Information technology is part of daily life today. Not just for humans, it is part of animal life too; domestic as well as wild animals. For humans, I believe I need not go into details. However, for some who might think that animals do not use technology, it just need a small nudge in the right direction. Think about all the nature and animal conservatories or care centres. How do they do it? There are chips and tracker installed in a lot of wild animals to count their numbers or track their movements. There are cameras installed in jungles to check on poachers or detect strange movements. Drones are employed for forest monitoring. For domestic animals there are technological tools, as simple as food or water dispenser that helps to feed your pet when you are on travel.
As technology becomes more pervasive, we expect or rather demand more of it. More than the technology itself we expect from technology providers. If you have followed recent news about Twitter vs Trump or WhatsApp and Facebook, then I hope you get the idea of it. It seems like we demand from these providers like they are in our debt. This is very strange to me. If I have to write expectations of users of technology in simplified way, it would be as below.
- Give me ever new services as I need; google search, mail, messaging, video calls, social networks and so on.
- All these services should be free of cost.
- They all should handle data in secure way (whatever that may mean).
- These services should be customized as per my needs and wishes.
- Services should help me market myself or my products with the world (Think instagram, social feeds etc)
- Do not send me any adverts. They are annoying. Read it together with the one before.
- Do not send me personalized adverts as well, as that means you are spying on me.
- But, if I mark my movements; check-ins, airports, travel, beaches, send them to everybody, but without exposing my privacy.
- Take away or control any harmful, hate, violent or similar content.
- At the same time allow the freedom of speech as that is fundamental human right.
There are more expectations from providers around business, data storage and movement and so on. But, there is no need to become a EU commission here.
On the other hand what about responsibilities of people who are using these technologies? Maybe there are groups who are discussing those topics as well, usually we don’t hear much about it. I know of discussions about ethical software development and evaluating moral and social impacts. But this is still more close to the providers side of it than users. It seems, in someway, discussions of “rights” in other realms of human life. You would see most of the crowds and campaigns organized around rights. It does not matter what realm we choose. Hardly you will see anything about responsibilities. Be it rights for education, free speech, safe space, privacy and so on. Hardly, you see people campaigning around responsibilities. One can see sometimes drives around clean the beaches, but they are more around one time efforts and getting some kind of visibility that “I have done good”. People can then go around again to create new litter.
I came across this statement in one of the Microsoft’s product documentation. The statement tries to highlight, what MS is doing do ensure that users of the product feel secure. However, for me it raised different set of questions. To me the statement demands that user must know who are the “right people” and what are the “right conditions”. Something, which is the background, about user’s effort to learn how their selected product enables those things. One does not need to understand the computer code or legal documents, but at least the basics.
Even if we leave the software or technology aside for a moment, do we believe that all people can judge and evaluate who are the right people to talk to, where to find them and how to approach them? What about the right conditions? How many people would understand what are the right conditions to ensure a certain minimum wage or to enable social support system? Even if they do, would they all agree on same understanding?
In case of technology, this is just too complicated especially when evaluated against their own expectations. Take an example of sharing messages. Social networks e.g. twitter or others get blamed for propagating or promoting hate content and creating divides. The algorithms running, in a way, are neutral. They simply promote what is more popular. I mean if Michael Jackson is popular or Michael Jordan is popular, they would anyways attract more people, more news articles, more endorsements. If Cristiano Ronaldo and I would go to some autograph event, where do you think the crowd would be? Would people blame the event organizers that it should control it and I should get the same amount of crowd?
Most of the times, algorithms simply bring to the surface what people are thinking and doing by themselves. From a provider’s perspective, if a news is not getting hits, it just forwards it to less people. Isn’t that a normal business practice? If a shopkeeper has a certain face cream which is popular for whatever reason, he would stock it more and make it more visible. Do we ask the shopkeeper to check on ethics of the product and manufacturer (fair pay, child labor, green planet, zero emissions etc.)? Rather than talking about responsibilities of users to think and check the news and its source, we are expecting providers to take actions to stop it. Even when it is not the provider who made the content. It is uploaded by one user, expecting his followers to get the message. Why should he be denied his right to reach his fans? Why his right to speech should be taken away by platform provider?
If we keep moving in that logic then we can have various challenges to face. One trouble that comes immediately to mind is about defining appropriate content. E.g. what useful purpose does a funny cat video has against let’s say save the ocean or save the forests? Yet, it is the funny cat video that gets viral all the time rather than a really important message. Even within the domain (once we agree on it) are troubles. Let’s say we select “go green” as the topic. Which news you think would get more popular, shared or liked?
- A well designed content by scientist showing and explaining the situation and challenges as it exists OR
- A crowd shouting slogans against the government not to do anything or a child making angry statements in public based on no scientific awareness or understanding of the challenges.
Should we expect the platform providers then to distribute and recommend both content to same percentage of audience, ignoring which content was most liked or watched? Never seen anyone demanding that kind of equality in such news.
Well, technology has helped mankind a lot and has provided ever new challenges as well. It has given more reasons to be concerned while also providing reasons to be proud of. While it has enabled hate speech, it has also enabled people across the globe to connect with their families and friends. It has allowed grand parents to see and cherish smiles and laughter of their grand kids growing in other countries. This was never more visible than during COVID-19 pandemic. There has never been anything in history alive or dead, which is only good. After all good or bad is a perspective. Technology is no different. We can use it and keep on complaining about it. OR we can use it and share smiles across the world.
Mulla Nasrudin and his friend, Old Joe, went into a bar and Joe ordered four straight shots in about four minutes. Each time he would gulp it down. After the fourth, and before he could order the fifth, Joe passed out — plunk, right on the floor. “WELL,” said Nasrudin, “ONE THING ABOUT OLD JOE — HE KNOWS WHEN HE’S HAD ENOUGH.”
Title photo credit : Daniel Nanescu