When is a computer glitch not a computer glitch? When it's reported by the mainstream media. Although it's predictable that corporate-owned media would present an incorrect portrayal of technology defects, subject matter experts are equally available to journalists whose reporting is not controlled by the agendas of large corporations. Yet those journalists also choose, almost consistently, not to become informed when reporting "computer glitches." The scale of the error is akin to reporting the two most investigated disasters in history — the Titanic and the Challenger — as ship and space shuttle glitches. Something systemic must be the scientific explanation.
Long ago we all received our news by word of mouth. Before I took this photo in a small, Andean Quichua community, I observed these men for a while and thought they were just gossiping; they were actually reporting news to each other. Most Quichua live in a world where their "gossip" is verbal and this is still how they disseminate news. Most of us live in a world where our "gossip" is electronic: texts, e-mails and social media posts. Last month was, predictably, rich with news stories that show how reliant we have become on technology and how risky that reliance can be.
Psychologists have known for a long time that humans are flawed when it comes to performing tasks that require intelligence: we have biases that cause us to behave irrationally and to make predictable mistakes repetitively. The explanation for journalists' "computer glitch" irrationality may be underlined by the same flaws.
Comparative cognition — a relatively new scientific field that draws on the disciplines of cognitive science, evolutionary biology and animal behavior among others — is now beginning to shed light on the evolutionary origins of these flaws. In one study, monkeys were observed to make the same mistakes that humans make in micro-economic decision-making tasks. The study reveals that our intelligence has evolved to the stage that we now create complexity that we understand no better than monkeys do.It's one thing for journalists not to understand the complexity behind the technology stories they report, but surely the people who create that technology understand it? Taking last month as an example, it would appear not. On February 14 we may have seen the first ever crash caused by a driverless car. Three days later an eight-year old security defect was discovered in a widely-used software library, glibc; Hollywood Presbyterian Medical Center admitted to having paid around US$ 17,000 in ransom to cybercriminals who had infiltrated its IT network. But the most disturbing recent technology story has been unfolding for the past year. The world's largest personal computer manufacturer, Lenovo, was found to have been creating technology that nobody inside the company understood. The story is best explained by analogy. We trust doctors when they have a paper certificate to prove that they are doctors. The Lenovo computers were pre-loaded with software called Superfish Visual Discovery that forged the electronic certificates trusted by web browsers. The software left communication with otherwise-secure web sites potentially insecure. Lenovo's initial response was that they were unaware of the problem; the Electronic Frontier Foundation called it "catastrophically irresponsible."
The technology we create has the potential to help us overcome our evolutionary limitations, but only when we evolve to the stage that we understand that technology; we haven't reached that stage yet. The debate now being played out around the FBI versus Apple case reveals this as clearly as it reveals how few journalists understand it.
These Quichua men would not entrust their journalism-gossip to monkeys. While I don't know of any comparative cognition studies that have investigated reasoning about technology, I believe I know what the outcome of such studies would be: we should place technology creation on hold until we have evolved to the stage that we understand it. Or we should use monkeys to create it — they would only make the same mistakes that we do.