Sunday, June 26, 2011

Technological Empowerment

Technology influences our lives in profound ways, and always has. Increasingly, today’s technology is leading to a vast expansion of individual empowerment across a wide spectrum of activities.

On the consumer level, with apps like GoodGuide and the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch, consumers can use their smart phones to get immediate information on the social and environmental rankings of hundreds of thousands of products and make sustainable choices.

Other apps like marinedebris allow users to photograph and tag with GPS coordinates garbage they find at the beach, which can help both cleanup efforts and policymakers. Nothing gets people to enact tougher regulations against pollution more than documenting the amount of toxins and trash. Numbers and data matter, and consumers can now assist like never before in collecting this information.

Apps are also being designed to help track disease outbreaks and better coordinate emergency responses and preventative measures. We are just beginning to scratch the surface of welfare-improving uses generated by the data being stored and disseminated by our hand-held devices.

The fact that virtually everyone now carries on their person a digital video camera is making it easier to document abuses of all sorts, from policy brutality to voter suppression to illegal behavior in the workplace. While these devices pose legitimate privacy issues, there is no doubt that the transparency and documentation they provide is helping to bring an increasing amount of misconduct to light.

As we (finally) begin to change all our medical records from paper to electronic, the transition will usher in a more efficient system that should lead to fewer unnecessary procedures, better coordination among doctors, and better outcomes for patients. It will also allow us to get real-time updates on our progress, and tap into information networks that help us pick the best doctors and seek out the best treatments. Software is even being developed that will use massive databases to perform primary diagnoses at a level of accuracy higher than most doctors could ever reach on their own.

For the home, software is being developed to help people determine the best times of day to perform energy-intensive activities like laundry or dish washing so as to minimize electricity costs. All of this information will soon be freely available; as we create more “smart grids,” better battery technology, and more versatile electronic devices, we’ll be able to reduce our overall energy consumption. For example, a rooftop solar panel with a good battery system may one day make it possible for numbers of people to become net providers of electricity and never have to visit a gas station again.

At a time when our political process seems to be at a nadir, with progressives doing little more than damage control against a Republican assault on the environment, women’s rights, and the social contract, technology is coming to the rescue and putting more power and choices in the hands of individual citizens. Our greatest challenges still will require collective political action, but while that’s on hold we can at least improve our lives by making good use of the many new tools technology is putting at our disposal.

Jason Scorse

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