We must do better before it’s too late

While house cleaning blog topics recently, I stumbled across a few articles lamenting the state of the technology industry. The common theme throughout these articles was how technology companies were exploiting users for their personal gain. You would think that these articles would have been written in the last year or two.

Think again. Many of these articles were at least three or four years old, with a couple written ten years ago.

Where am I going with this? We’ve known about the dangers of the large, powerful technology companies for at least ten years. During that time, nothing has changed. Nothing. If anything the problem is only getting worse.

One of the more interesting articles I came across was written by Bill Davidow titled What Happened to Silicon Values? The subtitle pretty much sums up his thoughts:

Compare Mark Zuckerberg and Larry Page to the founders of Hewlett Packard and Intel, and you’ll find a paradigm shift as to how the tech industry treats its customers.

Bear in mind that this article was written around the time of the Facebook IPO in the summer of 2012. Given Davidow moved to Silicon Valley in 1959 and has worked at both Hewlett Packard and Intel during their early days, he has a unique, long-term perspective on the evolution of the Valley. He sums it up in this teaser from the article:

Many other things have changed in the valley over the past five decades. I’ve become increasingly concerned about one thing that is seldom discussed: the valley is no longer as concerned about serving the customer, and even sees great opportunity in exploitation.We are beginning to act like the bankers who sold subprime mortgages to naïve consumers. In such an environment, we are less likely to create the role models of the past who guided the valley to its future.

If anything has changed since Davidow’s article, the technology environment has only deteriorated and slid further into a winner-take-all mentality. Companies are regularly pushing their predatory behaviors to the limit, because if they don’t, their competitors will. And if their competitors aren’t pushing them, then it is not out of the question for their investors to push them to sacrifice their morals.

The big technology companies continue to resist regulating themselves. Facebook, Google, Twitter, and other social media companies know that outrageous behavior, misinformation, and false news only furthers the engagement on their platforms. It needs to stop. It must stop.

Seth Godin puts it more eloquently than I can in his post, Amplify Possibility. His remedy?

Amplify possibility. Dial down the spread of disinformation, trolling and division. Make it almost impossible to get famous at the expense of civilization. Embrace the fact that breaking news doesn’t have to be the rhythm of our days. Reward thoughtfulness and consistency and responsibility.

The tech companies lead us to believe that they are powerless to control user behavior. They’re wrong. The can control behavior. They can make a difference, if they choose to.

If we haven’t already reached a point of no return for reeling in the poor behavior of our technology overlords, we’re close. It’s only going to get harder to hold the large technology companies accountable as they continue to grow in size, build massive war chests of cash, and amass power. And let’s face it, their obligation is not to their users.

Sure, they’ve built their product to be more engaging, more addictive, but they are not there to help us. They answer to their shareholders who want the cash machine to continue running, or to put it another way – demand that it keep running. To keep the cash machine running means they have to continue exploiting users to ever larger degrees to keep their large advertising partners happy, who are their actual customers. The result, protecting and serving users is not anywhere near the top of their list. (And if we’re being honest, why should it be when users expect the software to be free, which is a topic for another time.)

If we weren’t so close to, or likely well past the tipping point, I might have recommended that the industry adopt a code of ethics that companies and developers are obligated to follow. Think of it like the Hippocratic Oath that medical professionals uphold, or the code of ethics attorney’s are sworn to follow. If real estate agents can be held to a code of ethics, it would certainly seem that technology companies and developers could do the same. Adhering to some level of ethics is only going to get more important as we hand more and more control over to the machines through machine learning and artificial intelligence algorithms, even if it’s as simple as Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics, flawed as they may be.

Unfortunately, I don’t see the industry changing anytime soon. I don’t seem them adopting any self-regulation, and I don’t see a code of ethics on the horizon. And I certainly don’t see the government stepping in anytime soon. Technology moves too fast for the bureaucratic process to keep pace, and the technology companies have figured out how to play the lobbying game to stack the legislative deck in their favor.

So what’s left to do? It’s time that we as users take matters into our own hands, which will be the subject of my next post, or should I say rant.


I’d like to add a footnote to call out two posts that helped shape my thinking for this post. Both are worth reading in their entirety:

  1. The dark side of engagement – alearningaday.blog
  2. Bill Davidow on Silicon Valley Values – skmurphy.com