Humane Tech – We are the reason it will get better
I attended my first Webstock this year and I was blown away. I wasn’t aware going into the conference that it usually has a political element to it but apparently this year was step up. Interspersed with more traditional technical or interest driven talks were honest people getting up and saying what they felt about issues that effect everyone. All of which I feel centered around remembering that we are all still humans and how its all to easy to let shiny new tech get in the way of our humanity and even at times hide what is actually a sinister pattern of behavior by some of our favorite tech companies.
Most of the speakers were American so it’s not surprising that they would mention the various actions of the newly elected President Trump, especially at a conference known for having a political bent. But there were two in particular that took it to the next level and it really spoke to me and resonated with what I have been thinking and feeling over the last few years since I left the start up scene.
The first speaker I’m going to mention is Lisa Welchman and she was also the first to push their political statements past a joke or a glancing mention and she did this with full throttle as she admitted she couldn’t do her talk about artificial intelligence and staying human because of what was going on in her home country.
Lisa has a strong message of action in the face of despair and encouraging us to focus on the things we can do rather that being paralyzed to the things we can’t. Along side that though was both an explicit and implicit message of humility and respect. I didn’t feel like she was ranting about a political agenda or telling us to do anything in particular other than care more, try more and use our positions as well educated people in one the most influential sectors of our business communities. I think her whole message was poetically summed up in how she started her talk by saying “before I forget to say it later, I love you all and I care about you” to a room of complete stranger on the other side of the world expecting a talk about artificial intelligence.
The other speaker that resonated with me was Anil Dash who’s talk was called “Toward Humane Tech”. If you’ve ever spent any time with me in the last year or so you’d have heard me rant about how Facebook’s claim to be about connecting people is disingenuous and how Uber is in fact less efficient than a traditional taxi company and provides very little innovation to the transportation industry among other gripes I have.
Anil spoke poignantly and with much more clarity than I have heard from anyone else about exactly what is going with the communities and markets that dominate our online world world. The highlight for me was his insights into the evolution of what we have thought of as traditional markets where we had buyers and sellers and consumers has price and choice into what we have now with services Facebook, Google and Uber.
For example in the case of Uber which purports to be a marketplace for drivers and riders to find each other and to be a better alternative to the old taxi services. With taxis there are multiple companies that all rely on connecting to the riders with some combination of advertising, price and proximity to the rider. While Uber might seem like the same thing with an app attached it only really offers the illusion of choice for both the driver and the rider and in the end is simply a natural monopoly of a global transportation company masquerading as a tech company. The driver cannot set their, the rider doesn’t really have a choice over the price of the ride or who’s service they use because in the end its always going to be an Uber driver. When you couple that idea with the fact that Uber has never turned a profit and can only really become profitable if they raise their prices considerably or pay their drivers less the picture becomes even more gloomy.
If you are not following and still want to use Uber then I’ll put it the same way that Amil did. I imagine if you have taken an Uber you have done what I and almost everyone else feels compelled to do and ask the driver “so how does this work for you? Do you like Uber?” or something like that. Why do you think that is? Is it because it just feels like there is something wrong in this equation and you just don’t feel quite right about it? Uber can’t buy bulk insurance, it can’t buy bulk cars or repairs and in reality each ride is actually more costly (i.e. less efficient). But you are paying less per ride? There is just something that doesn’t add up.
Another example he used is Facebook which although is supposed to about helping people share and connect with their friends but often the algorithms that decide what you see and what you don’t see will hide content from your friends or family because it made a decision that it was not something that you were likely to engage with. And without engagement Facebook cannot sell advertising and there in lies the rub. This is even more alarming when you think about the fact that when engagement by users is the metric for successful content creation there is a financial intensive to publish misleading or incorrect information as long as its likely to get user engagement. Which all to often it is.
He didn’t just speak of doom an gloom but he spoke of ideas and solutions. One of the most interesting is on the topic of a professional body for the tech industry much like lawyers, doctors or engineers. The tech community and profession has exploded so fast and to have such influence that the normal process of self-governance hasn’t had time to mature and perhaps its time for us to step up and look at what we are creating. Instead of just focusing on the next app or the next billion dollar unicorn we need to think about the social, economic and political outcomes of the online communities we are a part of and creating.
Even before I went to Webstock I was having these sorts of thoughts and feelings coupled with a sudden urgent need to actually do something instead of just feeling like something needs to change. Whether it be get involved in local government initiatives that are already going on, or deleting Uber or even doing something as small as talking to my friends and family and trying to get them to understand what is happening. As Lisa Walchman said in her talk “we are the reason that it will get better”.