A Review of: ‘Digital Dreams Have Become Nightmares: What We Must Do’

C. Dianne Martin is Emeritus Professor of Computer Science at George Washington University, and Adjunct Professor in the School of Information, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She has been teaching Computers and Society since 1983.

I was delighted to receive email early this year from Prof. Ron Baecker, whose Computers and Society class at the University of Maryland in 1972 made me see that I could productively combine my previous studies in the social sciences and humanities with my new career in information technology. I was therefore eager to read his latest book, Digital Dreams Have Become Nightmares: What We Must Do.

In documenting his personal journey from dreams and exuberant optimism about computer technology to pessimism, nightmares, and fear caused by the emerging consequences of the tech explosion of the past 75 years. Ron has provided a comprehensive historical sweep of the computer revolution. In Part I he chronicles the high hopes of early developers to create technological solutions to disparities in healthcare and education, to increase creativity, collaboration, and community, and to provide greater power and convenience to all.

Part II of the book examines the resulting nightmares of algorithmic injustices, greater inequities, disinformation, loss of privacy, unemployment, increase of monopolistic power, and individual psychological damage. The chapter on the rise of risky AI is especially prescient.  It opens with:

“Imagine a society in which control over many aspects of life has been delegated to a mysterious godlike spirit that has proclaimed a mission of improving society’s productivity and welfare…The spirit conveys many benefits, but also causes an increasing number of deleterious side-effects.” The chapter continues by describing the pervasive and persuasive nature of AI algorithms that now invade every aspect of life, contributing to the nightmares of internet addiction, injustice, loss of privacy and lack of accountability.

Part III of the book provides solutions to the problems presented in Part II: “— a rationale and concrete actions designed to rekindle dreams and banish nightmares — a prescription for hope.” The chapters in this section deal with possible solutions at the personal level as well as at the policy and regulatory level.

Each chapter of the book is written in a lucid and engaging style with several case studies and examples boxed off within the text to be used for discussion. Topics include AI bias, automation, Big Tech, deep fakes, digital inclusion, disinformation, election hacking, explainable AI, facial recognition, fake news, hate speech, internet censorship and shutdowns, precision medicine, ransomware, robot caregivers, self-driving cars, social media, surveillance capitalism, technology addiction, contact tracing, the gig economy… and much more.  The book is totally current, even including the latest in the Facebook saga.

The organization of the book makes it very usable as a textbook for an undergraduate survey course on computers and society or computer ethics. The examples in each chapter make the book ideal to facilitate robust class discussions around these important issues. The book also has a comprehensive list of references to facilitate student research on the topics. And the author is making the book directly available at a very affordable price for students. All in all, it is a wonderful contribution to the set of resources available to faculty and students studying the societal impact of computers.

FOR THINKING AND DISCUSSION

Reading this book provides background on digital nightmares and actions to combat them. What do you plan to do in this regard?

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