Wednesday, August 13th, 2008...10:08 am

An Engineer’s Adventures in the Berkman Center

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A year of law school hadn’t broken me of my long training in physics and engineering, so I first thought that the Internet Safety Technical Task Force, my initial Berkman project, was about developing new technology to protect children from harm on the internet. I knew a few things about developing technology, so I was ready to dive in—until the project director at the Cyberlaw Clinic corrected me. We were not developing technology; we were identifying and assessing it. In my experience, that meant evaluating the technology against performance specifications—again something I was very familiar with. Of course, that wasn’t right either.

Not until I heard danah boyd and Michele Ybarra speak about snuff sites and pro ana/pro mia sites did I finally realize what the Task Force project is really about. See Michele’s presentation. The focus is not on the technology itself and how the technology acts on society, but on how people use the technology as part of living. People use the technology to change their own lives and the lives of others.

It was a revelation to me that the social implications of technology meant more than just the abstract, aggregate effects of new technology on the national economy. The free flow of knowledge over the internet facilitates commercial innovation, which in turn creates wealth. To me, that was the kind of influence that the internet has on society.

That view ignores the intimate effects of the participatory web. It enables citizen journalists, empowers grass-roots activists, evades repressive governments, and creates valuable, globe-spanning communities. That people have integrated technology deeply into their lives also has a dark side, which created the need for an Internet Safety Technical Task Force in the first place.

No example of that dark side is starker than the case of Lori Drew and 13 year-old Megan Meier. The Cyberlaw Clinic helped write an amicus brief in the Drew case this summer. See Sam Bayard’s post about the brief. Lori Drew, the mother of Megan’s schoolmate, allegedly posed as “Josh” in flirtatious electronic messages to Megan, befriended her, and then abruptly cut off their month-long relationship with words to the effect that the world would be a better place without Megan in it. That day Megan hanged herself in her bedroom closet.

According to these allegations, Lori Drew used the internet to call up an apparition so lifelike and powerful that it drove Megan to suicide. This is the power of a person wielding technology. It raises questions, not so much about any quality inherent in the technology itself, but instead about the moral decisions that people make in using the technology. Just as I learned in the Internet Safety Technical Task Force, the issue is not the technology itself; the issue is how people use the technology.

Jim

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