Exploring Ethical Responsibility in Tech & Social Media
Don’t get me wrong, social media is an amazing tool. It connects people from all over the world, shares new information, perspectives, cultures, and puppy videos. It’s also a terrifyingly powerful tool in unregulated hands, and like anything in history, we should know by now how that can end up. Today's post is a little different than my usual topics, but applies to anyone that uses the internet and social media personally, or in business.
My point in writing this is to put these ideas out there for others to consider, as I’ve slowly discovered them, and believe they’re worth discussing. They’re important topics for people to consider in their lives, communities, and businesses. My hope is that we choose to be curious and ask ourselves the important questions in a digital age where one small voice can have a huge, unexpected impact - for better or worse.
Where does the ethical responsibility lie? How do we work together to change the course we’re on? These questions apply to every issue finally coming to light on a global stage. And they’re being discussed, analyzed, and “cancelled” via the newest threat to humanity - the technology behind social media.
How can you use this technology to bring people together, market your business, or have a positive impact on the world? We’ll all have to work together to use curiosity, purpose, and clarity in how we communicate, and share with others. I’ll use insights from sources that shifted my paradigms about the shared human experience in technology and social media. I’ll delve into what all this could mean as a user, marketer, tech company, or just a human in today’s society.
There are only two industries that call their customers “users” illegal drugs and software. -Edward Tufte
Be a Curious User - Ask Why
It’s all too easy to just ignore a threat. Especially if we’re currently benefiting directly from ignoring it and the threat isn’t an immediate, tangible danger to us. So what is the danger of being an avid user of technology and social media?
The new Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma, exposes the progression of social media and big tech companies from being an exciting tool for communication and sharing information, to their unethical manipulation of users, and the damage we’ve already incurred from this phenomena. Stick with me on this.
Tristan Harris, a former design ethicist at Google, appears throughout the documentary weighing in on the technical aspects of AI and algorithms, but mostly their dangerous impact on society. Harris explains, “We’re going from a tools-based tech environment to a manipulation-based environment.” Meaning technology today isn’t simply a tool waiting to be used, it’s focused on convincing you to buy any tool from the highest bidder for your attention.
Shoshana Zuboff, a Harvard Professor and social psychologist also featured in the documentary, gives a perspective on the economics driving these companies forward. Zuboff describes how big tech companies are collecting data and using it to build a new marketplace trading in "human futures." Big tech companies are in a race to build the best model for predicting human actions. If it sounds a lot like the plot from HBO's WestWorld, that’s because it basically is.
So how much are you willing to give up your autonomy, and most importantly, what will these corporations do with it? Jaron Lanier, author of Ten Arguments For Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now states that “It’s the gradual, slight, imperceptible change in your own behavior and perception, that is the product...give me a billion dollars and I will change the world by 1%.” Now am I running to my phone right now and deleting all my apps? No, but this is very interesting food for thought.
And if you’re wondering, there is already plenty of evidence this technology works very effectively, if you haven’t experienced some of that evidence yourself at some point. Like a targeted ad coming up on your instagram feed shortly after you just talked to your friend about trying to find the perfect black jumpsuit. Or worse, when several engineers in the documentary point out that there wasn't technically a cyber attack, Russia simply used the technology we created against us.
So how do we become responsible, autonomous users? The book 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, by Yuval Noah Harari is a truly eye-opening view on the future of humanity based on history, human nature, and the effects of rapid technological advancement. From Harari’s perspective, “Technology isn’t bad. If you know what you want in life, technology can help you get it. But if you don’t know what you want in life, it will be all too easy for technology to shape your aims for you and take control of your life. Especially as technology gets better at understanding humans, you might increasingly find yourself serving it, instead of it serving you.”
Later in the book, Harari’s perspective shifts to giving us a glimmer of hope as he says “The first step is to tone down the prophecies of doom, and switch from panic mode to bewilderment. Panic is a form of hubris. It comes from the smug feeling that