Tech Needs To Slow Down And Start Fixing Things

From Facebook to Amazon to Uber, we can’t afford the same mistakes with the next generation of technology

“Move fast and break things. Unless you are breaking stuff, you are not moving fast enough.” — Mark Zuckerberg

When was breaking things ever a good idea? This quote from Facebook’s CEO perfectly summarises the arrogant, self-entitled, selfish attitude of Silicon Valley. Worse, he perpetuates this behaviour by offering an example for other companies and their leaders. This is not the price of progress. These firms cannot continue to break things in the name of innovation - we need a more human approach. We need to act with intent: to think carefully how technology can improve modern life, not damage it irreparably.

Silicon valley firms like Google, Amazon, Facebook, and Uber are famous for rapid innovation, exponential growth and domination of markets through aggressive competition. They also seem completely indifferent to the negative effects of their operations.

Take Facebook: it is valued at hundreds of billions of dollars but how do you calculate its cost? The livestreaming of the horrendous terrorist attack in New Zealand; or what the United Nations described as its “determining role” in stirring up hatred against Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar; or the interference in national elections by the Russian secret service? Tech commentator, John Gruber has on several occasions referred to Facebook as “akin to a criminal enterprise”, yet who has the power to bring it to account?

What about Amazon? Aggressive online competition has contributed to the decline of many UK town centres, while our homes have been invaded with devices that unnecessarily capture huge amounts of personal data. Retailers have found it difficult to evolve fast enough, but it’s hardly a fair race when Amazon pays so little tax relative to its huge profits.

And, Uber and its poor response to sexual assault? The list of billion dollar companies failing to address the downsides of their operations is disturbing.

These firms have been allowed to break too many fundamental things in their hunger for revenue. And for what benefit to you or me? Have these firms improved the quality of our lives? Are we closer to the people we call friends on Facebook? For all that data we’ve given to Amazon, has it made anything better? Well, we no longer have to get off the sofa to dim the lights or order a takeaway. Alexa can do all of that without us even having to find our mobile phone.

We can’t afford the same mistakes with the next generation of technology where the impacts could be even more significant. Huge leaps in artificial intelligence, genomics, robotics, augmented reality, and the colonisation of space, will have an exponential power to transform the direction of humanity.

Who will control these technologies? Will they be developed devoid of a conscience, like some of these late stage internet giants?

First, entrepreneurs and designers need to appreciate the first, second, and third order possibilities that their products, services and platforms could create. They need to develop more awareness of how other technologies, trends, and stakeholders affect their future vision. It starts with awareness and empathy.

Predicting the future is imperfect, but that doesn’t excuse a lack of effort. Designers need to apply well-established techniques like red teaming and speculative design to imagine both utopian and dystopian outcomes from new products, services, and technologies. Genomics provides some of the most unnerving distopian scenarios. CRISPR technology already allows us to edit genes - you can easily imagine future products that enable anyone with enough money to make themselves or their children better looking, more athletic and smarter. Such products, if they existed, would create a biological divide that will pale current disparities in wealth, opportunity, and access into insignificance.

Second, the funding landscape needs to evolve. Often venture capitalists promote a “winner-take-all” mindset, pushing expansion at the cost of everything else. This is increasingly unacceptable, particularly in areas such as healthcare and financial services where the approach has significant implications. Venture capital needs to exhibit some restraint, allow new companies to grow more deliberately and carefully.

Third, we need to humanise future technology. The current applications of AI demonstrate how little this happens before first use. Already algorithms are being used by courts to sentence criminals and medical professionals to help assist with diagnoses. Would you trust artificial intelligence that couldn’t explain itself to render a criminal sentence or a medical diagnosis on you or a loved one? We need to provide the interfaces through which AI provides open, honest and understandable rationale for its decisions.

Finally, is the issue of diversity. Algorithms predictably inherit the biases, assumptions, and blind spots of their creators. Most technologists and designers being white, middle-class, and university-educated is a problem that results in stab vests for female police officers that don’t fit properly or facial recognition algorithms that won’t recognise people of colour. Diversity is not only the right thing to do but has practical benefits. If we want technology that works for everyone, we need to involve everyone in its creation.

So, let’s not move fast and break things.

For the good of all, let’s move deliberately, and fix things.


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