For the last decade or so, we’ve been hearing a lot about big data.
“Data is the new oil!” said Clive Humby in 2006, after working on the Tesco Clubcard. And everyone agreed that data was a thing, and set off to find out how to make the most of it.
But the way in which our data is being harvested isn’t good. Because of course, since the early days of Tesco Clubcard, it always was our data that was the raw material: our decisions, our habits, our likes, the type of people we were and who we lived with.
These “insights” are now being used to drive psychological behaviour and we’re no longer talking just about marketing. We’ve moved beyond those clearly defined display ads. And way beyond which type of supermarket deal we might be interested in.
Politics and dark patterns
In her TED talk, sociologist Zeynep Tufekci says we’re building a dystopia just to make people click on ads (she’s a great speaker, well worth 20 minutes). Technologist Jaron Larnier refers to the big tech companies as “Siren servers” – they use beautiful things to mask sinister motives. Last October, Apple CEO Tim Cook warned EU regulators that personal data is being weaponised against users, calling for tougher privacy laws in both Europe and the US.
Now I get kickback from friends who say knowingly, ah well I never trusted all that social stuff anyway. But that’s not the point. As Shoshana Zuboff says in her new book, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, this isn’t about social media any more.
The tentacles of what Tim Cook calls the data-industrial complex are now so embedded in everything we do, breathe, see, it’s impossible to escape (unless you want to live off grid in the middle of nowhere, and even then, you never know who’s listening).
So, have we had enough? Here are 3 reasons why 2019 will be the year of ethical tech.
1. Everything is connected
First and most importantly, as environmentalist (and physicist) Gail Bradbrook says, we can’t smash the system, because we ARE the system. We are all of us, in some way, responsible for the predicament we’re in now.
The tech companies didn’t actively set out to do “evil” any more than consumers wanted to use ethically-dubious products and services (and even less read the lengthy T&Cs that we’ve all signed up to).
Our challenge now is not so much inventing new stuff, but working out how everything that we already have fits and works together. This is exactly the point philosopher Luciano Floridi made at the recent Digital Ethics Summit:
“Better design is everything. If our age is anything it’s the age of design. It’s not the age of the car, it’s not the age of invention. [Design is] where innovation happens.”
Floridi talks about the need to move from a linear economy to a circular economy because “we will be re-everything: re-cycling, re-using and re-designing”.
Creating an ethics framework for technology is part of that process.
2. Bread and circuses
Someone told me recently that social media and Netflix are just like bread and circuses: a term for superficial pacification coined by Juvenal, a Roman poet living around 100 AD. Juvenal noticed that as Roman heroism declined, the government kept people happy by sending out free food and staging huge spectacles in the Colosseum.
Turkish journalist Ece Temelkuran summed it up nicely when she spoke at the Frontline Club this week: “People have had it with #Brexit, but are waiting for the HBO series with Benedict Cumberbatch to understand it. They’re watching Vice to understand what happened during the Bush presidency.”
3. Now is the time
This is where it begins. We’ve never seen the stakes as high as they are now. This is absolutely the moment to build a movement. What’s the point of building tech if it’s not helping us address the biggest problems of the next 10 yrs? @Marthalanefox 💫#legend #ResponsibleTech19 pic.twitter.com/zUYOUMI7vr
— Jemima Gibbons 🙈 (@JemimaG) January 31, 2019
Last week, Martha Lane Fox‘s charity, doteveryone, hosted the Responsible Tech conference. Lane Fox came on stage at the end of the day to launch a compelling call to action: “This is where it begins. We’ve never seen the stakes as high as they are now. This is absolutely the moment to build a movement.”
Lane Fox is married to a marine biologist, so she’s acutely aware of the impact that our lives and our use of technology are having on the environment. We need ethical solutions that are not just people-centric, but planet-centric (a point echoed by Floridi).
We’ve done it before – we can do it again. Speaking on Start the Week on Monday, Shoshana Zuboff pointed out that none of this is inevitable – we do in fact have a choice:
“Our societies know how to curb capitalism. We know how to bind the excesses of raw capitalism to the democratic process. We’ve been doing it for a very long time. We ended the Gilded Age. We did it in the Great Depression. We did it in the Post War era. We can do it again.”
So, that’s the good news. It’s now up to us to make this happen.
There are so many initiatives going on – ethical tech has become an industry in itself. Here are just a few of the good things I’ve come across in the last two weeks:
- The Social Tech Venture Fund (new government initiative worth £30 million)
- TechTransformed: a plan to help product teams build responsibly (from doteveryone)
- Data Ethics Canvas (Open Data Institute)
- 10 principles of responsible AI (Women Leading in AI)
- Utopia for Realists: And How We Can Get There (by Rutger Bregman)
Buy the book, read the strategy, join the movement! We are not yet seeing the emergence of a new, international, ethical technology framework, but we are at least seeing the beginnings of a conversation around its creation.
How good and how robust the framework will be is down to all of us.