How Much Do You Trust Computers?

Last week, for the first time, I cast my vote in a national election with no piece of paper to back up my selections. We've had electronic ballots for a while, but the ones I used in the past printed out a paper ballot that was then dropped into a locked box just like the old punch card or even older "X marks the spot" types were. This time, the only record of my vote was in some computer's memory.

How did that make me feel? Well, I have to admit it made me just a little nervous. Not because I had any difficulty understanding the system or picking my candidates - just the opposite. The process was straightforward and fast, a simple touch screen interface with a big flashing red button that you push to finalize your vote. It's hard to see how anything could be any easier than that.

But, as I discussed in my November 7 personal blog post, pushing that button felt vaguely like pulling the lever on a slot machine. I wasn't at all sure what, if anything, would happen. Would it really be recorded properly? And if not, how would anyone ever know?

It seems I'm not the only one who sees a down side to purely electronic voting. I heard the same distrust expressed by many others - including those on the winning side. And something I found telling was that so many of those who are disturbed by the new systems are not Luddites who know nothing about computers - they're people (like me) who are intimately acquainted with how computers work and making their livings working with them.

Of course, that may be part of the problem. Like the doctor who sees disease every day and thus never trusts an illness to be "just a cold," or a cop who deals with criminals so regularly that he suspects everyone of having criminal intent, maybe I just see so many malfunctioning computers that my perception of their reliability is skewed toward the negative side. After all, very few clients call me out to see how smoothly their networks or running and very few newsletter readers write to tell me their software is doing everything exactly as it's supposed to.

No, people come to me when Windows won't boot or their Internet connection goes down or Excel isn't calculating properly or a virus shuts down their home LANs or their important documents won't open or disappear into thin air just when they need them most.

Of course, we trust a lot more than just our votes to computers these days. We trust our lives to them - and luckily, some of them work extremely well. Commercial airliners today depend on computers for navigation and flight control. Medical treatment now depends heavily on computers. The medical records that doctors consult to make decisions about your health care are often stored electronically. Drug prescription information may now be sent via computer instead of "called in" to the pharmacy. Surgeons can operate "long distance," controlling robotic arms by computer. And the information in the insurance company's computer may determine whether or not you get admitted to the hospital or your treatment is approved at all.

We also trust our money to computers - most banking transactions are done electronically now. If you use direct deposit and pay your bills online, you may never see a paper version of your money (cash or check). The day will probably come when money as we know it is a thing of the past, and electronic bits and bytes are all we earn for our hard work.

Computerized information may determine whether you enjoy your freedom or get locked up. Who hasn't heard the horror stories about people being arrested because of a warrant that showed up when a clerk ran a criminal history check on the computer?

Our cars run on computers, climate control in our malls and office buildings run on computers, and more and more, our homes are run by computers, too. And of course our national infrastructure is completely dependent on computers. They control the electrical grids, the municipal water supplies, the public sewer systems.

Many people began to question our growing dependency on our machines prior to the turn of the century. But despite dire predictions, Y2K turned out to be a bust - planes didn't fall out of the sky, homes and businesses didn't lose power, banks didn't close ... pretty much nothing happened. And computers have wedged their ways even deeper into our lives since then.

But are we precariously balanced on the edge of disaster? Would a large electromagnetic pulse (EMP) render all of our fancy technology unusable? Or is that just the stuff of science fiction novels? Since it's never happened on a large scale, nobody really knows for sure.

It's unlikely that anything short of such a disaster will cause our world to reduce its dependency on technology. Instead, computers are likely to become more ubiquitous as time goes on, and eventually they'll just be built into everything, rather than functioning as standalone machines. That's already true to a large extent. How does that make you feel?

Let us know what you think. Do you trust the computers on which your livelihoods and lives depend? Do you trust some types of computers more than others? Why? What are some examples of the positive effects of increasing computerization? What are the negative effects? Do you think we're headed for a rude awakening some day when all the computers die? Let us know your opinions.