While being a champion of the beneficial side of tech, I have felt for quite some time that tech is not the unequivocal force for good that it set up to be at the beginning and that the negatives are starting to outweigh the positive. I wanted to put together a balanced analysis of these problems and where they come from, but more importantly I wanted to try to offer solutions.
With our societies now in the thick of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, with much turbulence still to come, large tech companies, with their unprecedented reach and power, have within their grasp the opportunity to make serious dents in the defining issues of our age.
Below is a brief excerpt from my new book, Trample by Unicorns, which is officially out today. In reading about the effects of the tech industry’s empathy deficit, I hope you will see that less tech is not the answer. Instead, when need more empathetic tech.
So why is Trampled by Unicorns mainly focused on the problems tech is creating for humanity? For starters, because tech is now so deeply ingrained in everyday life, many of its more insidious effects also occur in the background, like some kind of white noise that is easy to ignore. Yet tech companies’ influence over everything from the nature of work, to our privacy, to the contours of our cities, to the underlying fairness of our economies and the health of our democracies, is massive, and growing more so by the minute.
Moreover, I don’t accept the oft-heard tropes of tech that these problems are necessary tradeoffs to get us the many benefits technology brings us. In most cases, they are not. Or that these tradeoffs are not worth public scrutiny due to their inevitability or their complexity. Or that disruption for disruption’s sake is a good thing. Or that the negative effects of the tech revolution are similar to those of previous ones, and sort themselves out in the end. This book seeks to document how the staggering size and world-bending power of tech’s unicorns is central to this particular revolution, and why that poses an existential threat that we must grapple with, and soon.
One of the many difficulties in addressing these issues is the “attention economy” that tech has created. When so much competes for our attention, and when we are trained to expect and demand instant gratification, it is hard to focus on the bigger picture.
Just think back to your first time using Facebook and marveling at the ability to connect with people around the world, before learning how it data-mines your posts and profile and tracks your every digital move. Or, if you have a small business, how Google drives big sales increases until you realize how dependent you are on them when suddenly the search giant tweaks its algorithm and kills your business. And there is nothing you can do. We often tend to think this way – very short-term, very self-centered. As long as we don’t know about the sweatshops making our phones, or the trackers following our every move as we navigate through the internet, it’s fine. Ignorance really is bliss, and tech is very good at keeping us distracted with an endless stream of shiny new toys and capabilities.
To be sure, it is difficult and complicated to directly measure tech’s negative impact on our day to day life. A lot of the effects are not caused by the technology directly, as with previous waves of innovation (like a car generating carbon monoxide, which affects the atmosphere in ways we can measure objectively). Rather these effects are often complex changes in human behavior that some technology provokes (we stop believing in facts; our attention span decreases) or secondary effects (increase of rents for locals because of the increase of short-term rentals for tourists).
This opacity is further compounded by:
- Massive scale and the network effects that build it make it hard to track how tens of millions of people are affected.
- The refusal of Big Tech to disclose data: we can’t say how many people have decided to not vaccinate their children because they’ve been exposed to bogus claims on the side effects of vaccines. We don’t really know how much the traffic has gotten worse because Uber and Lyft won’t tell us how many cars they have on the street at any given time.
- The lack of ethics boards (like the ones universities have) to vett tech’s behavioral experiments on people. A few engineers can decide to test something, change a few lines of code and start experimenting right away. “Unlike academic social scientists, Facebook’s employees have a short path from an idea to an experiment on hundreds of millions of people”, noted a profile of Facebook data team.
Big Tech’s scale is also powered by the fact that a set of goods and services can be provided to a near infinite number of additional customers, all at the same time, at an incremental cost that is often close to zero. This, and the network effects that Big Tech enjoys — which means people have few alternatives to the platforms that all their friends and family use—help create near monopolies, enormous growth and profits, and unrivaled political power.
We are living in a period of historic, exponential growth and change. In the near term, that might be the best we can do: to begin to notice, and grapple with, technology’s implications. So much of the technology that governs our world is opaque, hidden away from us under secretive algorithms and impenetrable code, like so many black boxes. Only, there are people there, inside the boxes, writing the code. And people who lead them.
I am not arguing all is lost. Instead, I am passionate about pushing tech to evolve, not only for the greater good but because it makes sound business sense, so that we can continue to enjoy the best that tech brings us without dystopian consequences that can be avoided, or at least minimized. So, let’s open up the boxes. They aren’t black, very often. Mostly they’re quite glassy, airy, and based around the San Francisco Bay and other tech hubs. There’s a bubble that surrounds them, cutting off the culture inside from the rest of the world.
Excerpt adapted with permission of the publisher, Wiley, from Trampled by Unicorns by Maëlle Gavet. Copyright ©2021 by Maelle Gavet. All rights reserved. This book is available wherever books and eBooks are sold.
We Don’t Need Less Tech, We Need More #EmpatheticTech
A tech executive’s revealing and in-depth examination of Big Tech’s failure to keep its foundational promises and the steps the industry can take to course-correct in order to make a positive impact on the world. Available Now.