Facing the Dark Side of Tech


algorithms | big tech | esg | platforms | responsible tech

Daily criticism coming from the White House for the misinformation (lies) platforms spread, technology platforms are coming under pressure.  I’ve long advocated for developing technology that serve the interest of humanity and not the other way around. The world has been awakening to the social and  – indirectly – environmental destruction caused by technologies that ‘connect’ us all. In 2014, three co-founders and I launched a technology startup to move away from personal broadcasting on platforms, not many understood what we were up to. We failed, but the movement grew.  All Tech is Human is one of the emerging centers of responsible technology. One of their last in-person conferences before the pandemic was held in San Francisco in September 2019. My side notes to that conference call for more SECS. Read on.  

All Tech is Human held its San Francisco conference on the day after the Global Climate Strikes in 2019. September 20 saw a large crowd downtown calling for climate action to save humanity. The next day brought together more than a hundred people concerned about the role technology plays in our society.

The two seemingly disconnected events tell a similar story. Due to the impact of unprecedented acceleration in human development and innovation we are nearing state shifts in both the biosphere of our planet and the capability of technologies.   John von Neumann was first to use the concept of singularity. It is “centered on the accelerating progress of technology and changes in the mode of human life, which gives the appearance of approaching some essential singularity in the history of the race beyond which human affairs, as we know them, could not continue.” How do we make sure that the development of technology benefits humanity and amplifies our abilities to face planetary scale challenges like climate change? All Tech is Human is about creating a more thoughtful future towards technology in alignment with our personal and societal values. Led by tech ethicist David Ryan Polgar, All Tech is Human defines itself as a catalyst and connector for tech change. Polgar sees a problem in how “emerging technology and ubiquitous smartphones impact a broad range of society, yet only a small sliver influence how it is created and deployed. On the sidelines, there are lots of people with valuable insight who are going unused. Given technology significant impact on communication, mental well-being, and the health of our democracy, it behooves us to bring together a diverse range of voices and perspectives.”

My earlier research concerning the conflicts of Facebook and its stakeholders brought me to San Francisco.  In October 2018 The Financial Times called Facebook “the bogeyman of tech”. A group of its institutional shareholders proposed leadership changes at the company following “missing, or mishandling a number of severe controversies” ranging from Russian meddling in U.S. elections and sharing personal data of 87 million users with Cambridge Analytica to proliferating fake news and causing depression and other mental health issues, including stress and addiction. According to Barry Lynn, executive director of the Open Markets Institute, an organization that fights monopoly power, “Facebook’s problems grew out of its business model and the legal and regulatory vacuum in which it has operated — not the man who runs it. To be blunt, if we took Mark Zuckerberg out and we replaced him with Mahatma Gandhi, I don’t think the corporation would change in any significant way.” The business model marks the second Gold Rush in the history of San Francisco: collection and sales of our personal data. It is a global industry. Apple’s CEO Tim Cook calls it the “data industrial complex”.  Talking about the dark side of tech, Cook said “we see vividly — painfully — how technology can harm rather than help. Platforms and algorithms that promised to improve our lives can actually magnify our worst human tendencies.” Can we change the amplifiers? Can we invent a new business model that benefits society? Ultimately, tech can only prosper in harmony with stakeholders. All Tech is Human San Francisco has brought representatives of various stakeholders together to consider multiple technology “risk zones”.

The good news is that the building of a tech change ecosystem has started. While many participants seemed to agree that change must start from within, calls for the regulation of ‘Big Tech’ have also been vocal. Christopher Ategeka, Founder and CEO of Unintended Consequences of Technology Inc. summed up the solution of the day in a four letter word: SECS. Shareholders, employees and consumers. We all have a stake in the future of technology and indeed our planet.