Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 26 August 2019

The age of tech utopianism is over – now it's time to learn from our mistakes

Emerging economies still have much to gain from recent digital innovations and they could even be the places where the industry gets it right

Mark Zuckerberg speaking at the Facebook F8 Conference in San Jose, California last month. Amy Osborne / AFP
Mark Zuckerberg speaking at the Facebook F8 Conference in San Jose, California last month. Amy Osborne / AFP

Over the past few years, much of the world has experienced a collective loss of technological innocence that is as jarring as its initial embrace of platforms such as Facebook, Google and Twitter was enthusiastic.

We have been through too much now to remain naive about what Big Tech knows about us, how these companies allow the data they collect about us to be used, and their ability to target us with content.

While many once imagined that the advent of the internet would bring about a kinder, more collaborative and connected world, the reality could not be more different. Large numbers of people see these organisations as far too powerful, lacking accountability and insufficiently regulated. There is plenty of justification for such opinions, too.

For instance, Russian-backed “fake news” has been read by an estimated 126 million people. The world is still reeling from the effects of Facebook’s mechanisms allowing the political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica to harvest user data without consent. Meanwhile, the ride-hailing app Uber has battled legal action by drivers who say they are entitled to employee benefits, despite the company’s insistence that they are independent contractors.

After a spate of deadly attacks, motivated by racism and religious prejudice, it has become increasingly clear that the internet has become, as the New York Times put it, “a theatre for unspeakable acts — and an amplification system for an ideology of white supremacy that only recently was relegated to the shadows”.

In a broader sense, automation, artificial intelligence and blockchain have become associated with an impending digital shift that many people believe will cost them their jobs, push down wages and force them into lives of poverty.

In light of all this, it is hardly surprising that we are becoming more suspicious of various aspects of our increasingly digital lives. Now, instead of waiting with breathless excitement for the latest iPhone launch, we are worrying about the privacy implications of its latest software updates.

Now, instead of waiting with breathless excitement for the latest iPhone, we are worrying about the privacy implications of its software updates

It is also possible that we are reaching the limits of our understanding of what technology can do for us. The past decade or so has been a period of colossal social, cultural and economic change. Maybe we just need a little while to work out how to best manage the innovations we have already made, before rushing headlong into the next great disruption. As many people now feel threatened by technology they believe to have run out of control, that could take a while.

Still, it is worth remembering that we have had a good run. For a while, it seemed as if technology would always be for us, not against us. There was good reason for that optimism, too. From the early days of the internet to the introduction of the smartphone and the still-rocketing speed of connectivity, technology has provided an incredible level of social and economic liberation for many people across the globe.

Now that the backlash is in full effect, Silicon Valley is listening. Facebook, for example, is working hard to be more transparent about how it manages content, and Uber has shown a more compromising side since the replacement of Travis Kalanick as its CEO.

They are also dealing with questions that are arguably bigger and more complex than businesses have ever faced before. After all, if Facebook were a country, its 2.3 billion “citizens” would make it the largest in the world. Brent C Harris, its director for global affairs and governance told me in Dubai recently: “We are a company that wrestles with and talks about the deep societal questions and thinks about the ethical issues, the philosophical questions.”

There will be no one-size-fits-all solution to those problems, either. China’s approach to technology, for instance, is vastly different to that of many other places in the world. This means that an enormous part of the world’s population is having an experience that is significantly different even to that of their nearest national neighbours.

In the Middle East, the effect of technology is – fortunately – still overwhelmingly positive. For example, the introduction of ride-hailing services to Baghdad, by the Dubai-based company Careem, has had a significant impact. The service has given people a new way to earn money, and more freedom to move around safely, affordably and efficiently – these latter benefits have proved especially relevant to women living in the city.

In an interesting reversal of the usual form, emerging economies may also offer a chance for tech companies to put into practice the lessons they have learned from earlier mistakes made in developed nations. They have a customer base that is far from naive – after all, people everywhere have access information from the rest of the world – but that is still eager for and open to the many benefits that technology can bring.

Mustafa Alrawi is an assistant editor-in-chief at The National

Updated: May 8, 2019 05:03 PM

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