How do we want our tech world to mature?

Posted on 23rd September 2019

Eva Appelbaum and Jess Tyrrell

Written by Eva Appelbaum, Co-Founder at the Arc Group, & Jess Tyrrell, Digital Advisor

In June of this year, Nick Clegg wrote an article on how to build a better internet, the opening statements of which echoed the opening gambit of the paper we wrote last year for this event.

“Every technological evolution follows a pattern”, he writes. “First there is euphoria, then fear, then eventually a sensible equilibrium.”

We began writing the green paper in 2018, in advance of the Power & Responsibility Summit. At this event in October of last year, we gathered tech enthusiasts – campaigners, business people, activists, journalists, bloggers and academics – who all agreed that tech has done much to benefit our lives. And at the same time, the harms we are increasingly becoming aware of must be addressed. Many proposals were put forward as to how this could be done.

In the intervening 12 months we have seen much change.

The fallout from the Cambridge Analytica exposé has continued. The Great Hack, released on Netflix just last month, added grist to the mill. The issue of tech harm appears more often in mainstream media and public concern is growing. GDPR was the UK’s third most searched news event in 2018, after the Royal Wedding and the Royal baby. Edelman’s 2019 Trust Barometer shows that more than 60 percent of respondents, globally, believe tech companies have too much power and won’t prioritize our welfare over their profits.

We have seen action by regulators. In June of this year, the US Federal Trade Commission fined Facebook $5bn for violating the privacy of millions of users – the biggest fine of its kind to date – and placed restrictions on the company to make directors accountable for privacy related decisions. Google got hit by a third billion dollar fine from the EU. In Australia, the Digital Platforms Inquiry produced one of the world’s most comprehensive studies into the impact of digital advertising and made 23 recommendations to government, including curtailing Google’s near-monopoly position in internet search.

We have seen action from companies. Google has responded to the EU’s fine for abusing dominance of its Android platform by allowing other search engines to bid to be the default on Android phones throughout Europe. Facebook has invested heavily in systems and people to counter the spread of fake news. Just this summer, social media platforms Facebook and Twitter have taken steps to curb inflammatory content in the wake of the protests in Hong Kong.

In the UK, we saw the launch of the government’s Online Harms White Paper and a £30m tech-for-good fund, and the largest donation in Oxford University history, £150m for a new Institute for Ethics in AI.

There is a lot happening, and that’s a very good thing. We should celebrate those things when we meet this year, and not be down-hearted.

We can see this mobilisation and various degrees of progression mapped across 6 major sites of power (see image opposite).

There is a real sense of momentum throughout, with a noticeable absence of ‘consumer power’. We are not seeing the rise in public awareness translate into significant behaviour change such as major drops in consumption. Nor are we seeing boycotts, consumer lobbying or other common consumer levers.

In our paper last year, we said we need to move from ‘tech worship’, through ‘tech fear’, to ‘humane tech’. To get there, we need to identify the target. What does ‘humane tech’ look like? How do we want our tech world to mature? What are the calls to action that can be turned into campaigns and unifying levers of change in the same way the UN Sustainable Development Goals or the Paris Climate Accord have done?

That question should be a question for the Power & Responsibility Summit 2019.

You can read Jess and Eva’s full report here. 

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