Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Mainstream media needs to chill out on tech

I came across two tidbits of news yesterday that seemingly covered different areas, yet I couldn't help but put them together in light of stuff I've been thinking about lately.

The first was a story about the controversy surrounding AquaBounty Technologies, the Massachusetts-based company I wrote about a while back that has genetically engineered a super-salmon. The company's fish, which grows faster than regular salmon, is on the verge of being approved for human consumption in the United States by the Food and Drug Administration.

There are many people protesting this, of course, for all sorts of expected reasons: the fish are untested, they could contaminate wild salmon stocks, they're a travesty against nature, etc. As the Mother Jones article says, the latest concern is that the salmon - because they have genes from other fish - could be more allergenic.

The second story that piqued my interest was a report by the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism, which studied how the media covers technology news. There's a ton to digest in the report, but here are the parts that really got my attention:

The biggest single event or storyline during the year involved the perils of technology: the hazardous yet compulsive practice of texting while driving. Nearly one-in-ten technology stories were about this subject, more than five times the coverage of either the U.S. plan for broadband access and six times the coverage devoted to the debate over net neutrality... 

...The findings suggest that in the mainstream media, particularly on front pages and general interest programs, the press reflects exuberance about gadgets and a wonder about the corporations behind them, but wariness about effects on our lives, our behavior and the sociology of the digital age.

The first story seems to support the second and indeed, it's a topic I'm well acquainted with. In the realm of our little science and technology section on CBC.ca, we can write about whatever we want, however we want, whether it's positive or negative. But the only time the so-called front-pagers - the media covered by the report - come calling on us for stories or commentary, it's either to cover the launch of some new gadget or the perils of the latest technology. In other words, if it's not Apple launching a new iPhone or Facebook's latest brush with privacy watchdogs, the mainstream isn't interested in technology.

Oh how true it is. The media obviously shapes public opinion on issues and the underlying result that the Pew study is getting at, particularly with that second finding, is that technology is mistrusted by the shapers of mainstream values. To me, that's very sad because the world is clearly, unequivocally better because of technology. If you don't believe that, you may want to think twice the next time you take an aspirin for your headache or eat a banana in the winter.

The stories that extol technology's virtues are few and far between in the mainstream, and those that do exist are usually overwhelmed by ignorant reader comments that have been shaped by that mainstream negativity. A good example is a story that recently appeared on CBC (I didn't write it) about how scientists believe new food technology is imperative to feed the world's growing population - a central theme of Sex, Bombs and Burgers. Here's just one sample reader comment, that pretty much sums up some of that negative sentiment: "I've heard a lot of lies. This one ranks at somewhere at the top. What is needed is less technology, and more of the old ways of doing business!"

That relates directly back to the protests surrounding the AquaBounty fish. While new technologies certainly should run a gamut of tests before being unleashed on the public, there does come a time when we need to chill out and let things happen. New technologies do bring unintended consequences, but the defining characteristic of the human species is our ability to adapt to such events. If the genetically engineered salmon really do provoke more allergies, scientists will either fix that with other technology or we'll figure out a way to deal with it. If we - and the media - continually worry about what might happen, nothing ever will happen.


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