Monthly Research
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Defending Digital

Identity/Strategy / 12 Dec 2018 / By David Moschella

Resist the Tech Backlash Before It’s Too Late

The CEOs of the leading digital technology firms have grown used to being admired.  For nearly half a century, they’ve been portrayed as visionary, passionate and committed to building a better, smarter world.  Combined with their often-astonishing wealth, they have enjoyed a public profile matched by few business leaders, mixing easily in political, cultural and celebrity circles.  Arguably, their main PR challenge over the years has been to stay sufficiently humble and grounded amidst all the adulation.

But today, societal perceptions are shifting, and these same leaders – and the technology industry itself – are on the defensive across a wide range of fronts, including privacy, inequity, unemployment, bias, manipulation, polarization, monopoly power, and more.  Is all this negativity just a passing phase, or a sign of something more fundamental?  Bitter complaints and eye-rolling frustrations about the oil, pharmaceutical, insurance, banking, cable TV, telephony, airline and other major industries are now baked into contemporary culture.  Does Big Tech face a similar future?

The good news is that many of these criticisms are either unfair or exaggerated, while others can be addressed by relatively straightforward action.  The bad news is that, because the response of our leading firms and executives – in both the media and recent government hearings – has been mostly apologetic, non-confrontational, and even dismissive, the negative narratives are taking hold, especially in elite media, political and academic circles -- from both the left and the right.   Unless all of us in the IT industry start doing a better job of defending ourselves, the attacks will surely continue, and the negative perceptions will likely spread to the public at large – and even our own organizations.  Below are nine narratives well on their way to becoming the conventional wisdom that the technology industry would be wise to more strongly resist and/or address:

1.  The IT industry is destroying individual privacy and ushering in a ‘surveillance economy’.  Today’s privacy risks are clear: faces are readily identified; our movements are routinely tracked; personal data is used in unknown ways; data is retained forever; China is showing us what a surveillance state could look like, etc.   However, the ways in which technology has increased our privacy typically go unmentioned.  Yet, the ability to search in the relative privacy of one’s own home or screen for more information about a disease, a disability, a political or religious cause, a career possibility, a sexual curiosity or countless other sensitive topics is one of the internet’s greatest achievements, so much so that, for the vast majority of people, the overall privacy balance is still a huge net positive.  Just think about how little privacy people in (for example) small towns had when the best source of information was the local library.  Many of us would prefer that Google or our ISP anonymously ‘know’ certain things about us rather than our parents or next-door neighbours.  So yes, we need better digital security and protection against privacy abuses, and the tech industry needs to show that it can address these issues; but there’s still a very strong positive privacy story to tell.  Too bad, no one is really telling it.  Overall rating: More unfair than fair, but big tests clearly lie ahead.

2.  Technology is a major driver of extreme inequality.  Economic inequality is widening, and today’s billionaires are the poster children for the astronomical wealth of the 0.1%.  Of course, great wealth was also a defining feature of the early days of the railroad, oil, banking and other industries, and was often resented in similar ways.  This suggests that, eventually, technology will become a normal industry, with financial rewards – especially stock price gains – more closely tracking other sectors.  But until then, the rich tech companies need to do a much better job of sharing their wealth, starting with greater equality across their company’s own employees (and any supporting gig ecosystems), while also paying a reasonable amount of tax in the countries they do business in.  The tech giants should be embarrassed that they’ve been behind the curve on these two issues, as Amazon belatedly seems to have realized.  The IT industry’s emphasis on large-scale philanthropy, propping-up troubled media companies, and moonshot projects – such as space tourism – is not nearly enough to prevent negative perceptions and publicity.  Overall rating: True and fair, but relatively easy to address.

3.  Automation destroys more jobs than it creates and reduces the quality and meaning of work.  Again, it’s easy to see the downsides.  Lives have been shattered by the closing of factories, mills and mines; many businesses are trying to move to automated, self-service operations; computers and cameras can monitor our time, movements, efforts, etc.  But the reality is that people have feared job-destroying and dehumanizing technologies since the industrial revolution, only to find themselves mostly on the wrong side of history.  Globally, both the number of jobs and their quality are on the rise.  So yes, in many countries and regions there are serious job displacement concerns that have proved very difficult to address, and nations do indeed compete for jobs against one another, but the world needs much greater productivity to meet its growing societal requirements and demands, and this means more automation, not less.  The tech industry needs to do a much better job of separating today’s growing doubts about globalization from those about computer-based automation.    Most of today’s economic backlash stems from the former; the latter remains the key to productivity and rising, not falling, wages.  Overall rating: Mostly unfair, so far.

4.  Social media is coarsening and polarizing politics and society.  Given today’s relative peace and prosperity, we live in surprisingly contentious times, with the citizens of many developed nations engaging in highly emotional debates about globalization, immigration, borders, national identity, job security, cultural norms and other so-called populist issues, often resulting in harsh online (and often harsher offline) language and behaviour.  But bullying, shaming, polarized political debates and personal attacks were also familiar characteristics of the pre-social media era, and the rise of social media has also coincided with many forms of increased social awareness and tolerance, as well as the need for more politically careful speech.  Perhaps the bottom line is that social media makes today’s divisions much more visible, and that far too often, the internet defines people by the worst thing they have ever said or done.  But digital media is not the root cause of today’s political and societal polarization, which stems from economic and cultural shifts that are occurring all around the world.  Sometimes, the technology industry needs to push back against claims about its own power and influence, and admit that, in most nations, traditional media – especially television -- is still a more powerful political and cultural forces than social media.  Overall rating: Fair, but exaggerated.

5.  Digital products and services are addictive and adversely affect today’s youth.  Few of us haven’t found ourselves compulsively checking for messages or spending too much time online, and there has never been a device as personal, as powerful, and as immediately accessible as the modern smartphone.  Not surprisingly, many people – of all ages – find it difficult to stay offline for extended periods, with teenagers often especially vulnerable.  But it’s not as if this is a new condition.  At various times, the youths of the developed world have been described as addicted to radios, movies, television, and rock and roll, only to see these fascinations cool over time.  It’s hard to argue that video games, smartphones and social media are fundamentally any different, and already many people – young and old – are scaling back the time they spend in the digital world.  Similarly, people have been claiming since the days of the ancient Greeks that modern cultures are corrupting, and that the youth of today don’t match the character and achievements of their ancestors, when – to the extent that this has any meaning at all – it’s much more about different generations responding to different circumstances in different ways.  Overall rating: Technically true, but significantly exaggerated and likely to prove self-correcting.

6.  Algorithmic operations suffer from hidden biases and are easily manipulated.  Most algorithms are either designed by humans or emerge from data sets, and both are subject to systemic biases.  There is actually no such thing as pure objectivity, as just about everything we do is based on our underlying understandings, assumptions, beliefs, needs, intentions and limitations.  So, the question isn’t whether algorithms are biased; it’s whether these biases can be reduced to a level that makes them more objective/accurate than traditional human decision-making.  This is a much easier challenge, as the biases of individual doctors, lawyers, judges, teachers, journalists, executives, coaches, loan approval managers, recruiters and other decision-makers are legendary.  This argues strongly that in the long run algorithms will do more to reduce bias than increase it.  However, in the short run, the industry can take some useful actions.  High among these is to re-examine and be more transparent about the use of personalization (and the resulting so-called filter bubbles), especially in news, media and search applications.  Many of us would prefer to receive the same search results or see the same home pages as everyone else, rather than know that the content we click on today determines the content we will see tomorrow.  Overall rating: Technically true, but over-stated and likely to diminish over time

7.  Today’s internet giants are monopolies that should be regulated or broken up.  Concerns about monopoly power are not new to the IT industry.  In their day, IBM, AT&T, Microsoft and Intel – and even Cisco -- were all seen as too big and powerful, capable of crushing competition before it really emerges.  So it is today.  Google, Amazon and Facebook are of course particularly dominant in their marketplaces, suggesting to many that there is a need for either regulation or antitrust intervention.  Looking back, government actions in both the US and Europe have repeatedly played a useful role in restraining monopoly power within the technology industry, buying time until shifting market and technology paradigms eventually provided a more permanent and substantial cure.  Thus, while it is easy to imagine growing pressure to break up Google (search, YouTube, Android) or Amazon (retail, AWS), or make life more difficult for Facebook (limiting certain types of acquisitions), history says that market (China?) and technology shifts (peer-to-peer?) will eventually provide the stronger remedies.  In the meantime, national governments and today’s giants can both learn a lot from the IBM, AT&T and Microsoft experiences.  Overall rating: Monopoly power clearly exists, but there are multiple paths for both short- and long-term correction.

8.  Artificial intelligence is impossible to control and will eventually diminish human worth.  Ever since people started to understand how computers could someday work and what they might become capable of doing (think Alan Turing), experts and the general public alike have pondered the eventual impact of smart machines and the potential for superintelligence.  So, given the recent progress in machine learning and related areas, it’s hardly surprising that this debate has surfaced anew, led by prominent IT industry figures, concerned citizens and the usual rabble rousers.  But, thus far at least, the situation has not fundamentally changed; the benefits of machine intelligence are many and here today, while the dangers are almost entirely speculative.  We have seen little or no sign of doctors, lawyers, teachers, or government officials being replaced by machines – in fact, quite the opposite, as these and other professionals look to technology to help cope with ever-rising workloads.  Even in areas such as chess and radiology, deep learning systems have enriched the thinking in their respective fields more than diminished it, and the combination of human and machine intelligence still results in the superior output.  Overall rating: Untrue for at least the near term, unknowable after that. 

9.  All of the above prove that the IT industry can no longer regulate itselfWhile self-regulation presents challenges in all the areas above, the IT industry has generally done a remarkable job of self-governance.  Many experts forecasted that without some sort of centralized management and control, the internet would eventually break down; just as many doubted that complex software could be successfully developed through open source/crowd sourcing methods.  Similarly, many people worried about a looming digital divide back when expensive personal computers were our main internet access device, only to see the issue recede as smartphones became ubiquitous.  While cyber-crime is widespread, it has not reached unmanageable (i.e. uninsurable) levels.  In contrast, it remains to be seen whether large-scale government interventions such as GDPR will prove effective, let alone efforts to force companies to separate true information from false, eliminate so-called hate speech, require right-to-forget and right-to-correct capabilities, prevent political manipulation, and other inherently subjective and evolving mandates.  Sadly, it often seems that prominent digital industry leaders today are asking for more regulation in many of these areas.  They should be careful what they wish for, especially given rising national sovereignty dynamics all around the world.  Overall rating: Mostly unfair, but a sustained effort to demonstrate self-regulation now required.

Of course, these are not the only challenges today.  The industry also needs more forthright and effective responses to concerns about copyright violations, pornography, identity theft, cyber warfare and the Dark Web.  But as a starting point, our industry can better defend itself by:

  1. Emphasizing that the internet is arguably the greatest privacy innovation ever
  2. Visibly paying/treating low-wage workers better, and avoiding large-scale tax evasion
  3. Consistently and publicly challenging the view that technology is a net job destroyer
  4. More humbly describing the influence of social media, both culturally and politically
  5. Arguing that today’s tech addictions are essentially the same as in earlier media eras
  6. Insisting that machines are far less biased than humans
  7. Explaining that the IT industry has always had very strong, but changing, market leaders
  8. Showing the many benefits of AI, while challenging the doomsayers much more directly
  9. Demonstrating why self-regulation should remain IT’s primary governance model.

By consistently advocating these nine messages and taking the necessary supporting actions, the technology industry can start to roll back today’s increasingly negative narratives, and steadily build up a more balanced understanding of both technology’s many benefits and the real challenges that inevitably come with them. 

But the starting point is for today’s tech giants to stop being a media and political punching bag.  If our industry doesn’t defend itself, no one else will.


David discusses with the press.





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