Jonathan J. Halperin
Jonathan J. Halperin
Designing Research, Communications
and Strategies for Sustainability

Autonomous Technology?

In a filled tent at the Aspen Ideas Festival today, Eric Schmidt, CEO of Google, described smart phones as devices that “by their nature” collect information. This brought me back to my days in graduate school at MIT where Langdon Winner wrote a remarkable book, “Autonomous Technology: Technics-out-of-Control as a Theme in Political Thought.”

I questioned Schultz about this (see below) and he corrected himself, but also went on to explain that phones, in fact, do need to collect and send data beyond what users may want in order to provide GPS services and 911 calling capabilities. The question of responsibility and autonomy is central to a raft of questions: from pledges taken by many radical republicans to never raise taxes regardless of circumstance, to defining the limits and expanse of corporate responsibility for supply chain and product recycling, to the rising concern about the impact of using electronic devices on cognitive development of kids.


For video of the entire panel discussion and Q & A session,
visit the 2012 Aspen Ideas Festival channel on
(The exchange above appears at 44:18-45:30.)

 (In another discussion with Jim Steyer, founder of CommonSense Media, we discussed what it means to be obsessed with digital devices, whether this was addictive, and what to do about it to maintain a society based around civil human interactions -- Video forthcoming).

I think a longer discussion with Schmidt would reveal that devices are designed with certain functions to meet customer, regulatory, and corporate needs. But the systems that emerge both intentionally and inadvertently from the conflation and integration of these discrete devices, entwined technical ecosystems, do grow to have biases and embedded values that are very powerful drivers of social values and culture. And who takes responsibility for these systems and their consequences?

When I began to unhook from SustainAbility in 2008, after 20+ years, to co-found Volans, Jonathan was working with the US end of SustainAbility — and sent the London end of the Volans team a large cardboard box of multi-colored felt rocks, which initially I couldn't make head nor tail of. I thought he was mad, or overly American.

But I have to say that, over time, those felt rocks have become a central feature of the Volans culture, thrown by team members at other team members (or guests) on the slightest provocation. That aside, he's a consummate professional, creative collaborator, skilled communicator, and keen intellect—and I am delighted both to have had Jonathan as a colleague and to now count him as a friend.

more testimonials >

Tweets from Jonathan J. Halperin