The Sum of All Fears

People fear change, it’s just human nature as they say. These fears are believed to be either inherited from past generations, or are self created by the individual with the primary purpose of keeping us safe. Originally, these beliefs or fears protected us, with the primal fight or flight instinct being a prime example, but further examination reveals that these fears often no longer serve us in a positive way. Giving in to fear has the ability to slow or even stop our development, both as people and as a race.

Fear manifests itself in different ways. It could be sweaty palms and a quickening heart rate as you make that presentation to your new boss, or it could be a wandering mind imagining the absolute worse case scenario when that even crueler mistress, the fear of the unknown, rears her ugly head. Why is it that being unable to calculate the consequences of a decision, or set of circumstances is so unbearable?

History has shown that fear of the unknown is very powerful, and that these mis givings become particularly evident as new technologies are introduced. The printing press is an often cited example of this with Conrad Gessner being one of its earliest critics. The Swiss Biologist infamously suggested that information overload would ensue due to the “confusing and harmful abundance of books.” Given the benefit of several hundred years of hindsight, these claims seem some what ridiculous today.

A similar argument was levelled against the radio when it was first released with critics suggesting that it would distract children from reading and developing their learning through books (the observant reader will note that books are no longer ‘confusing and harmful’). This belief was largely dispelled during the 1930’s as it was suggested that children were able to multi task and divide their attention effectively between the radio and their studies.

This has continued with almost all new technological advancements from electricity, the television and email to name just a few. Now, I’m no detective and my observational skills are constantly called into question by my long suffering wife (I think), but I believe I can see a pattern emerging.

These concerns seem even more resolute in the modern age where the media play such an important part in influencing our beliefs and visions. Many of the opinions expressed within TV reports, newspapers and web pages are often bought and paid for by those with a vested interest, be that governments, organisations or individuals.

It seems to me that the more disruptive the technology, the louder the doom sayers shout from the sidelines. We have seen this again recently with Bitcoin, the paradigm changing crypto currency. This incredible innovation has been misunderstood by many who, rather than recognising its potential to facilitate open trade while providing financial inclusion to the world’s 2.5 billion unbanked, suggest that it is a haven for criminals and drug dealers. Those who have followed this pattern of behaviour will be aware that similar claims were made of the early Internet and look where we are today.

That is not to say that technology is not used for activities unintended by the inventor. That is as it should be. It is not for the inventor to tell others how their innovation should be used, this would limit future innovation. But it is interesting to note that the negative consequences typically receive more media focus. This is demonstrated by the disproportionate reporting on issues such as the the use of 3D printers to make guns, or the use of bitcoin on the ebay of drugs, Silk Road. You don’t hear much about the fact that bitcoin is also used as a way of tipping content providers, or used extensively to make charitable donations. In fact, it is interesting to note that these negative consequences are not just inaccurate, as the examples above suggest, we invariably find the exact opposite to be the case.

Sometimes these unintended use cases have very positive consequences. Unmanned aerial vehicles, now commonly referred to as drones, were initially conceived of for military applications, such as dropping bombs or for surveillance. Entrepreneurs are now using drones for rapid food delivery and Internet giant Amazon are reported to be looking at them for same day product deliveries.

Another good example of this is The Onion Router, commonly referred to as Tor. Originally invented by US Naval Researchers with the goal of ensuring secure US intelligence communications online, the ability for this technology to conceal a users location and usage from anyone conducting network surveillance or traffic analysis has been used extensively beyond its original function. Now utilised by political activists, whistle blowers and ordinary Internet users evading censorship, Tor is seen by many as a protector of civil liberties. However, Tor is not without its critics and its many positive outcomes are often overlooked. Its ability to provide the same anonymity and privacy to criminals remain the focus for some.

As MaidSafe prepares to release the SAFE Network, we are about to see this pattern played out once more. There is no doubt that we will see those with a vested interest in the status quo, or those who don’t take the time to understand the technology, taking to various media to suggest that the SAFE Network will negatively impact upon society. Where are these negative comments likely to focus? Anonymising technologies like MaidSafe are typically suggested to be sanctuaries for terrorists and criminals, and this has been the case with both Bitcoin and Tor.

We should not be alarmed by this, we should just expect it. Those who support MaidSafe and the SAFE project should be prepared and on-hand to educate all comers about the vision for the technology, how it works and its wider implications. Where we see ill informed or blinkered views, we should seek to correct, or help establish a more balanced and considered position. Obviously not everyone will like the SAFE Network and what is represents and that’s OK, but they should at least be armed with all the facts.

The SAFE Network will be used criminal elements for nefarious purposes, but that is the case with almost every innovation that has taken place since the dawn of time.  We should not let that detract from the amazing difference it has the potential to make. The platform and community we are all building is going to be hugely beneficial for society and highly secure and efficient data storage and communication is something that humanity is crying out for. History has shown that changing the world creates enemies and when the mud starts to fly we should see it for what it is and recognise that we are in good company.