No Man Is an Island

No Man Is an Island

by / December 26, 2006

Next month's Government Technology covers a Web application recently launched by the Colorado Information Analysis Center (CIAC). By visiting the CIAC's Web site and clicking on the "Report Suspicious Activity" link, one can fill out a form to report any type of suspicious activity one witnesses, and attach media files -- perhaps a picture or video shot by a cell-phone camera -- as supporting evidence.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Colorado expressed reservations about the anonymous nature of the reports, arguing that anonymity will encourage racial and cultural profiling.

Worse, the ACLU contends, is the threat the online reporting Web site poses to neighborly camaraderie.

"I think it encourages suspicion, and in its worst form, I think suspicion breeds distrust. It breeds isolation. It breeds those kinds of things that make us less neighborly, that make us less connected with the people around us," the ACLU Colorado's Executive Director Cathryn Hazouri told a Government Technology writer.


There's no debate that humans get quite suspicious. There's no doubt that humans distrust. Yet casting a piece of technology as the primum mobile of distrust and suspicion leaves plenty of room for doubt. Humans distrust and suspect quite well all by themselves. We don't need technology for that.

If it's unknown, we fear it. It's that simple. It's not technology that severs the connection between us and the people around us. We're the ones who gladly grab a sharp knife to do the cutting. Just watch a group of people self-segregate. In college, I used to watch the students gather at the quad during lunch. On one side, all the Asian students hung out. Across the quad, white students clustered. Black and Latino students respectively chose their sides.

Humans discriminate, and anybody who says he or she doesn't is lying outright ... or suffering from a strong case of denial. Each of us decides whether to take the next step to actual bias, but to ignore the fact that we indiscriminately discriminate is hopeless idealism.

Can technology make this worse? Turn us into so many spies? Incapable of reaching out to our fellow people? Incapable of building trust? These are fair questions. It's quite possible that technology will do these things. It's also quite possible that technology will prevent them.

Like anything else in our world, technology is just a mirror. It reflects us, because we built it. We use it. We can trust each other, or not. It has nothing to do with a few hundred lines of code in a piece of software.

It has everything to do with us, and what we want for each other.
Shane Peterson Associate Editor