The Hidden Effects of Big Tech’s Empathy Deficit

The following post is an answer to a question recently asked in my Quora Session: “What are the “hidden effects” of Big Tech’s empathy deficit?” To read all of my answers, visit the session here.

The visible effects have been more and more exposed, especially over the last few months: misinformation, destruction of civil discourse, weakening of democracy, the precarious nature of work, etc…

The more insidious effects are harder to see because the technology changes our human behavior in complex and pernicious ways. It’s easy to measure the carbon monoxide produced by a car. It’s harder to quantify how social media, mobile phones or personalized search results cause us to become skeptical about science, more hardened in our opinions, or decrease our attention spans. It’s easy to assess the carbon impact of the airline industry, but harder to understand how rent increases for locals are driven by short-term rentals for tourists.

As I explain in my new book, Trampled by Unicorns, this opacity is further compounded by:

  • Massive scale and the network effects that build it (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) 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 review 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.

I am not arguing all is lost when it comes to fighting these negative effects. Instead, as you’ll see in my new book, 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.

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.

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