University News

Former professor warns of technology’s dangers

By
Contributing Writer
Tuesday, September 27, 2011

The University honored its 150-year-old Federal Depository Library yesterday with a ceremony and a cautionary talk on technology by former political science professor Darrell West.

West taught political science from 1982 to 2008 and served as director of the Taubman Center for Public Policy and American Institutions from 2000 to 2008 before taking his current job as vice president and director of governance studies and director of the Center for Technology Innovation at the Brookings Institute.

Though West touched on the benefits of recent technological advances — notably the role of social media in the Arab Spring — his lecture focused on technology’s dangers, comparing public use of facial recognition software to “George Orwell’s vision” in “1984.”

Society faces “unprecedented challenges from the Internet,” West said. He explained that the Clinton White House, under the leadership of Chief Internet Policy Adviser Ira Magaziner ’69 P’06 P’07 P’10, applied a “libertarian policy” in 1997 and allowed the private sector to determine the development of the Internet. West said this policy decision created an unregulated environment that allowed spam email and online theft to emerge.

Going forward, West advises citizens to apply common sense when using the Internet. He said Internet users should be mindful of password security — West, for example, has 42 unique passwords. He argued that further legal protections for Internet users are unlikely due to congressional gridlock, adding that the courts tend to intervene only in the case of extreme examples of aggressive online marketing. “People just need to take security much more seriously than they do,” he said.

Discussion during the question and answer section shifted toward politics and the upcoming election season. West said he is not convinced President Obama could beat former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney. He compared the upcoming election to that of 1936, when national unemployment was significantly higher, but said the president lacks the communication skills of Franklin D. Roosevelt, who won reelection that year.

The event was held in honor of Alice Bobb Brendel ’67, who served as reference librarian, shared resources librarian and government documents coordinator from 1982 to 1991 when she died.

The majority of the roughly 60 attendees in Salomon 101 were library staffers. The event received mixed reactions. Calvin Oyer, clinical associate professor of pathology and laboratory medicine, said the lecture “didn’t stick to the topic.” A former member of the government library staff, Yvonne Marie Federowicz, currently senior library specialist for web services, was disappointed that the talk did not discuss technology’s impact on the dissemination of federal government documents.

But Aaron Weinstein GS, who said he came because he was interested in technology,  said he enjoyed the talk. Daniel O’Mahony, director of library planning and assessment, who delivered the introduction, said West is “always fun.”

Vivian Spencer, who works for Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-RI, presented an American flag that was flown at Whitehouse’s request above the Capitol in Washington, D.C., July 29 to mark the 150th anniversary of the University officially housing a Federal Depository Library.