How to create better tech (in one not-so-easy step)
September 13, 2019
The last week or so provided a rare dose of good news from the tech industry. The news points the way to an emerging discussion of how to create good, not exploitative, tech - or at least how to create better tech than what we have today.
First, the news:
• Google, finally, finally, is facing a real challenge from the U.S. government: 50 U.S. states and territories announced a broad antitrust investigation of Google, reported the Washington Post on Sep 9. Google isn't alone, either: Facebook, Amazon, and Apple are all under separate investigations now for anti-competitive behavior. With luck, we'll see these Big Tech companies broken up. We might even see consequences for senior leadership, as suggested by U.S. Senator Ron Wyden in an interview last month:
Mark Zuckerberg has repeatedly lied to the American people about privacy. I think he ought to be held personally accountable, which is everything from financial fines to - and let me underline this - the possibility of a prison term. Because he hurt a lot of people.
• Next piece of good news: the MIT Media Lab's director, Joi Ito, resigned after it became clear that he had solicited and accepted funding from Jeffrey Epstein, and then didn't fully disclose his activity later. A past guest on my Techtonic radio show (from June 2018), UVA professor Siva Vaidhyanathan wrote on Twitter why Ito's resignation was necessary, while responding to Larry Lessig's defense of Ito. Also worth reading is Evgeny Morozov's comment in the Guardian. (Update Sept 14: see also John Naughton's comment about MIT as hedge fund, also in the Guardian.)
• Finally, the pro-democracy protestors won the latest round in Hong Kong: the New York Times reported that Hong Kong's leader, Carrie Lam, plans to withdraw the extradition bill that ignited the protests (Sep 4). The Chinese surveillance state, funded in part by American Big Tech, has been pushed back. For the moment.
In all three cases, the good team triumphed over the exploitative adversary. Fifty attorneys general are taking on Google, a trillion-dollar monster that makes money from encouraging, then exploiting, the worst of humanity. The Media Lab is facing a reckoning for the cozy relationship it had with a pedophile (again, see Google's business model; what is it with the tech elite and child exploitation?). And the residents of Hong Kong flooded the streets of their city, every weekend for months, to stare down the Chinese Communist Party, arguably one of the most powerful organizations in the world, on par with the American Big Tech companies. And democracy won.
While the good guys-and-gals have won this round, there's still a question of how "our team" should prepare for the future. After all, Big Tech will continue to fight for its growth-at-any-cost, even-child-exploitation business model, and it will continue to resist democracy (see my column about the showdown between Big Tech and democracy). Big Tech, in other words, isn't done. The rest of us need to figure out how we'll fight the next round.
A few possibilities are sprouting up:
• The Copenhagen Catalog lists "150 principles for a new direction in tech," inviting technologists to consider how to do better. The suggestions range from thoughtful to platitudinous, and all of them are - of course - totally optional.
• The much-reported-on Center for Humane Technology, based in Silicon Valley, encourages tech companies there to change their interface designs, so as to treat tech users more "humanely" while their data is being harvested, much like pigs and cows might be "humanely" slaughtered for their meat. These are benign guidelines, but they're made by technologists, for technologists, and describe a solution that's firmly dependent on technology. (What did you expect? It's a "Center" for "Technology," not primarily for the people who are affected by tech.)
• Helpful guidelines and a reform-from-within strategy won't work, writes Carl Miller, in It's time to forcibly reform big tech (Wired UK, Aug 15). Instead, he says, we must accept that we can't "get them to care more," referring to Big Tech companies and the technologists inside them, since they "lack accountability, democratic oversight, [and] public transparency." Instead, we need a better moral support network outside of the tech companies, building a healthier society that can better withstand Big Tech's exploitation. (Carl was my guest on Techtonic on the Sept 2 episode.)
• A more depressing strategy is just to give up and work with whoever holds the power - whether Big Tech, or the Chinese Communist Party - as long as they provide enough financial security. This is the approach taken by the town of Arnstadt, Germany, where the residents are excited for their new battery factory (NYT, Sep 2), paid for by Chinese investment. It's interesting to see the rationalizations used by various town officials: after all, this is fiercely democratic Germany, supposed powerhouse of the European Union, doing business with the authoritarians who are cracking down on democracy in Hong Kong. Arnstadt's mayor gives the old above-my-pay-grade defense, saying, "My job is to improve the city. The rest is at a different level." (Exercise for the reader: compare with Hong Kong's response to Chinese influence.)
The stakes are high, as Apple showed a few days ago in their on-stage product launches. I wrote a silly Twitter thread with my thoughts, but really: what we're seeing from Apple - and the rest of Big Tech - is: more cameras, more data, more surveillance, more lock-in, more exploitation. This, after all, is the path to growth-at-any-cost.
If you think the new three-camera ding-dongs from Apple are totally benign, take just the briefest look at this Washington Post piece, What is it like to live in a modern surveillance state? Look to Dubai. This is the logical conclusion of Big Tech's strategy of taking over, and it's coming here to the U.S. Already here in New York City, our shiny new Manhattan neighborhood, marketingly dubbed "Hudson Yards," is sometimes called Little Dubai. It's our first concentrated taste of the surveillance city, powered by Big Tech, that New York - and all our cities - could soon become.
(To jump ahead a bit, you'll hear soon enough that you're being watched when you step outside. From the sky. Listen to my interview with Arthur Holland Michel about the so-called "eyes in the sky" (Sep 9 Techtonic). See episode notes.)
And that brings me to my own suggestion for how "the good team" should get through the next round, and the one after that. Whenever we create technology, or make decisions that involve technology, there's just one thing you can do, one simple thing, that will FAR improve the outcomes over Big Tech's current process. It's this: Include the customer. Include the citizen. Include the patient, the student, the old person, the child, the immigrant, the whoever is affected by that decision, by that technology. By spending time with these "customers" early on in the design process, you'll know better how to aim for their long-term benefit when building the product. Helping people - that long-term benefit - is the definition of true innovation. I wrote my book Customers Included to say just this, and I wish more teams - in and outside of tech - would use the book as a starting point for how to join the good team.
P.S. Update Sept 14: More resources on the Hong Kong protests, an issue that cuts across the American political spectrum. (On the right, read Quillette. On the left, read Maciej Ceglowski and his followup. Roughly in the middle: Zeynep Tufekci and the NYT's own coverage.) And advocating for their cause, Hong Kong activists wrote this op-ed in the NYT.
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Here's how to create better tech, writes @markhurst:
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