How can we avoid compromising on our values in digital worlds?
Over the last 30 years, the diffusion of internet has broken down barriers and caused a proliferation of digital societies. This acceleration in cultural evolution is causing unprecedented progress in education, technology, economy… However, there are also important drawbacks to this Digital Cambrian Explosion and traditional institutions are ill-equipped to address them. Because change is the only thing that can keep up with change, good design is how we maintain human values deep into the future.
Once upon a time, in 1984, there were 2 scientists in sunny Palo Alto, California. Their name were Sandy and Len. At the time, they loved each other, but alas they were kept separate. Separate in different buildings.
Between them a there was a dragon, a monster —The monster of technology-yet-to-be. That’s the kind of monster that makes you scream: “It’s 2020, why doesn’t everyone fly around in electric cars already!!! …Or at least can we have an intranet site that works? Pretty please??”.
The 2 buildings of Sandy and Len had modern communication systems, but they used different protocols, so they couldn’t talk to each other. So, what could they do? They pioneered multi-protocol routing, so they could speak to each other, day and night.
The story of the foundation of Cisco is a story of one relationship that enabled many more. Indeed at the time the protocol wars were raging, in the sense that there was a shared drive to build a global network, but there were fights to determine which communication protocols to use. Because Cisco’s strategy was to support as many protocols as possible, combined with great engineering, the company rapidly acquired a dominant market share. The growth of Cisco also meant that the Internet was spreading globally, making TCP/IP the World’s dominant protocol suite.
There are more than 4 Billion people on the internet. A lot of people are still not yet connected, which is mostly due to lack of physical infrastructure although cultural and political barriers also exist (e.g., states blocking access to specific sites, especially during election times). Nonetheless, over a relatively short time, Internet has experienced a remarkable growth.
If we assume a continued growth and a logistic saturation with respect to the increase in World population, we can reasonably conclude that —right now— we are living through the highest growth of internet of all history.
Let that sink in. The highest growth of all history. This means that more and more people will join and relatively soon, almost everyone will be connected. In the meantime, the newcomers learn and bring their own World onto the Internet.
We live in a Golden Age of discovery: everything is at our fingertips and we can easily build new components of the future. Movies, music, businesses, research,… all of this together with people from almost anywhere on the planet.
This period, although prolonged, will never repeat. It’s historical. Up to the point that it makes you wonder: is there more to it? What is the significance of all this? What is the meaning for us humans? Is Internet simply a tool that makes our lives easier?
What Internet enables is the near-simultaneous diffusion of information. Information spreading at the speed of light. Not only for people who know the craft of network engineering or computer science, but for anyone.
Anyone can go on the Internet and find information, but also find people that share the same interest and start a relationship with them. And this is key: share information and start a relationship, which combined is the basis of culture.
Culture is information, shared among members of a group. By sharing information and creating relationships, people create communities. More or less organized communities are societies. And in the case of digital information, digital societies.
Hence, one of the great significances of the moment we are living in right now is that the rapid growth of Internet users is creating many digital societies —Many many digital societies.
In fact, freeing relationships from the need for physical, geographical proximity has enabled an explosion of digital societies. Similar to the Cambrian explosion of 500 millions years ago in which the number of living species had increased significantly, now we are in the middle of a digital Cambrian explosion, in which ideas, facts, lies, any sort of information and misinformation is free to spread, mutate, and reproduce.
Internet caused a Cambrian Explosion for cultural evolution
Compared to biological evolution, Cultural evolution is faster, more complex, and biased. Several changes are happening. Some good. Some bad.
Whatever your interest is, you can be certain that you’ll find someone to share this interest with. Sneakerheads, Gamers, ham radio enthusiasts, people interested in futurist and modernist architecture,… All sorts of interests, even some that are contrary to most of people’s spirit of self-preservation. For instance, it is likely that you’d never jump off a cliff, but on the internet you can easily find people willing to do it, with a wing-suit. Before the internet, finding these people would have taken years. Today it’s a matter of days and the next trip to beautiful Lauterbrunnen or Norway is organized.
And there are many more examples. There is a universe of digital communities, each and every one gathering around a set of common interests, having a shared culture.
The access to information enables people with ideas to find out how things work, build better versions, and make them available. Who still uses public telephones? Who looks up words in printed dictionaries or encyclopedias? Technology is progressing so quickly that it blows past capabilities that were unthinkable a few years back. Like mastering the game of Go. The rapid progress makes us think that technology will be soon capable of anything.
In all of this exploding and proliferating, there is another underlying trend: the physical is moving into digital and vice-versa the digital affects more and more the physical. Think about the Internet of Things digitalizing physical processes or Augmented Reality showing digital constructs immersed in the world in front of your eyes.
This trend is very important because it is the reason for the need to rethink our approaches. Indeed, the closing in of physical and digital is at the heart of many of the things that are going wrong with current Digital Societies.
Things used to be simple —just don’t mix digital and physical because it’s dangerous. When something went bad with a computer, you would just turn it off. This is actually still a very diffuse approach. And it’s how we teach our children to handle online requests —Just don’t mix: never physically meet people encountered online or be extremely careful.
However, this approach has become inadequate. Life is happening more and more in the digital sphere and there is no turning back.
This inadequacy became apparent around 2018, when many negative events related to technology happened. For instance, Facebook silencing reports of ethnic cleansing in Myanmar. Or the revelation that Cambridge Analytica used behavioral micro-targeting to try to influence democratic elections. Digital techniques that the UK government considered weapons. Self-driving cars killing people. The rise of face recognition deployments.
All of these events caused the tech ethics debate to take center stage, which is one of the positive developments of these events. However, it’s a tenuous light in darkness: they remain debates, with relatively small and slow actions, with fundamentally no solution in sight yet. Partially it’s because the threats are different to what we’re used to, but partially also because there are so many different digital cultures that monitoring and control is a challenge.
One way to describe these threats is by categorizing them into 4 quadrants following intent and type: active exploitation vs. passive consequences (e.g., leaving the door open where you shouldn’t) and technical vs. organizational weaknesses.
We are most familiar with what is on the left: hacks, exploits, and other security breaches from traditional cyberwarfare, but also errors, bugs, and lately data bias. All things that we know more or less how to fix.
Things become trickier on the other end of the spectrum. Surveillance, voter influence, inequality,… Threats whose mitigation require a concerted, often international effort. These threats are not necessarily direct, intended, but often they result from gray areas. Voids that used to be covered by decency or inaccessibility, suddenly become available through technology.
The reason for this disruption of institutions is that information technology has evolved much faster than the response of traditional institutions. IT systems are able to work at large scale, cross-borders, and under the control of only a few sufficiently wealthy individuals. Traditional institutions like governments, banks, legal courts, etc. are only very slowly adopting digital technologies.
The poster-child of this phenomenon is social media micro-targeting: the ability to show to many people content that matches each one’s personal interests. How it works is today commonly known: Every time you react to a post or a message on social media —be it by liking or by commenting or answering a message on Whatsapp— you train a machine to show something to people similar to you.
In other words, your actions on social media will have an effect not only on you, but also on people that are similar to you. And vice-versa: their actions will have an effect on what you see. According to your reaction, the post can be changed for someone similar to see. This means that by trial-and-error it is possible to create posts that generate specific reactions, like anger or sadness. These two emotions are very popular because they are those who generate higher interaction.
While many online have a feeling of being tracked, what is less known to many is the degree of sophistication.
To find people like you, types of behavior are used, but also very detailed demographics.
This on the left is part of a list of all personal traits available for digital advertisers. Pick everything that describes you. It’s very detailed. ML is used to find the message that resonates the most and generates a specific reaction. This is a system that exploits our human characteristics, like our biases or the fact that we are persuadable.
Behavioral micro-targeting is particularly powerful because it combines elements of the historical public sphere and the private sphere. You can address a large audience, to each member provide a deeply customized message, with basically no mediation nor accountability. The platforms provide the tools and call themselves out from what the developers and advertisers do. This puts a lot of power in the hands of small groups with money to spend. And because the digital and physical worlds are coming together, targeting many people with the same narrative can influence behavior in real life.
But some might say: “Nicola, I’m a digital marketer, these technologies are fantastic because finally I can show relevant content.” True, micro-targeting has its benefits and is certainly not illegal. However, besides making us click or urging us to buy, these techniques can spur people into self-organizing and acting in the physical World. A few example surfaced in which groups were created ad hoc and ended up self-organizing opposing rallies in real life. In the same city, at the same time, based on polarizing lies. Despite being useful, the extent and scale at which it can be used also for evil purposes imposes to stay vigilant and true to our values, even in the digital world.
The Digital Cambrian Explosion will create more and more virtual worlds. We see a glimpse of this in video games. Already today we see massive numbers of users, active and passive. For instance, “World of Warcraft” has more than 3 million players and many spectators. In the US, E-sports has almost as many viewers as American Football. For traditional sports viewers, this phenomenon can seem bizarre. Going to a stadium to watch players in front of computer screens and follow the actual action on giant screens. Perceptions will change when we’ll be able to perform work tasks in compelling virtual environments. And shop for groceries. Take cooking classes. Buy insurance.
It’s easy to dismiss these concepts with arguments like: “that’s useless, why would you want to do that?” However it’s not a matter of utility, but simply an extrapolation of what we have seen happening with personal computers amd then with smartphones.
Digital environments are the worlds our kids are already growing up in, this is what the schools of tomorrow will look like —whether you like it or not. You can limit screen-time, but that’s not gonna change the fact that the digital and the physical are converging. Guide them, maintain values also inside games, because sooner than you know it, the little screens will control the means of production.
The good news is that when “serious” activities like work and money come into play, laws often follow soon after. Laws require identities and their infringement have consequences in real and digital life.
The big question however remains: How fast can laws adapt to fast-changing environments? Can democracies sustain the rhythm? Are laws resilient and generally applicable enough? Part of the answer lies in addressing the cultural and legal responsibilities of digital platform providers. Sports, radio, cinema, television, and other form of entertainment of the public sphere are all constrained, in one way or another. This is important in view of persuasion: We can already be influenced into action now, imagine in a rich 3D environment, where anyone can be anything.
The reason why mechanisms of (self-)regulation must be inserted at the platform level is because trouble often arises at the interfaces. Friction creates fire. On one hand, when two or more digital societies compete for the same limited resources, it is likely that conflict will arise. On the other hand, anthropology shows that boundaries wake an innate need to identify oneselves more clearly. In his classic work, “La voie des masques”, Claude Lévy-Strauss showed how neighboring tribes would subconsciously create masks with opposite features. One tribe with open mouths, the other with the tongue sticking out. One with fur, the other with feathers. Concave vs. eyes sticking out. All to clearly identify and separate themselves from “the others”, not unlike what can be observed today in cultural enclaves, where national identities are used for differentiation. A counterintuitive way of learning from each other, mutating and crosspollinating to push cultural evolution even farther.
As we are looking back at history, successful nation builders, community organisers, company founders, online moderators, and similar strive to create systems that permeate values through all levels. Values enforced through shared norms and laws.
The opportunity with digital societies is that, like games, they can be well-designed and be adaptable based on user needs and traits. Games can bring pleasure, make lives feel better, heal certain diseases, and, like productivity tools, they will make us work faster and better. Good design of digital societies can give us the freedom to choose to spend more time being human to each other. Good design is intentional though. No flag is gonna carry itself.