacy is something to be protected.”

In addition, the internet threatens people’s ability to make fully free and independent decisions. It has already enabled the undermining of democracy in many countries through targeted subliminal social media messaging and advertising, especially at election times, and the fomenting of dissent in some countries.

In the run-up to the so-called “Brexit” referendum in Britain in 2016, Cambridge Analytica, a consultancy company working for the Leave Campaign, covertly collected data from millions of Facebook users and their Facebook friends. By scientifically analyzing the data, the company was able to target individual British Internet users, i.e., voters, with bespoke advertisements advocating a “yes” vote in the referendum. Apart from such ruses, every day in numerous ways, the Internet helps hackers and online fraudsters rob people.

Some countries are starting to fight back. In 2018, the European Union (EU) enacted legislation to control how online organizations gather and exploit users’ data. To be fully effective, however, such constraints on online companies need to expand in scope as well as apply globally. Most experts believe that that’s unlikely to happen in the foreseeable future and will never happen in the many countries with authoritarian regimes.

Even those Internet-related laws that already exist only partially protect people’s privacy since most don’t apply to government security agencies, who all over the world both openly and covertly collect vast amounts of data on their own and foreign citizens. The average person has no idea what data is collected about them by commercial organizations, much less by law enforcement and intelligence services, and those agencies, by their nature, are not forthcoming with that information.

The whistleblower, Edward Snowden, gave the world a glimpse of how some democratic governments covertly monitor their own and foreign citizens. Many, perhaps most, people in western democracies are willing to put up with some infringements on their privacy in return for the considerable benefits of the internet, as well as enhanced national security. Many experts believe that this is false security because it assumes the authorities never use data illegally or abuse the data they collect. Snowden’s revelations exposed just how much some agencies bend their own countries’ laws.

Rogue elements exist in all human organizations including law enforcement agencies. A particular danger with digital data is that once it’s collected, it can exist indefinitely, is easily searchable, and can be used or misused at any time. The Internet does not threaten human life on Earth; it does, however, undermine each person’s privacy and degrades the quality of human life. As George Orwell highlighted in his novel 1984, without privacy, there is no freedom.

Science and technology have greatly benefited billions of humans and continue to do so. Their impact on medicine alone has resulted in cures for many illnesses and increased life expectancy. Blinded by the numerous benefits, however, most people hardly notice the considerable and very serious downsides.