Opinion: Technology is a wild horse; harness it or it will trample us

Photo/Anna Rose Layden/The New York Times / Mark Zuckerberg, chief executive of Meta, addresses the audience during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on online child sexual exploitation on Capitol Hill in Washington on Jan. 31, 2024. Senators aggressively questioned executives from major tech companies, especially Meta and TikTok, while Mark Zuckerberg spoke directly to victims' families.
Photo/Anna Rose Layden/The New York Times / Mark Zuckerberg, chief executive of Meta, addresses the audience during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on online child sexual exploitation on Capitol Hill in Washington on Jan. 31, 2024. Senators aggressively questioned executives from major tech companies, especially Meta and TikTok, while Mark Zuckerberg spoke directly to victims' families.

I am an unbridled technophile and, unlike many Boomers, I embraced information technology in the early 1980s. Although I resisted at first, I was in grad school and was forced to use computers for the first time for data analysis on some surveys I had developed. With a little imagination, it didn't take long to see the awesome power of these glorified calculators of that era, and the limitless possibilities these machines foreshadowed.

I had to do a lot of essay and research writing in the program and was introduced to the magic of word processing in my second year. That was enough to enslave me to the digital realm forever. "Garbage in, garbage out" was the only word of caution I was given. I had no idea that decades later, the amount of "garbage in" would increase exponentially with the invention and proliferation of the internet.

That brings us to our current-day bucking bronco — social media. While it provides a platform for all of us to express ourselves and enjoy online connections, it also violently dislodges us from consensus on any kind of reality or truth. This week Congress is grappling with another tech offshoot — the harm to children caused by online activity. The dangers of inappropriate content, cyber-bullying, online predators, etc., is a safe target for our legislators because protecting children is politically safe. The broader issue of disinformation and political manipulation is more of a double-edged sword because some legislators benefit directly from it.

I won't waste bits and bytes on how divided we are as a country, partly due to propaganda and pushing outright lies on social media and "news" platforms. That would be dwelling on the obvious. I would rather go straight to the solution because we are in a horse race for our survival as a nation (and globally).

Like the wild horse, social media must be tamed so we can use it to better ends. Big tech has too much power and too much money but shows a huge deficit in ethics. Despite all the razzle-dazzle, in effect, they are merely publishers for the masses. As publishers they should be held liable for damage that results from misinformation or disinformation. Big tech capitalizes on the technophobia and ignorance of legislators, who are unable to grasp the simplicity of the issue.

We have long-held laws and guidelines for traditional publishers. For example, a publisher could be liable for negligent publication if the work contains errors, or defects or endangers the reader. At the very least, warnings are sometimes needed to mitigate any possible harm.

If we adopt similar restrictions/enhancements for social media, some will complain about censorship. This is a bogus argument since we would not be preventing people from posting their opinions. We would simply be making them, and the platforms they use, accountable for what they say. To move forward, for the good of society, we must occasionally steer the horses in the right direction.

Tom Bissonette, a retired counselor and adjunct professor, serves as director of YoungAndWiser Inc. Contact him at bisscom@epbfi.com.

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