Thinking about the social cost of technology


Thinking about the social cost of technology

Every time I call my mum for a chat there’s usually a point on the phone call where she’ll hesitate and then, apologizing in advance, bring up her latest technological conundrum.

An email she’s received from her email provider warning that she needs to upgrade the operating system of her device or lose access to the app. Or messages she’s sent via such and such a messaging service that were never received or only arrived days later. Or she’ll ask again how to find a particular photo she was previously sent by email, how to save it and how to download it so she can take it to a shop for printing.

Why is it that her printer suddenly now only prints text unreadably small, she once asked me. And why had the word processing package locked itself on double spacing? And could I tell her why was the cursor kept jumping around when she typed because she kept losing her place in the document?

Another time she wanted to know why video calling no longer worked after an operating system upgrade. Ever since that her concerns has always been whether she should upgrade to the latest OS at all — if that means other applications might stop working.

Yet another time she wanted to know why the video app she always used was suddenly asking her to sign into an account she didn’t think she had just to view the same content. She hadn’t had to do that before.

Other problems she’s run into aren’t even offered as questions. She’ll just say she’s forgotten the password to such and such an account and so it’s hopeless because it’s impossible to access it.

Most of the time it’s hard to remote-fix these issues because the specific wrinkle or niggle isn’t the real problem anyway. The overarching issue is the growing complexity of technology itself, and the demands this puts on people to understand an ever widening taxonomy of interconnected component parts and processes. To mesh willingly with the system and to absorb its unlovely lexicon.

And then, when things invariably go wrong, to deconstruct its unpleasant, inscrutable missives and make like an engineer and try to fix the stuff yourself.

Technologists apparently feel justified in setting up a deepening fog of user confusion as they shift the upgrade levers to move up another gear to reconfigure the ‘next reality’, while their CEOs eyes the prize of sucking up more consumer dollars.

Meanwhile, ‘users’ like my mum are left with another cryptic puzzle of unfamiliar pieces to try to slot back together and — they hope — return the tool to the state of utility it was in before everything changed on them again.

These people will increasingly feel left behind and unplugged from a society where technology is playing an ever greater day-to-day role, and also playing an ever greater, yet largely unseen role in shaping day to day society by controlling so many things we see and do. AI is the silent decision maker that really scales.

The frustration and stress caused by complex technologies that can seem unknowable — not to mention the time and mindshare that gets wasted trying to make systems work as people want them to work — doesn’t tend to get talked about in the slick presentations of tech firms with their laser pointers fixed on the future and their intent locked on winning the game of the next big thing.

All too often the fact that human lives are increasingly enmeshed with and dependent on ever more complex, and ever more inscrutable, technologies is considered a good thing. Negatives don’t generally get dwelled on. And for the most part people are expected to move along, or be moved along by the tech.

That’s the price of progress, goes the short sharp shrug. Users are expected to use the tool — and take responsibility for not being confused by the tool.

But what if the user can’t properly use the system because they don’t know how to? Are they at fault? Or is it the designers failing to properly articulate what they’ve built and pushed out at such scale? And failing to layer complexity in a way that does not alienate and exclude?

And what happens when the tool becomes so all consuming of people’s attention and so capable of pushing individual buttons it becomes a mainstream source of public opinion? And does so without showing its workings. Without making it clear it’s actually presenting a filtered, algorithmically controlled view.

There’s no newspaper style masthead or TV news captions to signify the existence of Facebook’s algorithmic editors. But increasingly people are tuning in to social media to consume news.

This signifies a major, major shift.


At the same time, it’s becoming increasing clear that we live in conflicted times as far as faith in modern consumer technology tools is concerned. Almost suddenly it seems that technology’s algorithmic instruments are being fingered as the source of big problems not just at-scale solutions. (And sometimes even as both problem and solution; confusion, it seems, can also beget conflict.)

Witness the excruciating expression on Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s face, for example when he livestreamed a not-really mea culpa on how the company has treated political advertising on its platform last week.

This after it was revealed Facebook’s algorithms had created categorizes for ads to be targeted at people who had indicated approval for burning Jews.

And after the US election agency had started talking about changing the rules for political ads displayed on digital platforms — to bring disclosure requirements in line with regulations on TV and print media.

It was also after an internal investigation by Facebook into political ad spending on its platform turned up more than $100,000 spent by Russian agents seeking to sew social division in the U.S.

Zuckerberg’s difficult decision (writ large on his tired visage) was that the company would be handing over to Congress the 3,000 Russian-bought ads it said it had identified as possibly playing a role in shaping public opinion during the U.S. presidential election.

But it would be resisting calls to make the socially divisive, algorithmically delivered ads public.

So enhancing the public’s understanding of what Facebook’s massive ad platform is actually serving up for targeted consumption, and the kinds of messages it is really being used to distribute, did not make it onto Zuck’s politically prioritized to-do list. Even now.

Presumably that’s because he’s seen the content and it isn’t exactly pretty.

Ditto the ‘fake news’ being freely distributed on Facebook’s content platform for years and years. And only now becoming a major political and PR problem for Facebook — which it says it’s trying to fix with yet more tech tools.

And while you might think a growing majority of people don’t have difficulty understanding consumer technologies, and therefore that tech users like my mum are a dwindling minority, it’s rather harder to argue that everyone fully understands what’s going on with what are now highly sophisticated, hugely powerful tech giants operating behind shiny facades.

It’s really not as easy to know as it should be, how and for what these mega tech platforms can be used. Not when you consider how much power they wield.

In Facebook’s case we can know, abstractly, that Zuck’s AI-powered army is ceaselessly feeding big data on billions of humans into machine learning models to turn a commercial profit by predicting what any individual might want to buy at a given moment.

Including, if you’ve been paying above average attention, by tracking people’s emotions. It’s also been shown experimenting with trying to control people’s feelings. Though the Facebook CEO prefers to talk about Facebook’s ‘mission’ being to “build a global community” and “connect the world”, rather than it being a tool for tracking and serving opinion en masse.

Yet we, the experimented on Facebook users, are not party to the full engineering detail of how the platform’s data harvesting, information triangulating and person targeting infrastructure works.

It’s usually only though external investigation that negative impacts are revealed. Such as ProPublica reporting in 2016 that Facebook’s tools could be used to include or exclude users from a given ad campaign based on their “ethnic affinity” — potentially allowing ad campaigns to breach federal laws in areas such as housing and employment which prohibit discriminatory advertising.

That external exposé led Facebook to switch off “ethnic affinity” ad targeting for certain types of ads. It had apparently failed to identified this problem with its ad targeting infrastructure itself. Apparently it’s outsourcing responsibility for policing its business decisions to investigative journalists.

The problem is the power to understand the full implications and impact of consumer technologies that are now being applied at such vast scale — across societies, civic institutions and billions of consumers — is largely withheld from the public, behind commercially tinted glass.

So it’s unsurprising that the ramifications of tech platforms enabling free access to, in Facebook’s case, peer-to-peer publishing and the targeting of entirely unverified information at any group of people and across global borders is only really starting to be unpicked in public.

Any technology tool can be a double-edged sword. But if you don’t fully understand the inner workings of the device it’s a lot harder to get a handle on possible negative consequences.

Insiders obviously can’t claim such ignorance. Even if Sheryl Sandberg’s defense of Facebook having built a tool that could be used to advertise to antisemites was that they just didn’t think of it. Sorry, but that’s just not good enough.

Your tool, your rules, your responsibility to think about and close off negative consequences. Especially when your stated ambition is to blanket your platform across the entire world.

Prior to Facebook finally ‘fessing up about Russia’s divisive ad buys, Sandberg and Zuckerberg also sought to play down Facebook’s power to influence political opinion — while simultaneously operating a hugely lucrative business which near exclusively derives its revenue from telling advertisers it can influence opinion.

Only now, after a wave of public criticism in the wake of the U.S. election, Zuck tells us he regrets saying people were crazy to think his two-billion+ user platform tool could be misused.

If he wasn’t being entirely disingenuous when he said that, he really was being unforgivably stupid.


Other algorithmic consequences are of course available in a world where a handful of dominant tech platforms now have massive power to shape information and therefore society and public opinion. In the West, Facebook and Google are chief among them. In the U.S. Amazon also dominates in the ecommerce realm, while also increasingly pushing beyond this — especially moving in on the smart home and seeking to put its Alexa voice-AI always within earshot.

But in the meantime, while most people continue to think of using Google when they want to find something out, a change to the company’s search ranking algorithm has the ability to lift information into mass view or bury data below the fold where the majority of seekers will never find it.

This has long been known of course. But for years Google has presented its algorithms as akin to an impartial index. When really the truth of the matter is they are in indentured service to the commercial interests of its business.

We don’t get to see the algorithmic rules Google uses to order the information we find. But based on the results of those searches the company has sometimes been accused of, for example, using its dominant position in Internet search to place its own services ahead of competitors. (That’s the charge of competition regulators in Europe, for example.)

This April, Google also announced it was making changes to its search algorithm to try to reduce the politically charged problem of ‘fake news’ — apparently also being surfaced in Internet searches. (Or “blatantly misleading, low quality, offensive or downright false information”, as Google defined it.)

Offensive content has also recently threatened Alphabet’s bottom line, after advertisers pulled content from YouTube when it was shown being served next to terrorist propaganda and/or offensive hate speech. So there’s a clear commercial motivator driving Google search algorithm tweaks, alongside rising political pressure for powerful tech platforms to clean up their act.

Google now says it’s hard at work building tools to try to automatically identify extremist content. Its catalyst for action appears to have been a threat to its own revenues — much like Facebook having a change of heart when suddenly faced with lots of angry users.

Thing is, when it comes to Google demoting fake news in search results, on the one hand you might say ‘great! it’s finally taking responsibility for aiding and incentivizing the spread of misinformation online’. On the other hand you might cry foul, as self-billed “independent media” website AlterNet did this week — claiming that whatever change Google made to its algorithm has cut traffic to its site by 40 per cent since June.

I’m not going to wade into a debate about whether AlterNet publishes fake news or not. But it certainly looks like Google is doing just that.

When asked about AlterNet’s accusations that a change to its algorithm had nearly halved the site’s traffic, a Google spokesperson told us: “We are deeply committed to delivering useful and relevant search results to our users. To do this, we are constantly improving our algorithms to make our web results more authoritative. A site’s ranking on Google Search is determined using hundreds of factors to calculate a page’s relevance to a given query, including things like PageRank, the specific words that appear on websites, the freshness of content, and your region.”

So basically it’s judging AlerNet’s content as fake news. While AlterNet hits back with a claim that a “new media monopoly is hurting progressive and independent news”.

What’s clear is Google has put its algorithms in charge of assessing something as subjective as ‘information quality’ and authority — with all the associated editorial risks such complex decisions entail.

But instead of humans making case-by-case decisions, as would be the case with a traditional media operation, Google is relying on algorithms to automate and therefore eschew specific judgment calls.

The result is its tech tool is surfacing or demoting pieces of content at vast scale without accepting responsibility for these editorial judgement calls.

After hitting ‘execute’ on the new code, Google’s engineers leave the room — leaving us human users to sift through the data it pushes at us to try to decide whether what we’re being shown looks fair or accurate or reasonable or not.

Once again we are left with the responsibility of dealing with the fallout from decisions automated at scale.

But expecting people to evaluate the inner workings of complex algorithms without letting them also see inside those black box — and while also subjecting them to the decisions and outcomes of those same algorithms — doesn’t seem a very sustainable situation.

Not when the tech platforms have got so big they’re at risk of monopolizing mainstream attention.

Something has to give. And just taking it on faith that algorithms applied at massive scale will have a benign impact or that rules underpinning vast information hierarchies should never be interrogated is about as sane as expecting every person, young or old, to be able to understand exactly how your app works in perfect detail, and to weigh up whether they really need your latest update, while also assuming they’ll manage to troubleshoot all the problems when your tool fails to play nice with all the rest of the tech.

We are just starting to realize the extent of what can get broken when the creators of tech tools evade wider social responsibilities in favor of driving purely for commercial gain.

More isn’t better for everyone. It may be better for an individual business but at what wider societal cost?

So perhaps we should have paid more attention to the people who have always said they don’t understand what this new tech thing is for, or questioned why they really need it, and whether they should be agreeing to what it’s telling them to do.

Maybe we should all have been asking a lot more questions about what the technology is for.

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