Bulletin 21 June 2019. The dark side of progress and the case for industry-scale ethics
Beyond the echo chamber
We are in the fourth industrial revolution, so we are told. Disrupt or be disrupted. Jobs will be lost. No they won’t, but they will change. Kids are smarter than their parents. Science is always right. Resistance is futile.
Some of this may be true — I don’t think anyone nobody meant to unleash the transistor onto the world as a bad thing, any more than I believe that the designers of Facebook algorithms or Twitter streams planned to unlock such bias, or such anger. Nope, no siree, I don’t think any said group thought about such stuff at all. Which is the point.
I have a theory about this, by the way, one which I hope is objective… though objectivity seems in very short supply in the current narrative. We are all driven by agendas, complacencies, instincts and I spend a certain amount of time pondering what my own are, and how they will (or do already) manifest.
Back to the theory. The technological centre of gravity lay first with the governments and researchers, then with the corporations, then with the young and forward thinking… and then, i.e. now, with the generations and demographics that were never consulted about any of it.
And they are coming back in spades. There’s a local Facebook group I am party to, which (with no sense of irony) is called “Local Town for Local People.” It is renowned for people complaining about things, often the same things (potholes, bad driving, the lack of respect…) it also has some great threads about old photos.
In said group, voices that might be considered ‘progressive’ are in a minority. I don’t believe the thousands-strong group is so because it overly respects a certain sub-group of the town; rather, it is representative of the actual conversations that, until recently, happened behind closed doors, in pubs and on street corners.
Welcome to the real world, progress. And welcome to the backlash against traditional, top-down behaviours from anyone in power: if everyone has a voice, then you’d better start listening to it. In the past, charismatic leaders could get lucky by aligning with the zeitgeist; today, anyone can do it if they are prepared to listen.
I’m not a super-great fan of jingoistic populism, but nor am I an advocate of complacency or assumptiveness. It probably is the case that the nature of democracy is changing, as opinions can be gauged (and people engaged) at a much finer level of granularity than before. And the debate, as nasty, bully-laced and mob-ruled as it can become, is taking place in public.
But still, the creators of technology continue as if all that is nothing to do with them, as if progress was unassailably a force for good, as if the next set of superpowers the industry was about to unleash were all about the positive consequences, and let’s not worry about the negatives, shall we?
I’m not sure I’m any better, for the record. I might bang on about governance and the like, as though I actually care, but do I really? Am I no better than someone in the alcohol industry or gambling industry saying, yes, we really think people need to be careful with this stuff, but you know, personal responsibility eh?
And this is one area I need to recognise the inherent bias in the systems we create. In driving technology business through positive case studies, we create an echo chamber of our own, in which the positives fill out the narrative with only a little bit of space left for what might go wrong.
I’ve talked about governance by design before, but perhaps we need to go further than that, to a notion of industry-scale culpability. I’m not saying the tech industry is inherently bad; I am saying that this notion that it is inherently good is wearing thin.
I’m not sure what the answer is; but I do know that the notion of ethics is largely consigned to individual efforts, and not to mega-trends (the hammering that Facebook is currently getting is the exception, not the norm). As an industry we have great power in our hands and with great power comes great responsibility.
Smart Shift: Is that a drone in your pocket?
In this section I cover all things autonomous, from driverless trucks to drones. I’m looking forward to self-driving pizza: you heard it here first.
Thanks for reading, Jon