Seeing reality clearly and truthfully is fundamental to our capacity to do anything. By monetizing and commodifying attention, we’ve sold away our ability to see problems and enact collective solutions. This isn’t new. Almost any time we allow the life support systems of our planet or society to be commodified, it drives other breakdowns. When you commodify politics with AI-optimized microtargeted ads, you remove integrity from politics. When you commodify food, you lose touch with the life cycle that makes agriculture sustainable. When you commodify education into digital feeds of content, you lose the interrelatedness of human development, trust, care, and teacherly authority. When you commodify love by turning people into playing cards on Tinder, you sever the complex dance involved in forging new relationships. And when you commodify communication into chunks of posts and comment threads on Facebook, you remove context, nuance, and respect. In all these cases, extractive systems slowly erode the foundations of a healthy society and a healthy planet.
Shifting systems to protect attention
E.O. Wilson, the famed biologist, proposed that humans should run only half the Earth, and that the rest should be left alone. Imagine something similar for the attention economy. We can and should say that we want to protect human attention, even if that sacrifices a portion of the profits of Apple, Google, Facebook, and other large technology corporations.
Ad blockers on digital devices are an interesting example of what could become a structural shift in the digital world. Are ad blockers a human right? If everybody could block ads on Facebook, Google, and websites, the internet would not be able to fund itself, and the advertising economy would lose massive amounts of revenue. Does that outcome negate the right? Is your attention a right? Do you own it? Should we put a price on it? Selling human organs or enslaved people can meet a demand and generate profit, but we say these items do not belong in the marketplace. Like human beings and their organs, should human attention be something money can’t buy?
The covid-19 pandemic, the Black Lives Matter movement, and climate change and other ecological crises have made more and more people aware of how broken our economic and social systems are. But we are not getting to the roots of these interconnected crises. We’re falling for interventions that feel like the right answer but instead are traps that surreptitiously maintain the status quo. Slightly better police practices and body cameras do not prevent police misconduct. Buying a Prius or Tesla isn’t enough to really bring down levels of carbon in the atmosphere. Replacing plastic straws with biodegradable ones is not going to save the oceans. Instagram’s move to hide the number of “likes” is not transforming teenagers’ mental-health problems, when the service is predicated on constant social comparison and systemic hijacking of the human drive for connection. We need much deeper systemic reform. We need to shift institutions to serve the public interest in ways that are commensurate with the nature and scale of the challenges we face.
At the Center for Humane Technology, one thing we did was convince Apple, Google, and Facebook to adopt—at least in part—the mission of “Time Well Spent” even if it went against their economic interests. This was a movement we launched through broad public media-awareness campaigns and advocacy, and it gained credence with technology designers, concerned parents, and students. It called for changing the digital world’s incentives from a race for “time spent” on screens and apps into a “race to the top” to help people spend time well. It has led to real change for billions of people. Apple, for example, introduced “Screen Time” features in May 2018 that now ship with all iPhones, iPads, and other devices. Besides showing all users how much time they spend on their phone, Screen Time offers a dashboard of parental controls and app time limits that show parents how much time their kids are spending online (and what they are doing). Google launched its similar Digital Wellbeing initiative around the same time. It includes further features we had suggested, such as making it easier to unplug before bed and limit notifications. Along the same lines, YouTube introduced “Take a break” notifications.
These changes show that companies are willing to make sacrifices, even in the realm of billions of dollars. Nonetheless, we have not yet changed the core logic of these corporations. For a company to do something against its economic interest is one thing; doing something against the DNA of its purpose and goals is a different thing altogether.
Working toward collective action
We need deep, systemic reform that will shift technology corporations to serving the public interest first and foremost. We have to think bigger about how much systemic change might be possible, and how to harness the collective will of the people.
Why more countries need covid vaccines, not just the richest ones
There may also be another disparity. There are many people who, even if you offer them the vaccine, will not take it. And that’s partly because of the distrust. There is a much higher level of distrust among Latino and Black Americans, partly because of historical mistreatment.
Q: How are you seeing mistrust affect global vaccination disparities more globally?
A: When we think about mistrust on a global scale, that may be partly because of how the pharmaceutical industry prices things and how they have patents. Some countries may be thinking, “these companies from the US or Europe are really trying to sell us their expensive vaccines. But we can’t really afford them for our population in the first place because they are patented, and we are not allowed to just make a generic version of it.” They may be thinking “these companies are just trying to take advantage of us.” And there certainly have been examples of lower-income countries that have been exploited by the pharmaceutical industry.
In Indonesia, for example, this happened with H5N1. Whenever there’s an outbreak, if you’re a WHO member, you send samples to a WHO lab and they try to find out about this particular virus or disease. Based on genetic material sent from Indonesia, scientists developed therapeutics for H5N1 and tried to sell them back to Indonesia. Then Indonesia thought, “OK, these were our samples. Should there not have been collaboration? You’re using them to sell drugs back to us.”
Q: Does the US have a moral obligation to send people to other countries to help with vaccinations?
A: One of the problems is that we’re not able to train enough people in the local places. For Covax or other kinds of international collaboration, it’s not about sending people so much as it’s about “how do we help them build up their own infrastructure?” Even financial resources for training courses or other kinds of ways to beef up their own human resources. Because you can imagine we’d go, and then we’d leave, and they’re not any better in terms of infrastructure.
Q: How would it affect higher-income countries if other, lower-income countries don’t receive their vaccines until later? Recent research says, for example, that if poor countries don’t get vaccines, it will disrupt the economy for everyone.
A: While it’s still likely that at the human level, people in the most vulnerable countries will suffer more, inequitable vaccine allocation definitely will disrupt the supply chain for all, including —perhaps even especially—the wealthiest nations that have come to depend on cheap sources of labor. If supplying nations have lots of people being sick, or they have to shut down, [there are] no workers to process or transport the raw materials, or to manufacture and deliver the products. People in these countries also can’t travel or spend money, which can greatly affect international hotel chains, airlines, and hospitality industries as well.
This would apply within a high-income country too. If undocumented workers, farm workers, homeless people, and others in low-wage jobs can’t get vaccinated, they can’t work to keep the supply chain going. So restaurants, entertainment industries, etc. would suffer. If they can’t pay the rent or mortgage or have extra money, that also affects the rest of the economy.
This story is part of the Pandemic Technology Project, supported by the Rockefeller Foundation.
Tech is having a reckoning. Tech investors? Not so much.
They have also been indirect beneficiaries of the insurrection at the Capitol, with spikes in users as a result of the mainstream services’ deplatforming President Trump, his surrogates, and accounts promoting the QAnon conspiracy.
In a few cases, public pressure has forced action. DLive, a cryptocurrency-based video streaming site, which was acquired by BitTorrent’s Tron Foundation in October 2020, suspended or permanently banned accounts, channels, and individual broadcasts after the Southern Poverty Law Center identified those that livestreamed the attack from inside the Capitol building.
Neither Tron Foundation, which owns DLive, nor Medici Ventures, the Overstock subsidiary that invested in Minds, responded to requests for comment.
EvoNexus, a Southern California-based tech incubator that helped fund the self-described “non-biased” social network CloutHub, forwarded our request for comment to CloutHub’s PR team, who denied that its platform was used in the planning of the insurrection. They said that a group started on the platform and promoted by founder Jeff Brain was merely for organizing ride sharing to the Trump rally on January 6. The group, it said, “was for peaceful activities only and asked that members report anyone talking about violence.”
But there’s a fine line between speech and action, says Margaret O’Mara, a historian at the University of Washington who studies the intersection between technology and politics. When, as a platform “you decide you’re not going to take sides, and you’re going to be an unfettered platform for free speech,” and then people “saying horrible things” is “resulting in action,” then platforms need to reckon with the fact that “we are a catalyst of this, we are becoming an organizing platform for this.”
“Maybe you wouldn’t get dealflow”
For the most part, says O’Donnell, investors are worried that expressing an opinion about those companies might limit their ability to make deals, and therefore make money.
Even venture capital firms “have to depend on pools of money elsewhere in the ecosystem,” he says. “The worry was that maybe you wouldn’t get dealflow,” or that you’d be labeled as “difficult to work with or, you know, picking off somebody who might do the next round of your company.”
Despite this, however, O’Donnell says he does not believe that investors should completely avoid “alt tech.” Tech investors like disruption, he explains, and they see in alt tech the potential to “break up the monoliths.”
“Could that same technology be used for coordinating among people in doing bad stuff? Yeah, it’s possible, just in the same way that people use phones to commit crimes,” he says, adding that this issue can be resolved by having the right rules and procedures in place.
“There’s some alternative tech whose DNA is about decentralization, and there’s some alt-tech whose DNA is about a political perspective,” he says. He does not consider Gab, for example, to be a decentralized platform, but rather “a central hosting hub for people who otherwise violate the terms of service of other platforms.”
“The internet is decentralized, right? But we have means for creating databases of bad actors, when it comes to spam, when it comes to denial of service attacks,” he says, suggesting the same could be true of bad actors on alt tech platforms.
But overlooking the more dangerous sides of these communications platforms, and how their design often facilitates dangerous behavior is a mistake, says O’Mara. “It’s a kind of escapism that runs through the response that powerful people in tech … have, which is just, if we have alternative technologies, if we just have a decentralized internet, if we just have Bitcoin” … then everything will be better.
She calls this position “idealistic” but “very unrealistic,” and a reflection of “a deeply rooted piece of Silicon Valley culture. It goes all the way back to, ‘We don’t like the world as it is, so we’re gonna build this alternative platform on which to revise social relationships.’”
The problem, O’Mara adds, is that these solutions are “very technology driven” and “chiefly promulgated by pretty privileged people that … have a hard time … [imagining] a lot of the social politics. So there’s not a real reckoning with structural inequality or other systems that need to be changed.”
How to have “a transformational effect”
Some believe that tech investors could shift what kind of companies get built, if they chose to.
“If venture capitalists committed to not investing in predatory business models that incite violence, that would have a transformational effect,” says McNamee.
At an individual level, they could ask better questions even before investing, says O’Donnell, including avoiding companies without content policies, or requesting that companies create them before a VC signs on.
Once invested, O’Donnell adds that investors can also sell their shares, including at a loss, if they truly wanted to take a stand. But he recognizes the tall order that this would represent—after all, it’s highly likely that a high-growth startup will simply find a different source of money to step in to the space that a principled investor just vacated. “It’s going to be pissing in the wind,” he says, “Because that guy over there is going to be in.”
In other words, a real reckoning among VCs would require a reorientation of how Silicon Valley thinks, and right now it is still focused on “one, and only one, metric that matters, and that’s financial return,” says Freada Kapor Klein.
If funders changed their investment strategies—to put in moral clauses against companies that profit from extremism, for example, as O’Donnell suggested—the impact that this would have on what startup founders chase would be enormous, says O’Mara. “People follow the money,” she says, but “it’s not just money, it’s mentorship, it’s how you build a company, it’s this whole set of principles about what success looks like.”
“It would have been great if VCs who pride themselves on risk-taking and innovation and disruption … led the way,” concludes Kapor Klein. “But this tsunami is coming. And they will have to change.”
Correction: Brooklyn Bridge Ventures is an investor in Clubhouse, a product management software company, not Clubhouse, the social network as originally stated.
The Biden administration’s AI plans: what we might expect
I suspect we will see OSTP emphasize tech accountability under her leadership, which will be especially pertinent to hot button AI issues like facial recognition, algorithmic bias, data privacy, corporate influence on research, and the myriad of other issues that I write about in The Algorithm.
Finally, Biden’s new secretary of state made clear that technology will still be an important geopolitical force. During his Senate confirmation hearing, Antony Blinken remarked that there is “an increasing divide between techno democracies and techno autocracies. Whether techno democracies or techno autocracies are the ones who get to define how tech is used…will go a long way toward shaping the next decades.” As pointed out by Politico, this most clearly is an allusion to China, and the idea that the US is in a race with the country to develop emerging technologies like AI and 5G. OneZero’s Dave Gershgorn reported in 2019 that this had become a rallying cry at the Pentagon. Speaking at an AI conference in Washington, Trump’s Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, framed the technological race “in dramatic terms,” wrote Gershgorn: “A future of global authoritarianism or global democracy.”
Blinken’s comments suggest to me that the Biden administration will likely continue this thread from the Trump administration. That means it may continue putting export controls on sensitive AI technologies and placing bans on Chinese tech giants to do business with American entities. It’s possible the administration may also invest more in building up the US’s high-tech manufacturing capabilities in an attempt to disentangle its AI chip supply chain from China.
Correction: Jack Clark is the former, not current, policy director at OpenAI.