Over the last several months, the rising influence and impact of technology in our daily lives has fallen out of favor in popular culture. From the use of the Facebook platform to influence the Presidential election to Google helping build a censored search engine in China. Everyone is now realizing just how powerful hardware and software companies can be.
And while technology has undoubtedly made the world a better place, it has also created some disastrous intended and unintended consequences.
Companies are doing what companies have always done since the beginning of time. They develop products and services and seek to continue to gain and expand their market share. The current group of technology companies which includes Facebook, Google, Apple, Amazon and Netflix have created tremendous wealth for their founders and executives along with several key employees. In addition, as they have developed market leading products and services, they have generated monetary gains for their investors as well.
Governments around the world are just now realizing the tremendous power these organizations have. Unlike in prior decades, there is no obvious solution on how to meter or limit their behavior. While some will call for breaking up these organizations, I’m optimistic.
Right now, we have the next generation that is coming of age. These digital natives have grown up around technology. And, they are seeing the news story and hearing the dinner conversations about the impact of tech in society. Just like prior generations, the next generation is better able to develop solutions that make things better for us all.
On the surface, this seems like a great idea. In reality, social media does not even come close to representing real life. In addition, there are several privacy concerns about providing access to your social media feeds just to get a babysitting job. What if someone talks about drugs because they have a family member who is constantly in rehab? Or, what if someone that went to their school constantly posts about drugs on their wall?
While it seems like it would be useful to parents. In reality, what people would do is begin scrubbing their social media feeds for anything that could be misinterpreted. As a result, the value of the algorithm would quickly go to zero.
Ultimately, the bigger challenge in tech is just because you can do something technologically doesn’t mean that you should. You see there are clever engineers that learn the ins/outs of algorithm design. But, when that becomes divorced from empathy, we can inadvertently develop dystopian solutions that are far worse than the predicted takeover by our society by artificially intelligent beings.
Predicting platform impact
One of the big concerns about the Facebook platform being used to influence the Presidential election is that executives at the company seemed unaware of the possibility to use the platform in this way.
While that might be acceptable for an early stage startup that is just establishing product-market fit, Facebook is a multi-billion dollar juggernaut that connects 2.5 billion people globally. Similar to how leaders of nations are constantly doing threat assessments and analysis, part of the emerging responsibility of leaders of global scale businesses is not just to consider the positive use cases but to also anticipate and protect against the negative ones as well.
This requires constantly monitoring the platform not just for who is sharing baby pictures and birthday wishes but also who is starting misinformation or disinformation campaigns. While Facebook is not a media organization that has fact-checkers on site; the fact is they are bigger and more powerful than all the media organizations combined because by using their platform; everyone is a publisher.
When you combine the ability for everyone to publish with viral capabilities, it is easy to see how quickly this is a harmful combination.
If the global reach is beneficial for advertising dollars then the security and integrity of the platform against abuse must be of primary concern. While Facebook is taking active measures towards better policing their platform, they are not the last technology based organization that will reach billions.
As such, organizations need to be actively planning for how they are going to restrict their platforms ability to do harm.
Valuing user privacy
A few years ago, there was a story about how a family began receiving coupons for baby gear from Target. The father in home knowing that no one was pregnant contacted Target to let them know that their algorithm had gone wrong.
Retail stores like Target are not the only ones who are guilty of this invasion of user privacy. From email targeting to social networking to internet ad retargeting, the technology that powers our modern infrastructure is hungry for additional insights to help better sell consumers things.
However, the seductive nature of data is such that it even has Ford Motor Company rethinking their fundamental strategy as manufacturer of automobiles. While companies will keep pushing the envelope, the consumer will most certainly push back against this continued intrusion into their privacy.
While most customers are OK with receiving coupons from companies they have previously patronized, stitching together all of their publicly available data to create a comprehensive user profile that predicts what they may want to buy before they even know it is likely a step too far.
Yet, the technology exists to accomplish this privacy overreach. In fact, the clever engineer or team of engineers who builds this will probably be initially celebrated.
Over the long term though, users will begin to create distance between companies that do not respect their privacy. As students are coming of age in this environment, they will have heightened sensitivity to this trend and will develop more balanced solutions that accomplish business goals while also respecting the very privacy of customers they are seeking to serve.
Protect my data
As we moved towards purchasing more and more items online and using credit cards versus cash, the amount of personally identifiable information has exploded. Naturally, this creates a huge motivation for hackers to penetrate the databases where this information lives.
With the recent trends towards a more cashless society (Venmo) or a native digital currency (Bitcoin), there will be a growing number of users who have their data stored in a large number of databases. Hackers will be on a mission to get this data for financial gain.
For those who are coming of age in this constant onslaught of data hacking, they will demand increased protections before they are willing to part with even the most basic of data. In addition, systems will need to be designed from the ground up to better defend against sophisticated intrusion techniques.
There is not an easy to answer to how we better protect user data. However, there is an increasing realization that as organizations grow larger and larger, their corresponding databases increase in sizes. As a result, the attractiveness to hackers grows exponentially. It’s no longer just financial institutions that store sensitive information. But, it is companies through the local, national and global economy that are data hungry.
While there are valid reasons for collecting, storing and analyzing this data, there must be an increased focus on data security.
Technology companies aren’t necessarily going to fix themselves. These organizations have the global scale to continue pushing the envelope with their business practices. Governments may try to impede their ambitions with increased regulations. But, quite honestly our current regulators are not necessarily well versed enough in order to meaningfully regulate tech companies.
Instead we believe the biggest change will occur as the next generation comes of age and realizes that you can accomplish your business goals in a way that doesn’t violate the user. By focusing on empathy, platform impact, user privacy and data security the new developers will make awesome products that people are comfortable using.
This will usher in an entirely new wave of technology usage and growth. Looking forward to the children saving us from ourselves.