After a decade of growth, Silicon Valley grapples with ‘unintended consequences’
The technology that connects us has revolutionized the world over the past decade — at times moving faster than we could keep up with, irrevocably changing how people interact and in many ways changing our lives for the better.
But as the decade comes to a close, some say the most significant development in tech was its unintended consequences — including impinging on privacy and presenting new opportunities for criminals and those who wish to sow political chaos and discord and at times taking a toll on health and relationships.
Robert Scoble, a longtime tech evangelist at Microsoft who currently works as the chief strategy officer at the spatial computing agency Infinite Retina, said that those largely unanticipated consequences have manifested themselves in a variety of ways, like weaponizing a social media platform that had innocuous beginnings for political purposes.
“There are always unintended consequences of technology, I didn’t see that the presidential campaigns or Russia would use Facebook, for instance, to advertise to people,” Scoble said. “I didn’t even think about that, and I don’t think most people thought about that.”
Another example of this experts cite was the Cambridge Analytica scandal. In the lead-up to the 2016 presidential elections, the since-dissolved data firm Cambridge Analytica allegedly improperly accessed the personal data of 87 million Facebook users through a third-party quiz app. A whistleblower said the company, which was working with the Trump campaign, used the information to build psychological profiles in an effort to target voters with political ads (Cambridge Analytica denied wrongdoing and said in 2018 it only had data from 30 million users. The Trump campaign has denied using the firm’s data).
Heading into the election year, some experts are demanding more “social responsibility” from Silicon Valley as the world grapples with the real-life consequences of a new digital world.
The past decade brought the promise of an “internet of everything” prognosticated in the 2000s, to full realization.
A 2010 whitepaper from Cisco, a technology conglomerate, called the internet of everything, also known as the Internet of Things (IoT) “the first real evolution of the Internet — a leap that will lead to revolutionary applications that have the potential to dramatically improve the way people live, learn, work, and entertain themselves.”
That year, China fully turned its attention to IoT as one of the nation’s key industries and four years later, tech titans including AT&T, IBM and Intel held a consortium to develop a set of standards.
Since then, everything from smartphones to TVs to more mundane items like barbecue grills and garden sprinklers have become available as internet-connected nodes.
And yet, with many of our devices “always on” – a certain mistrust of technology has emerged amid outrage over data tracking and concerns about eavesdropping on intimate conversations. The FBI just issued a warning about smart TVs saying not only is there the potential that “TV manufacturer and app developers may be listening and watching you” via an internet-connected TV, but these that TV also are ports of entry for hackers onto your home network.
The iPhone was still an infant at the start of the decade, and many gadgets such as Amazon’s Alexa smart speaker that fill our homes now didn’t even exist. Scoble recalls in 2009, he and friends “were just trying to figure out what our iPhones were good for.”
Joel Santo Domingo, a longtime technology reporter who is currently the senior staff writer for The Wirecutter’s technology guides, said the biggest change since 2009 is that we are “always reachable now” and no matter where you go, a majority of people are glued to their phones.
“For folks in Gen Z, who were raised on it, the internet being everywhere, it’s a natural extension of their arm at this point,” he said. “It will hurt them if you take it away from them.”
New research, however, linked increased screen time among Gen Z-ers, or those born after 1995, with increased feelings of loneliness and depression.
The same researchers at San Diego State University said that teens spent an average of 8-10 hours a day on their devices and that in 2019 and that the percentage of teens with smartphones also exploded over the past decade. In 2019, 95% of teens have smartphones, compared to just 23% in 2011.
Santo Domingo reiterated that even tech experts at the time couldn’t have imagined the force that Facebook has become.
“Ten years ago, we wouldn’t have predicted that a pet project that someone came up with in his Harvard dorm room so we could meet people face-to-face would turn into this behemoth that is in our thoughts 24/7,” Santo Domingo told ABC News.
Call for ‘responsibility’
And as technology and social media have changed so radically to become both intrinsic to people’s daily lives and incredibly powerful forces of information dissemination, Scoble says the “free for all” mindset Silicon Valley developed during the early part of the decade has to change.
“Silicon Valley companies built themselves as free-for-alls,” he said. “Partly because they didn’t want to pay the human to censor or edit content, and partly because they knew that would be very addictive … Putting content through some sort of editorial process keeps the noise level down.”
The argument “ten, fifteen years ago” was that “we don’t want to police content,” Scoble said. Now, “there is a deeper responsibility because of the sheer scale of these things.”
As we enter a new decade, “Silicon Valley has a responsibility to clean up society,” Scoble contends.
Some big tech companies have started to make changes after being faced with criticism, although some critics say it is still not enough, including lawmakers who excoriated Mark Zuckerberg at a recent hearing for Facebook’s political ad policy.
In October, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg unveiled a new plan to crack down on election interference ahead of the 2020 presidential elections, promising: “Facebook has changed.”
“We have a big responsibility to secure our platforms and stay ahead of these sophisticated new threats,” Zuckerberg added, claiming that it is “one of my top priorities for the company.”
Executives from Facebook, Google and Twitter also all pledged their commitment to combat the spread of hate and extremism after its online spread was linked real-life incidents of violence at a Senate committee hearing in September.
Most of the major tech giants including Facebook, Google and Twitter have also bolstered their security and content moderation teams in recent years and do more to collaborate with each other about threats than they did before.
Apple and other app makers also unveiled new tools to help you spend less time on your phone, or monitor the amount of screen time you spend in each app.
As more people become aware of not only the benefits but also the threats of emerging technologies, Scoble said he has noticed “there’s a lot of resistance to new technology now.”
One example is the resistance many are putting up to facial recognition technology. In May, San Francisco became the first U.S. city to block the use of facial recognition tech by all police and city agencies.
Santo Domingo said that one of the issues when it comes to regulation is that technology has moved “way too fast for that.”
At the same time, over the past decade, a new social contract of sorts has emerged that remains almost impossible to escape: if you participate in most of the online world, your activity and data will most likely be monitored and stored somewhere, by someone.
“It is a fact of life, it is a fact of our digital life now, that everything we do online now is monitored and someone will find a way to capitalize on it,” Santo Domingo told ABC News.