• United States

Unintended consequences

Jun 16, 20034 mins
Enterprise Applications

When technologies such as cloning or stem cell therapy come up, America’s getting smart – we usually don’t ask whether we can do it but rather if we should. We seem to have learned that technologies like these most likely will cause problems we don’t expect.

This view is elegantly framed by the Law of Unintended Consequences, which can be summarized “the result of our actions is almost never what we intend.”

But it’s not just the consequences of these groundbreaking technologies that we should be concerned about; there are plenty of less obvious technologies of which we should be just as wary.

Do you remember in the movie “Minority Report” the displays in the stores that recognized people and directed a personalized message at them such as: “Welcome back, Bob. Because we’re pleased to see you again for today only you get 10% off anything in power tools!”?

The technologies to make this possible are, whether you like it not, just around the corner. A company just demonstrated what it calls a Hypersonic Sound System that can project an audio zone about 12 inches in diameter over a couple of hundred feet. In that zone you can hear the projected sound with incredible clarity despite noisy surroundings.

How about those amazing displays? Many companies are working on Organic Light-Emitting Diodes, which can be used to create huge, cheap, flexible displays that can even be wrapped around curved surfaces.

The consequences of these technologies will be less peace and more noise, less elegance and more stimulation, less experience and more image. Don’t like this scenario? Tough. Cities are going to get even uglier, and it can’t be stopped.

GPS required

Here’s another application of technology that could be dreadful in its consequences: There is a proposal by the Oregon Department of Transportation to require cars in the state to have Global Positioning Systems (GPS) installed so the state can log who went where, and then impose a road-use tax.

The reason is Oregon’s gasoline tax revenue is falling and rather than increase that tax (which would be immensely unpopular), they’d like to find a new source of funds.

There are many good reasons to look for greater information about car use. Given the scale of our country and the size and mobility of the population there’s no doubt that a lot of crime could be prevented or solved if we knew the detailed movements of vehicles.

But what other questions could be asked of the proposed Oregon system other than how far did Bill Smith travel on state roads? How about, where has Bill Smith been and when? What other cars were in the same area as Smith’s? What route did he take? How fast was he going – oh, 70 in a 55 zone? We’ll send him a ticket! And where is he now? Next thing we know lawyers will be subpoenaing the GPS data for divorce cases.

Driving is not a right but a privilege so there’s a lot of logic in greater regulation of vehicle use. But those pesky issues of privacy and liberty are involved, and the mismatch between our need for law and order and what we think of as our freedoms make such logic difficult to defend.

So would I object to one of these systems reporting on my driving? You bet! I have nothing to hide but I simply don’t trust my fellow man – particularly in the guise of raving bureaucrats – to be fair, honorable, discreet and respectful of my privacy. And there’s no amount of technology that’s going to change that.

Cries of “mind your own business” to


Mark Gibbs is an author, journalist, and man of mystery. His writing for Network World is widely considered to be vastly underpaid. For more than 30 years, Gibbs has consulted, lectured, and authored numerous articles and books about networking, information technology, and the social and political issues surrounding them. His complete bio can be found at

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