Opinion

Does Silicon Valley have a conscience again? Spoiler: not really

By Wade Wallerstein

Updated May 19, 2020 at 03:29 PM

Reading time: 3 minutes


Innovation

Jun 19, 2019

There’s currently a huge move happening in Silicon Valley. Big Tech is just starting to figure out that any technology’s design can have unintentional consequences on users, and any intended consequences may have unexpected long-term effects—a realisation that should have been obvious from the beginning.

Lately, this movement has been championed by former Google Design Ethicist Tristan Harris, whose treatises on the ways that contemporary technologies “hijack our psychological vulnerabilities” led him to quit the big G and found the Center for Humane Technology. On April 23, Harris presented Humane: A New Agenda for Tech which explained the organisation’s mission to combat the extractive techniques utilised by our modern attention economy. According to Harris and the Center for Humane Technology, the current technological paradigm preys on human weaknesses, exploiting us for financial profit, rather than compensating for the vulnerabilities hardwired into our nature and making the world an easier place to live in.

While organisation’s like the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the World Economic Forum’s Centre for the Fourth Industrial Revolution have existed for years to help preserve the relationship between humans and technology, it is only recently that these topics have taken centre stage in American conversations surrounding ethical applications of technology. As we settle into the post-post-internet era, the critical need to understand the long-term effects of the information economy on a global audience’s ability to tell fact from fiction or exercise self-control has reached a fever pitch. Something’s gotta give.

Online advertising employs certain kinds of algorithmic technology that have made the tension between human needs and the coercive pull of technological design especially apparent. By design, a social media platform like Facebook works to extract attention from a captive audience. The more time a user spends watching or scrolling, the more money the platform makes. Our data is mined and algorithmically exploited to spew content at us that will keep our eyes locked on a screen for longer. YouTube’s recommendation algorithm, for example, actively works to break down free will in that it attempts to show us videos that are increasingly difficult to resist clicking on. This has led to the propagation of radical content across the network, as increasingly extreme videos are particularly effective at captivating viewers.

While data use, on the one hand, is a major issue, perhaps more frightening are the ways that black box algorithms invisibly shape the digital bubbles that surround us online—practically without us knowing it. The advertising rules for Facebook, for example, prohibit (among other things) any discussion of mental health, cryptocurrency or sex. These rules don’t just apply for products or services, but also non-profit groups and news publications. Take a small tech news business (like Screen Shot, for instance) that almost exclusively deals with these kinds of topics in relation to digital culture. Or, alternatively, a mental health group that wants to advertise its group grief counselling sessions to a wider audience that might need some help.

It’s true that the engineers behind these decisions probably had somewhat benevolent intentions—something along the lines of protecting young and vulnerable users from inappropriate content or pyramid schemes—the unintended consequences have been devastating. Advertisers who attempt to post content that violates advertising rules without in-depth knowledge of the subtleties of these policies risk content deletion, account suspension, or worse, shadow banning. Moreover, these policies stifle rich possibilities for conversation and cross-pollination of ideas.

As users, our options remain slim to combat these forms of algorithmic control. We naturally want to connect with other people, and we also naturally enjoy the targeted advertisements that more closely fit our needs. These advertising methods work, and e-commerce economies rely on the very high conversion rates that social media platforms offer, which is why these practices have only ramped up.

But, technologies of the extractive attention economy throw up major blinders that prevent users from branching into new digital ecosystems and instead confine us to shrinking online spheres. Instead of protecting users, algorithmic surveillance, biased content moderation, and artificially imposed social advertising regulations threaten free speech and damage the ability of smaller entities to competitively engage in their markets.

The solution? Hard to say beyond ‘don’t use social media’. Raising your voice and letting your chosen social media provider know that you disagree with some of their content moderation strategies might be a good option, but then again it’s hard to think that Facebook might change its mind about this stuff. These same damaging regulatory technologies also prevent child pornography, money laundering scams, and illegal goods from flooding your timeline, provide crucial targeted advertising on smaller scales for smaller entities and pay the bills of your favourite influencers so you can get more piping hot tea delivered to your feed on a regular basis. 

More than ever, it is vital that every internet user pays attention to the frame, rather than just the content that passes across the surface of the screen.

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