Balancing the good and the bad

By Ken Hanley

IS Guerrilla

Another note from our tech support guys went around the global network last week, warning of yet another virus that we had to watch out for. It told us what we all had to “urgently” do to “protect corporate assets” from its insidious effects.

It struck me how amazing it was that so much information could be delivered to everyone in the organization, around the world, in such a short period of time.

And there you have it in one 30-second period: the good and the bad of the technologies we advocate and support.

But it goes deeper than that, to more important societal questions. Those with little tolerance for philosophical posturing should stop reading right now.

Do you remember reading Being Digital a few years back? It was Nicholas Negroponte’s (early Net advocate, MIT and Wired guy) thoughtful look at what the implication of the digital representation of almost all information would mean in the future.

In one chapter, Negroponte argued for the empowering ability of the Internet to bring people with common interests together, to break down the barriers of isolation that geography and distance creates, to create what we’ve come to call the virtual community.

Not hard to imagine a 16-year-old kid on a remote farming community filled with uncertainty and confusion because he seems to be the only one in his small town who is more interested in other guys than the girls he sees around him. Most likely he would find no one in his small town to talk about it with, and without a connection to the broader world he’d probably feel entirely alone.

Let’s hear it for the Internet, through which our kid would be able to find out that there are others just like him around the world. And maybe he could find reputable Web sites where he could get answers to his questions.

And there’s the good: building virtual communities and conduits of information and support around the world.

Now to ugly, and it’s the flip side of the same enabling power of connection.

Negroponte anticipated the ability to customize a daily, Internet-delivered newspaper that focused just on what was of interest to the reader. If I was just interested, for example, in news on the Middle East, Latvian politics, Formula One racing, and how my beloved New Zealand All Blacks rugby team is doing, I could easily filter out anything else I didn’t care to see, and have Web crawlers bring back everything on my subjects of interest, that had changed since I “published” my last edition.

As good as this sounds, this customization of news also allows us to cut ourselves off from the world at large, from the forum of public debate and opinion, from a broad view of the world that we see in newspapers.

Sure, our papers variously lean to the left or right (or in the case of Canada, the ‘middle’ and the ‘right’), but we can be assured that when we pick up the Winnipeg Free Press, for example, that tens of thousands of people are seeing the same thing we are – we may not like everything in that paper but a common point of reference forces us into the realm of public debate and exposure to a wide range of opinions.

On the other hand, I may want my “Daily Me” to only deliver information that supports my dangerous and bigoted views of the world: I could set my filters to only bring back information that, say, supports my bias against minorities.

That would be ugly, but absolutely possible with Internet and Web crawler technology.

My point? I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: we IT types should be careful not to become unrestrained advocates or apologists for the technology we use and support. Like tequila, nuclear fission or Tabasco sauce, it can be used for good or evil.

Hanley is an IS professional in Calgary. He can be reached at