Are we the masters of our technology, or is it now our master? You cannot escape this question even while walking down any city street, where the zombies of what South Koreans call the “heads-down tribe” troop along, mesmerized by their smartphones. But that’s just the most obvious evidence of our lack of control over the new digital reality. It’s the backstory of this week’s big news, and last week’s, and this year’s. That vast data-mining and surveillance network set up to protect us from al Qaida? It now sifts through the communications of hundreds of millions of people here and in Europe, including our allies’ presidents and prime ministers. We didn’t know, say congressional overseers and the president. The president evidently also didn’t know that the technology underpinning his health-care law would crash and burn on takeoff, making him look powerless again. Powerlessness: It defines how parents and schools feel about cyberbullying and sexting (see Best columns: The U.S.), and how motorists feel about the urge to text behind the wheel (see The last word). You don’t need an NSA metadata analysis to see a pattern here. Or the irony.
Digital technology is a tool, and tools make those wielding them more powerful. The Internet unquestionably does that—exponentially multiplying knowledge and connection. And yet, like the discovery of the atomic bomb, it may be giving our species more power than it can handle. Do Facebook and Google work for us, or do we work for them? Should there be any limits on how giant companies and governments use information to reach into our lives? If we do not supply decisive answers to these questions soon, they will be answered for us.