Many of us are shocked and dismayed by the violence that caused the U.S. Capitol to be locked down last week. We should be appalled, but not necessarily surprised. It is, after all, what an ordinary day looks like on the internet – with news unregulated and manipulated to communicate biased opinions and fake news, most often encouraging political fury and violence. What we are seeing now is the result of years of unchecked growth in the tech industry.
Today, the Internet and social networks influence all the information we consume, the opinions we form, the disinformation we believe. The events of yesterday underscore our new reality. The physical world looks more and more like the Internet: dysfunctional, angry, lawless, and a complete banana republic.
As the CEO of a software company and a member of the technology community, I take pride in the many good things my industry has achieved, including technologies that have saved lives; helped people with disabilities; and increased access to daily amenities, among many other achievements. During the pandemic, technology has fortunately enabled millions of us to keep working and our children to keep learning.
At the same time, despite all these achievements, the tech industry has inherent flaws. The most critical flaw that we must correct immediately is an underdeveloped and naive moral compass which has led to the current toxic and destructive situation. Social media channels are actively working to monitor content for possible negative consequences for society, but monitoring and responsiveness efforts have not been sufficient for far too many years.
As Congress has called on Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey to testify several times, what has been the result? So far, a number of state-led antitrust lawsuits can be extremely difficult to win and could take years and years to get to the courts. Twitter finally banned Trump, and Facebook suspended his account indefinitely, but we still have to understand the much bigger problem here.
In the “physical” world, people have a clearer and stronger sense of right versus wrong, right versus wrong, positive versus negative. Farmers, construction workers, civil engineers, blacksmiths, carpenters, accountants know what they are working on and whether or not it benefits society. Most of these technologies have had the advantage of developing and evolving over thousands or hundreds of years. Human beings had about 12,000 years to develop agriculture, about 5,000 years to develop metallurgy, and 500 years to develop a free press. This gradual pace of evolution has ensured that regulations and industry knowledge have helped practitioners build a highly developed moral compass. Whether passed down from parent to child, teacher to apprentice, teacher to student, the sharing of knowledge and traditions has made it easier to discern the beneficial uses of these technologies from the ruinous uses. In addition, social reputation, regulations and due process provide additional checks and balances.
In contrast, the tech industry has only had a handful of decades to evolve from a niche, geeky world of transistors, diodes, and microprocessors to the ubiquitous platform for information distribution, interpersonal communication and virtually all forms of content. Major new breakthroughs occur every five years, further amplifying the scope and possible destructive impact of technological disinformation.
Humanity has overcome incredible obstacles to get to where we are. Yet the power of the tech industry and the fact that young engineers do technically brilliant work without fully addressing the societal and civic implications of that work is a major concern. Does a young engineer joining Facebook or Twitter understand how their algorithmic expertise in optimizing better content can provoke an act of anger from a crowd?
As more and more data becomes more easily accessible online and with the proliferation of artificial intelligence, I am convinced that the real world will look even more like the Internet if we don’t make changes. This industry has incredible talent; it’s time for talent to develop algorithms that empower our businesses and workers to do good. I am convinced that in the long run we will improve the moral compass of the tech industry, but we have to start working hard and quickly on it.
Sirish Raghuram is the co-founder and CEO of Platform9, which provides open source managed SaaS solutions for private and edge clouds..
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