Each innovation challenges the norms, codes, and values of the society in which it is embedded. The industrial revolution unleashed new forces of productivity but at the cost of inhumane working conditions, leading to the creation of unions, labor laws, and the foundations of the political party structures of modern democracies. Fossil fuels powered a special century of growth before pushing governments, companies, and civil society to phase them out to protect our health, ecology, and climate.
When innovations lead to disaster, it says much about the societal context. The Chernobyl nuclear disaster embodied the flaws of Soviet planning. The US opioid crisis, which turned an essential pain-relieving medication into a fatally addictive drug that killed millions, reflects many of the fractures and problems of modern America, from the lobbying power of the pharmaceutical industry and a fragmented health system to post-industrial economic decline.
The digital technology revolution is facing its own societal reckoning, as its benefits are eclipsed by the harmful practices and business models it has unleashed. Critics talk of a capitalist surveillance network that shapes consumer behavior and channels our choices to profit a tiny group of tech giants. Insurance companies harness data to exclude certain customers unfairly. Data is resold without consent. Flawed algorithms are dishing out criminal sentencing and predicting student grades.
Governments and international organizations have already responded to digital technology’s threats. Personal data protection has been enshrined as a legal right, evidenced by the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), a gold standard being replicated and adapted in jurisdictions elsewhere. Ethical frameworks governing the use of artificial intelligence have been drawn up in the likes of Canada and France—and by companies themselves.
But a chorus of critical voices, from industry whistle-blowers to economists, historians, and anthropologists, are calling for far-reaching reforms to ensure digital and data innovation adds true value to society. “Do no evil” may preclude a company from outright unethical actions, but what of an advertising-based business model that channels huge profits to companies with trivial societal benefits? [Continue reading…]