Is Technology Destroying Democracy?
Here’s what we can do about it
“Why is a tree more valuable dead than alive, why is a whale more valuable dead than alive?”
— Justin Rosenstein asked a provocative question in the Social Dilemma.
The Social Dilemma — a new documentary by Jeff Orlowski — has put front and center the role of technology in fostering the divisiveness, fear, and mistrust that have become a hallmark of our times.
What was missing in the Social Dilemma was the way forward. As humanity finds itself at this crossroads — we need to make some key decisions that will determine our collective future. Will technology be a force for good or drive further devolution of the social fabric, institutions, and our care for one another?
With the global pandemic, technology has now become — more than ever — our primary source of information, and our primary source of connection.
Shoshanna Zubofff warns in The Age of Surveillance Capitalism that technology has become a marketplace that is trading in human futures. Taking back the marketplace — so that humans, rather than markets and algorithms are determining human futures — will require a new relationship with technology.
One part of this will be setting limits. This means regulatory limits on data collection and privacy, as well as helping people understand and regulate their own usage.
Another key piece is alternatives. We need to foster technologies and business models, that lead to a better, more humane future.
I want to outline what I believe are 4 key principles in designing technology for that future:
Monetize impact rather than eyeballs
What is clear is that the drive to capture and monetize attention has led to many of the unintended consequences discussed by Orlowski and Zuboff. Numerous studies have shown that fear, misinformation, and anger spread faster online. Business models that monetize attention are naturally incentivized to amplify fear, anger, and misinformation.
Rather than letting the business model drive the outcome, we need to be laser-focused on the outcome we want to achieve, and develop business models that achieve and incentivize that outcome.
It is impossible for Facebook to seek to create a more connected world while monetizing attention in ways that further divide.
We need to value the things we want and care about. Thus, we need to develop and grow business models that monetize the impact we want to achieve. If we want to create more connected resilient communities, better mental health, and social connectedness, the business model should align with those outcomes.
Leverage technology as a tool to achieve real world impact
Rather than have technology drive us and monopolize our time, we need to use technology as a tool to achieve the real world impact and change we want.
What we heard from people in Puerto Rico, Indonesia, and refugees in Greece was that they want technology to improve things in the communities they live and in their lives.
An alternative technology platform will be a tool that is focused on creating real changes in real places. Instead of having time spent on the platform be a measure of success, let’s measure outcomes: the number of trees planted, the amount of garbage cleaned from streets, and the number of people who feel more connected to their neighbors.
Curate content to create positive communities
We need to support online communities that bias towards building positive, pro-social communities, that promote tolerance of diversity, spread helpful tools and advice, and focus on solutions. And, then we need to curate incoming user-generated content in ways that continue to amplify pro-social impacts.
On the curated, neighbors-helping-neighbors platform we’ve built, a human approves every new post that enters the system. We need this level of interaction to ensure we don’t lose control of the technology we’ve built.
Use Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning to drive connection and inspiration
We’ve seen the way algorithms that are maximizing attention are driving engagement in ways that amplify divisiveness, fear, and anger online.
But, Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning are tools, and they can be driven to achieve different outcomes. We should use AI and ML to create systems that connect, amplify, and increase pro-social impacts. Imagine if we could use AI and ML to help someone who lives in a place that is affected by flooding find the right information on how to prevent disaster, plant mangroves to reduce flood events and clean up garbage, all of which mitigate flooding. We can use AI/ML to connect people so they can learn from one another, share what works, and inspire broader change.
In every crisis, there is an opportunity to build something better. This is what resilience is. Society is being tested right now by the far reaching impacts of technology — the way it has sowed division, spread misinformation, and threatened human rights and democracy.
The time is now to respond to this challenge. We need to imagine, create and spread the world we want — one that is truly more connected, more kind, and more just. One where technology is a tool, and not in the driver’s seat.