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We're on a steep learning curve

Our political systems are far from perfect. But, over centuries, they have been moulded in a process of give-and-take among competing interests. In this process, international conventions have been negotiated, among which human rights conventions are fundamental.

Against this backdrop, fancy the position of the 36-year-old Mark Zuckerberg, who with Facebook has made a reality of his vision to bring the world closer together. Facebook has 2.7 billion active users (and Zuckerberg himself was worth US$ 99.6 billion in September 2020, Wikipedia).

It's a pretty challenging position to be in, and Zuckerberg has not fared that well. One scandal after the other has accompanied his successes. And he's not alone. Other tech giants have, likewise, a big deal to account for. Much of it is a sign of immaturity in the new digital culture. Journalist Kaitlin Ugolik Phillips aptly points out that these companies weren't built to act as agents of cultural and political change. The founders of these companies couldn't have known the power they would hold one day. The way the tech platforms trigger addictions is Ugolik Phillis' concern in her book The Future of Feeling: Building Empathy in a Tech-Obsessed World.

In January 2020, Netflix released the documentary The Social Dilemma that should be a must-see for everyone. In it, former tech executives tell about the second thoughts they've had about their contributions to the tech platforms. In this documentary, directed by Jeff Orlowski, we get the whole package from how social media manipulates us at a personal level by inducing addiction, to manipulation in world politics.

Reactions to the sceneries we're surrounded by oscillate between dystopia and utopia. Kaitlin Ugolic Phillis doesn't think we have to settle for dystopia. "When it comes to what really makes us human—our ability to understand and communicate with each other through empathy … I think we can adapt. I think we have to." She tells us that there is a growing band of teachers, futurists, engineers, designers, and communicators working to ensure that we take empathy with us into the future.

Kaitlin Ugolik Phillips mentions that mathematician and data-science writer Cathy O'Neil, in 2017, proposed that an algorithmic accountability institute should be set up. The institute would research algorithmic bias and ways to prevent it in the future. It would provide ethical training for future engineers and data scientists, offer workshops to highlight the connections between AI and other professions (law, journalism, etc.) and create standards for "human experimentation in the age of big data.".

Fade Chehadé advances a similar idea. He is a central figure in the digital world and in a Ted interview with Bryn Freedman in 2018 he tells that he urges university presidents to introduce study programs for engineers and computer science students, to induce in them a sense of stewardship and responsibility towards that what they are building. He calls for an oath like doctors' take, a Hippocratic oath, for tech professionals, a technocratic or wisdom oath to take toward the rest of us.

One central person in the Social dilemma documentary is Tristan Harris. "How do you ethically steer the thoughts and actions of two billion people's minds every day?" This question we meet on his website. His focus lies on what he calls the 'attention economy', something he started to work on in 2013 when working at Google. He created a slide deck as a wake-up call that he shared among his colleagues: There we read among other things: "Never before in history have the decisions of a handful of designers (mostly men, white, living in SF, aged 25-35) working for 3 companies, Google, Apple, Facebook, had so much impact on how millions of people around the world spend their attention. We should feel an enormous responsibility."

Tristan Harris started studying how tech platforms hijack human thinking and action. He was well placed to do so with a background as a magician when he was a kid and work in the Stanford Persuasive Technology Lab where he studied persuasive technology. He saw a need for ethical and humane technology, and he is now promoting it as the co-founder of the Center for Human Technology. The center is working at the intersection of human nature, technology, and systems transformation. Its goal is to support crucial parallel shifts in our larger economic and social systems. "We envision a world where technology is realigned with humanity's best interests. Our work expands beyond tech addiction to the broader societal threats that the attention economy poses to our well-being, relationships, democracy, and shared information environment. We must address these threats to conquer our biggest global challenges like pandemics, inequality, and climate change."

Fadi Chehadé works along the same lines. He focuses on finding ways for society to benefit from technology and works to strengthen international cooperation in the digital space. He has been central in regulating the technical side of the internet. It is now in place he tells in the Ted interview. But, he says, when we go to the upper level of the internet, to the things that affect all of us, such as privacy and security, there is, unfortunately, no system in place for creating norms. Such a system needs to be formed so that companies, governments and the citizenry can agree on how the new digital world is going to advance.

Chehadé is telling CEOs of the tech companies that they could be a steward of the power they have, and he emphasizes the word steward. That's what we're missing right now. He sees, though, that the tech companies gradually are getting sensitive to the pushback from users and governments. His biggest hope is that each of us will become stewards of this new digital world. As the citizenry, we need to start to understand that we've got a big role to play in shaping how the world will be governed in the future. The internet is transnational, and therefore Chehadé considers that we would need Geneva conventions to regulate the digital world.

Those who opt for utopia place us, the citizenry, centerstage. We're all on a steep learning curve.


More on the issues raised:

Kaitlin Ugolik Phillis, The Future of Feeling: Building Empathy in a Tech-Obsessed World, 2020

Fadi Chehadé and Bryn Freedman, Ted Talk

What everyday citizens can do to claim power on the internet

Tristan Harris

- Congressional Hearing January 8, 2020

- Center for Human Technology

Jeff Orlowski

- The Social Dilemma

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