Fair technology

Authors: Juan Hourcade
Posted: Fri, April 27, 2018 - 12:10:30

The means of destruction have developed pari passu with the technology of production, while creative imagination has not kept pace with either. The creative imagination I am talking of works on two levels. The first is the level of social engineering, the second is the level of vision. In my view both have lagged behind technology, especially in the highly advanced Western countries, and both constitute dangers.

The future cannot be predicted, but futures can be invented. It was man's ability to invent which has made human society what it is.

—Dennis Gabor, Inventing the Future, 1963

In his book Inventing the Future, Denis Gabor captured his impression of the impact of technology mostly based on his experience living in the 20th century. Technological changes were as radically productive as destructive, but generally lacked direction from the perspective of constructing more fair and just societies, or having a vision other than that related to the insatiable longing for wealth, status, or power of a few. 

Fast forward to 2018 and we are facing a similar situation with information and communication technologies (ICTs). We have had unprecedented production, with large amounts of information quickly available to most people in high-income countries, and increasingly throughout the world. ICT companies have focused primarily on growth, with little attention paid to the destructive uses of their technology, which now appear to have at least caught up with productive uses. Just as in Gabor’s 1963, the problem is still the lack of a serious vision for the use of technology for a more just and fair world, a vision that translates into action on the part of the major players, and that has at least equal standing with the goals of growth and profit.

Back in 2011, together with Natasha Bullock-Rest, I presented a vision for technologies to reduce armed conflict around the world through a more just and fair world with the following goals: reducing social distance between enemies, exposing war and celebrating peace, de-incentivizing private motivation for conflict, preventing failures of the social contract, promoting democracy and education, and aiding operational prevention of conflicts. It is difficult to think of any major ICT company that has taken any of the goals above seriously, at the same level at which they pay attention to growth and profit. 

Perhaps the most disappointing development is the negative effect ICTs have had on democracy, arguably providing the greatest challenge to democratic institutions in decades. These challenges have come in at least two related forms: increasing political radicalization, and diminished trust in facts and expertise. A third challenge is the massive accumulation of personal data that could be used in very damaging ways by authoritarian governments.

James Madison, in Federalist Paper #10, warned of the dangers of factions on the well-being of countries and democracies, saying “A zeal for different opinions concerning religion, concerning government, and many other points, as well of speculation as of practice; an attachment to different leaders ambitiously contending for pre-eminence and power; or to persons of other descriptions whose fortunes have been interesting to the human passions, have, in turn, divided mankind into parties, inflamed them with mutual animosity, and rendered them much more disposed to vex and oppress each other than to co-operate for their common good.” Yet, ICTs have every incentive to provide us with information and views that conform to our own inclinations, failing to provide counterpoints to undemocratic ideas, thus helping polarize society, and making responsible venues that provide balanced views less popular. In addition, increased automation is making it less necessary to interact with people who may be from a different walk of life and could provide an alternative point of view.

Factionalization has come hand-in-hand with diminished trust in facts and expertise. This is another threat to democracy as it leads to ignorance. As Thomas Jefferson stated in an 1816 letter to Charles Yancey,“If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilisation, it expects what never was and never will be.” It is difficult to have a truly democratic society if groups of people have widely different understandings of reality.

The challenge of the massive collection of personal data becomes weaponized once democratic protections are lifted. The rich data that companies like Facebook and Google have on billions of people, in combination with widespread cameras and face-recognition technology, would have been beyond the wildest imagination of most secret police bosses in 20th-century authoritarian regimes. The ability to go after political enemies would be unprecedented.

I am thankful that within the HCI community we have researchers exposing the dangers I outlined above and presenting visions of the future that include Gabor’s creative imagination. However, our generation of ideas and projects that may impact political topics such as supporting democracy or preventing armed conflict have arguably not had an eager audience at the top levels of large ICT companies. 

The challenge is significant and the stakes are high. I think it’s time to discuss creative ideas and I am happy to propose one so we can begin the discussion. My sense is that our challenge is in some ways similar to that of the food industry, where unhealthy food, environmentally unsustainable practices, and worker exploitation are beginning to be addressed, in part, through organic and fair trade certifications. These have been far from perfect solutions and are mostly available to people who are well-off, but we don’t even have an equivalent in the ICT world for uses that involve large amounts of data (e.g., social media). The closest we have is free, libre, and open source software and services provided by groups such as the Mozilla Foundation and the Open Source Initiative. Having widely recognizable certification for ICTs could provide a way forward, but the certification should be concerned not only with cost or source code, but with the ethical track record of an organization/product. What would it likely involve? Periodic assessments of societal outcomes, with a focus on user empowerment, individual and community well-being, and basic democratic principles.

What do you think? What solution do you propose?

Posted in: on Fri, April 27, 2018 - 12:10:30

Juan Hourcade

Juan Pablo Hourcade is an associate professor in the Department of Computer Science at the University of Iowa, focusing on human-computer interaction.
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