In Thinking Critically about the Internet of Things

I live in semi-rural Bavaria. It is blissfully bucolic. I might even say tranquil. Recent interactions with a neighbour, however, have left me thinking that I am living in the television drama, Better Call Saul, the prequel to the award winning Breaking Bad. My neighbour is, I am told, a rather well known artist, not a shady lawyer or, for that matter, a meth making chemistry teacher. If you are unfamiliar with Better Call Saul, what is of relevance here is that the main character, Saul Goodman, spends much of his time looking after his brother, Charles ‘Chuck’ McGill, a character who claims to suffer from electromagnetic hypersensitivity. Similar to Chuck, my neighbour suggests that she is “disturbed” by my Wi-Fi signal. She has asked me, with more vigour than may be appropriate, to turn my router off at night so that she can sleep better. Her forceful petitioning has, as you may imagine, caused a modicum of tension between us.

I think my neighbour is rather unfortunate to live in the 21st century. If she is genuinely troubled by my Wi-Fi signal, short of moving to a more isolated location, she remains surrounded by houses, including my own, where Wi-Fi is as ubiquitous and seemingly indispensable as washing machines, fridges, and vacuum cleaners.

For most of us, probably, Wi-Fi is not a major cause of anxiety, but like my neighbour, we do struggle to escape the Internet, social media, and all that comes with it. Short of taking up residence in a monastery or a cave, opting out is remarkably difficult, and in some instances impossible. It is as much a part of our daily lives, for better or worse, as cars, or shops, or footwear. In good news this week (writing in May 2018) is the story of a young American man, CJ Poirer, who through ‘’retweeting’ his plight - an absence of funds - convinced Air Canada to pay for his flight to Newfoundland to meet his online girlfriend, Becca Warren. Good initiative from CJ I say. By contrast, I was slightly unnerved whilst accompanying my teenage son on a shopping trip last weekend. After trying on a pair of sneakers, he told me they were great, then returned them to their shelf. When I asked why he didn’t want them, he responded that he did, but that they were “16 Euros cheaper on Amazon”.

If evading the Internet of things is as unlikely as a warm, dry summer in Scotland, we can at least think critically about its pervasive influence on our lives. This page provides a range of questions on things such as the Internet, social media, technology, and society. The questions do not form part of a unit of study, but they can be used independently as ’10-minute fillers' or can be built into the many lessons we have already published on media institutions such as this one, or this one, or this one. The questions, in the spirit of an IB education, are intended to promote critical thinking amongst your students. We will add to the questions over time. However, given the pace of technological change, some of the questions may become quickly redundant. This page was updated in January 2019.

Questions for Critical Thinking

  • What is the role of art (including literature) and artists (including writers) in society?
  • Does the Internet, communicating technologies, and social media, on the whole, promote art in society?

The CEO of Facebook, Mark Zuckerburg, has said, “the social norm [of privacy] has evolved over time.”

  • What do you think Mr. Zuckerburg means by this?
  • Is Mr. Zuckerburg correct in this assertion?
  • To the extent that you agree or disagree with Mr. Zuckerburg, is it problematic, do you think, that the CEO of Facebook holds this view?

It is often claimed that Google and Facebook have the ability to fine-tune their algorithms to influence the news stories we see. In 2014, a study led by Robert Epstein, a psychologist at the American Institute for Behavioral Research and Technology, analyzed the extent to which political candidates’ Google search rankings could influence voters. Epstein observed: “We estimate, based on win margins in national elections around the world that Google could determine the outcome of upwards of 25 percent of all national elections.”

  • If Professor Epstein is correct in his observation, should this concern us? Why?
  • If you are concerned by Professor Epstein’s observation, what can or should be done about the situation?

The founder of PayPal is a man called Peter Thiel. Mr. Thiel was an early investor in Facebook, and he remains a very influential figure in Silicon Valley. He famously said, “I no longer believe that freedom and democracy are compatible.”

  • What do you think Mr. Thiel means by this claim?
  • Should we be concerned that important and powerful figures in Silicon Valley such as Mr. Thiel hold this kind of view?
  • To the extent you may disagree with Mr. Thiel, what can you do to counter his perspective and the influence that it may have?

Peter Thiel and Larry Page (the cofounder of Google) have become very interested in an idea called ‘seasteading’. They have provided significant financial support to develop the idea. Seasteading would involve the creation of artificial islands (called seasteads) outside the territory claimed by any national government. These seasteads, if they came into existence, would be used to host companies that would become exempt from taxation and regulation.

  • Do you think this is a good idea. Why? Why not?

Jeff Bezos is the founder and CEO of Amazon. In an interview for the Academy of Achievement, Mr. Bezos said the following: I think people should carefully reread the first part of the [US] Declaration of Independence. Because I think that sometimes we as a society start to get confused and think that we have a right to happiness, but if you read the Declaration of Independence, it talks about “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Nobody has the right to happiness. You have the right to pursue it, and I think the core of that is liberty.

  • To what extent do you agree or disagree with Mr. Bezos?
  • Given the beliefs that Mr. Bezos holds, do you think he is the kind of man you would like to work for in the future?

In an interview with The Atlantic, Google’s chairman, Eric Schmidt said, “We don’t need you to type at all. We know where you are. We know where you’ve been. We can more or less know what you are thinking about.”

  • On what basis, do you think, is Mr. Schmidt making these claims?
  • Insofar as Mr. Schmidt may be correct, should we be concerned? If you are concerned, what can you do in response to this?

In December 2004, Google’s share of the search engine market was 35%. By 2016, this had risen to 88%.

In the United States (as an example of a general trend), newspaper advertising revenue fell from $65.6 billion in 2000 to $23.6 billion in 2014.

Napster first came online in 1999. Between 2000 and 2016, US recorded music revenues fell from $19.8 million to $7.2 million.

In 2004, Amazon had net sales revenue of $6.9 billion. In 2017, this revenue had risen to $107 billion. It is estimated that Amazon controls over 65% of all online new book sales whether print or digital.

  • The above figures reveal, amongst other things, a significant redistribution and concentration of wealth in society. Is this something that should concern us? If you are concerned, what can you do about it?

The CEO of Facebook, Mark Zuckerburg, has said, “move fast and break things. Unless you are breaking stuff, you aren’t moving fast enough.”

  • What do you think Mr. Zuckerburg means by this?
  • Do you agree with the implication of Mr. Zuckerburg’s claim that it is good to move quickly and break things?

When you were really young, it is possible that you were warned about ‘strangers’. You mother, father, teachers, and other responsible adults may have warned you not to get into a stranger’s car, and not to go to a stranger’s house. No doubt, this remains good advice. However, with the invention of Uber and Airbnb, it seems that we readily get into the cars and go to the homes of strangers.

  • Why, apparently, have we become so trusting?
  • To what extent do you think it matters that Uber and Airbnb challenge or ‘threaten’ traditional industries?
  • If, as has been claimed, the growth of Airbnb, has the effect of increasing the cost of property in major cities around the world, to what extent does this matter?

The former president of the United States, Barrack Obama, gave a speech at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial in 2016. Mr. Obama said, “technological progress without an equivalent progress in human institutions can doom us. The scientific revolution that led to the splitting of the atom requires a moral revolution as well.”

  • Why might technological progress doom us?
  • What kinds of institution and what kind of moral revolution is required to prevent doom brought about by technological ‘progress’?

This is the trolley problem:

There is a runaway trolley barrelling down the railroad tracks Ahead, on the tracks, there are five people tied up and unable to move. The trolley is headed straight for them. You are standing some distance off in the train yard, next to a lever. If you pull this lever, the trolley will switch to a different set of tracks. However, you notice that there is one person tied up on the side track. You have two options:

Do nothing, and the trolley kills the five people on the main track.

Pull the lever, diverting the trolley onto the side track where it will kill one person.

  • Which is the most ethical choice?

It seems that in the not too distant future autonomous vehicles/ driverless cars will become a feature of our societies.

  • How can you programme a driverless car to deal with the trolley problem? That is, faced with something similar to the trolley problem, should an autonomous car endanger a driver over a pedestrian? What about an elderly person over a child? If the car can access information about nearby drivers it might collide with, should it use that data to make a decision? 

There seems to be a growing call for for an end to people being able to hide their identity online. But is this a threat to free speech?

  • Should anonymous social media accounts be banned?
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