Tech(no)logical advancement in the House of Representatives

Hannah Johnson, Contributing Writer

In high school, I read the novel ”Next” by Michael Crichton. The book is a wild ride, following multiple characters and plots of talking chimpanzees, humanoid parrots and shape-shifting animals. The storyline closest to reality, though, follows a man named Frank. Frank’s cancer-fighting cells are stolen and sold by a university without his knowledge (similar to the historical figure Henrietta Lacks) to a biotech startup. He decides to sue and ends up in an extremely complex situation in which the ruling court remains fully unable to grasp the gravity of the situation because they don’t understand the technology. In fact, they don’t even understand how cells could be stolen in the first place. The same thing is happening with TikTok today. What is the connection between stolen cancer cells and TikTok you may be asking? Well, the United States government.

Typically, older generations don’t stay up to date with newer technology. Our parents constantly ask us for help with how to use their computer, how to download a file or how to print something properly. It makes sense then that the younger generation should be calling the shots when it comes to legal management of technology in the United States. Unfortunately, this is not always the case. 

On March 23, TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew was interrogated for roughly five hours by the House Energy and Commerce Committee about the app’s safety and security for the American population. The U.S. government has concerns about unauthorized data sharing with the Chinese government as well as teen addiction and misinformation, among other issues. These concerns about TikTok are far from new, but after hearing the questions some of the representatives asked during the interrogation, it’s clear why Congress has been unable to act for years now.

A viral video features North Carolina Rep. Richard Hudson questioning CEO Chew on whether TikTok “access[es]” the home Wi-Fi network,” to which the CEO responded, “Only if the user turns on the Wi-Fi”—an answer which essentially any teenager in America would know. 

After some clarification, Chew patiently explained that TikTok has to access the network to get a connection to the Internet—although it is clear he was still unsure about exactly what the representative was asking. When Georgia Rep. Buddy Carter had the mic, he said, “Can you tell me right now … with 100% certainty that TikTok does not use the phone’s camera to determine whether the content that elicits a pupil dilation should be amplified by the algorithm?”—which is already a highly confusing question. Chew responded by essentially relaying that the platform doesn’t collect feature-identifying data, except for certain filters needing such information. Carter was utterly perplexed, asking “Why do you need to know where the eyes are if you’re not seeing if they’re dilated?” 

Despite their intent to better understand the collection and use of personal data, these questions actually seem to be turning the very demographic that uses TikTok against the House of Representatives. It makes our government look uniquely uninformed about the very thing they are concerned about. Genuine concerns about data usage are, thus, belittled in the public eye. In fact, Chew has even gained a fair amount of support and adoration from American citizens for maintaining an informed and respectful visage. The adoration is only heightened as the members of the House can be seen continually disrespecting Chew by referring to him as a Chinese citizen (when he is Singaporean), speaking over him and getting defensive when it is clear they do not understand a key aspect of data collection.

This brings up the question of who should be gathering information in a hearing, particularly one that should include technologically-informed individuals. It is absurd to rely on the same people who struggle to print a two-sided document to be able to thoroughly question a trained professional on the specifics of data collection. As a result, we receive uninformed hysteria on the part of the older generation and disbelief at the ineptitude of our government from the younger.

Circling back to my initial example, “Next,” although ridiculously chaotic and dystopian, mirrors the present disconnect between the reality of expanding technology and our outdated governmental system. The inability of those chosen to rule our country to connect to the younger generation often is because older generations do not make an effort to stay up to date with new developments, instead immediately sensationalizing and demonizing its users or creators. This generally ends up hurting the average citizen’s perception of legal rule and America’s reputation for seriousness.

There is also something to be said about media distortion of technological advancements. “Next” focuses on just how quickly the ignorant public’s opinion can be swayed to think negatively or positively about some new technology and the lack of desire to quell rising hysteria if it serves what the ruling class aims to achieve. It makes sense, then, that some bad representation can convince the public to challenge the people who are supposed to express our concerns. 

Instead of concentrating our efforts on condemning what we do not understand, we should aim to appoint informed, younger people in the tech field to educate those with the power to enforce our laws. If not, then maybe those people should be enforcing our laws themselves.