For the New Year, Let’s Resolve to Improve Our Tech Literacy

For the New Year, Let’s Resolve to Improve Our Tech Literacy

Silicon Valley luminaries are easily mocked as having a precious, narrow take on the world. People in the tech industry can’t see past themselves, critics often charge; they act as if the products they build sit at the center of everything.

But this year, the techies were right: Technology did rule many issues in 2015. And not only did tech dominate the news, it often moved too quickly for politicians, regulators, law enforcement officials and the media to understand its implications. This year we began to see the creaking evidence of our collective ignorance about the digital age.

The sorry showing ought to prompt a resolution for the new year. In 2016, let’s begin to appreciate the dominant role technology now plays in shaping the world, and let’s strive to get smarter about how we think about its effects.

“The pace of technological change has never been faster, so it’s more important for people to understand things that are harder to keep on top of,” said Julius Genachowski, the former chairman of the Federal Communications Commission and now a partner at the Carlyle Group investment firm.

That may sound tough to do — but fortunately, it isn’t impossible.

First, to understand the problem, consider the year’s headlines. From terrorism to protests over police abuse, from the scandal at Volkswagen to global tensions over energy and the climate, technology was central to just about every major news story that came across the wire.

The news often highlighted a failure to grasp the effects of change. For instance, presidential candidates and law enforcement authorities were at a loss to explain how they might prevent terrorists from using social media to inspire attacks around the globe. When they tried to do so, they betrayed an absence of basic digital acumen — see Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton calling to shut down parts of the Internet, a policy idea many experts dismissed as unrealistic, if not impossible.

The media, meanwhile, was blindsided by the rise of movements buoyed by social media. Mr. Trump’s presidential bid, fueled as much by his mastery of Twitter and Instagram as by coverage on cable news, repeatedly foiled pundits’ predictions that he would be crushed by more established candidates. In a different vein, the movement that forced news outlets to begin covering police abuse was driven by an army of activists armed with smartphones. Even its name was a hashtag: #blacklivesmatter.

Then there were the regulators, who fared little better at understanding the implications of technology. Volkswagen’s disclosure that many of its diesel cars had been equipped with software intended to cheat on emissions tests highlighted the power of hidden code, a problem that researchers have warned about for years and one that could grow more pernicious as our household items continue to be transformed into Internet-connected minicomputers.

Officials appeared similarly surprised by the unabated rise of the ride-hailing service Uber, which hires contract workers through an app and whose business model seems poised to worm its way into other industries. Courts struggled to classify Uber’s drivers — were they employees, contractors or some novel kind of gig worker that straddles both categories?

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