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Does Tech Need a Reckoning?

By Laura Hilgers

With scandals like Cambridge Analytica, privacy issues and #MeToo moments, tech has left many wondering whether it has abdicated its responsibilities.

Jan English-Lueck, anthropology professor at San Jose State University and author of [email protected], is studying “bro culture.

Tech was going to make everything better. With the internet boom of the 1990s, we were going to buy books for cheap, find love online and connect with the entire globe. Second Life, an online virtual world launched in 2003, even promised that we could inhabit digital avatars and create a society of people no longer defined by gender, age or race.

It was a utopian vision, fueled by nerds. And the storyline was that Silicon Valley startups — unlike Big Oil or banks — were the good guys. Hardly anyone believes that today. Facebook has come under scru-tiny for its role in the Cambridge Analytica scandal, which may have influenced the outcome of the 2016 presidential election. Google has come under fire for bias and privacy concerns. Uber has been shaken by #MeToo allegations, leading its CEO and co-founder Travis Kalanick to resign.

Big tech companies have also been criticized for deliberately making their apps and devices addictive, creating a nation of people addled by their eight-second attention span. This includes everything from the dopamine hit we get off Facebook’s “like” button to the “infinite scroll” that keeps our eyes glued to iPhones.

The headlines have been so rife with Silicon Valley’s failings that many have begun to wonder: Has tech abdicated its responsibilities? Maybe the question needs to be reframed. Maybe what Americans really need to ask is: Did these companies have a sense of responsibility to begin with?

“There was this utopian promise of the openness and fairness of a decentralized network, where people could make their own rules and govern themselves among different communities,” says Gennie Gebhart, an expert on consumer privacy issues at the Electronic Frontier Foundation in San Francisco. “I think there’s a huge question of whether or not that ever existed.”

Abhishek Nagaraj, an assistant professor at UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business who studies tech, believes the question needs to be put in historical perspective. He says that much of what’s happening now is because of changes in the way that tech has been funded.

For the early part of the 20th century, Nagaraj points out, American innovation was driven by academic and government (particularly military) investment. The government and universities could afford to invest in long-term projects that might benefit society, whether or not they turned a profit. But with the venture capital boom of the 1980s and ’90s, everything changed. Unlike universities or the Pentagon, venture capitalists wanted a rapid return on investment. Suddenly, high-growth startups like social media apps were hot. Long-term biomedical innovations were not.

In order to make the profits venture capitalists required, startups needed to grow as rapidly as possible.

“They did this by optimizing for clicks and attention and not for wellness or the health of democracy,” says Gebhart. “The things that keep your eyes glued to the screen — hate speech, manipulation, flashy, click-baiting headlines — are not the things that are great for people and society.” Go figure.

The companies also maximized profits by gathering user data and selling it to advertisers so they could target consumers with laser precision, a practice that Gebhart calls “extractive surveillance capitalism.” It was through a data-gathering app that Cambridge Analytica gained access to the personal data of 87 million people, in the hopes of manipulating voter behavior.

It would be easy to argue that techies have abandoned their altruistic values in pursuit of ever larger payoffs. But Nagaraj questions whether the men — and they were mostly men — who created Silicon Valley ever dreamed of making the world better in the first place.

Jan English-Lueck, an anthropology professor at San Jose State University and the author of [email protected], cautions about maligning tech too broadly.

“It paints tech companies as if they were one homogeneous thing, and they’re not,” she says. “They’re very diverse. And so to assume that because there are bad actors in technology, that they have lost their way, is kind of assuming that they weren’t human in the first place.”

One thing is for certain: The tech world is experiencing a moment of reckoning. In September, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg wrote a 3,000-word blog post that addressed how the social media giant is tackling election interference, including removing fake accounts and posts that spread misinformation. Earlier this year, hundreds of Google employees signed a letter objecting to the company’s decision to secretly build a censored version of its search engine in China. Others have since quit in protest.

There are also many techies who still embrace the original vision (real or presumed) of doing good. Google, for instance, recently partnered with the nonprofits SkyTruth and Oceana to create a tool that uses satellite technology to catch “fishing pirates,” who harvest fish illegally and decimate marine populations.

Big problems, though, continue to plague tech. Nagaraj thinks this is because the tech world mirrors real life. As Americans, we have a deep, and unsettling, political divide. We harbor gender and racial biases. These are reflected in social media, apps and search engines — and are possibly too entrenched for even behemoths like Facebook, Apple, and Google to solve.

“Tech struggles with problems that require non-technological solutions,” says Nagaraj. Silicon Valley’s “women problem” is a perfect example. In early 2017, Susan Fowler, a former Uber engineer, posted a blog describing the hostile environment for women at the ride-sharing company. She detailed a culture in which women routinely experienced harassment and discrimination, and where management just as routinely ignored their complaints. The scandals led to Kalanick’s resignation. But Uber isn’t the only one grappling with sexism.

English-Lueck says that Silicon Valley techies are much better at applying their skills to environmental problems, like using satellite technology to protect fish.

“The much harder good, the social good, I think is still very difficult for people to manage,” she says. “I’m talking about equality, racism, sexism and ageism. Those are the things that are so much harder to solve and, in many ways, I almost feel sorry for people who look to Silicon Valley, and ask, ‘Can you solve these things?’ Well, really? You’re expecting Silicon Valley to solve inequality?”

 

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