Yes, we can tame and recover great technology, say three Stanford professors. Here’s how.
Russian hacking, privacy breaches, misinformation, disinformation, tech bros, algorithmic bias, surveillance capitalism, job-eating bots and more – the litany of technological woes seems to grow longer every year.
In “System Error: Where Big Tech Went Wrong and How We Can Reboot” – distilled from the popular ethics, public policy and technological change course they co-teach at Stanford University – Rob Reich, Mehran Sahami and Jeremy M. Weinstein, a philosopher, computer scientist, and sociologist, respectively, argue that our current technological pessimism is as limiting as the euphoria that preceded it. Their message: we got into this; we can get away with it.
Stephen Phillips spoke to the three authors via video chat. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: We assume that tech platforms are value neutral – channels of self-expression. How are some values encoded there (and others ignored) and how does this shape our user experience?
Weinstein: Social media doesn’t just provide passive access to information. The platforms use algorithms to actively organize information – nudges from YouTube and Facebook that direct us to certain types of content in order to increase our engagement with the platform. This can cause them to promote information because it is more likely to be clicked on than, say, how factual or informative it is. We argue that when the values implicit in platforms reach such a scale that they generate harmful externalities in society, decisions about them should not be left to companies alone.
Q: You involve “optimization” in a lot of what’s wrong with technology. On the surface, the optimization seems positive, geared towards maximizing utility. How can this lead us wrong?
Reich: Optimization is one way to achieve another end; In itself, this distracts attention from assessing the value of that goal. Moreover, since it is pursued in engineering, it requires a goal that can be processed by calculation – reducible to mathematics. This leads to the adoption of proxies – like the time spent on a platform – as rough approximations of goals that are more difficult to quantify, such as maximizing a positive connection. Finally, a reductive focus on one value can cancel out others. A world in which everyone eats Soylent nutritionally optimized meal replacement powder is a world in which other food-related values - social connection, taste and pleasure, cultural identity – disappear.
Q: How did a handful of tech companies come to exert such dominance in the market?
Weinstein: Innovative products are only part of the story. In the mid-1990s, politicians deliberately adopted a permissive regulatory environment to accelerate the development of the Internet. This has led to free data collection, limited review of mergers and acquisitions, and platforms exempt from legal liability for content posted to them. We want an efficient but also healthy and competitive technological sector. People are rightly frustrated with tech companies, but they also need to address their anger at the lawmakers who created and maintained the regulatory oasis that has brought us to the present moment.
Q: Techno-utopianism seems Pollyannaish. But how to avoid succumbing to despair and regain a sense of action on the future of technology?
Weinstein: Our central message is that each of us has the power to shape our technological future. Techno-Utopia was a time when people praised brilliant engineers creating deeply consequential products that would improve our lives. Techno-pessimism says, “I don’t trust the people who work in these companies or the products they make; they maximize their profits while generating externalities. Both are passive orientations. Technology is not a wave that overwhelms us and that we are powerless to influence. We are at an inflection point. The periods of innovation succeed the awareness of the consequences of the monopoly which stimulates regulation. With the appointments of Tim Wu to the White House and Lina Khan to the Federal Trade Commission, we look back at the good deals made in the 1990s. Such political windows rarely arise; Realizing the transformative potential depends on the interaction between citizens, policy makers and engaged technologists.
Q: What can we do personally to combat some of the ailments you identify?
Sahami: You can just avoid certain products, but that’s not always practical. More realistic steps include configuring privacy settings that determine who can and can’t see our data, and using incognito searches when we don’t want queries to be part of our search history, which has a impact. impact on the results we get from future research. Nothing prevents us from engaging civilly with friends who might consume disinformation. It can be easy to spot and we can politely push back. Otherwise, misinformation wins.
System error: where Big Tech went wrong and how we can restart
By Rob Reich, Mehran Sahami and Jeremy M. Weinstein
(Harper; 352 pages; $ 27.99)
The Commonwealth Club of California introduces Rob Reich, Mehran Sahami and Jeremy M. Weinstein in conversation with MarketWatch reporter Levi Sumagaysay: Virtual event. 5 p.m. to 6 p.m. Monday, September 27. $ 5 general admission; $ 28 with book. Members benefit from free or reduced price registration. www.commonwealthclub.org