Reflections on TED2018: How the Tech Debate Brings New Opportunities

April 25, 2018

A few weeks ago, I attended TED2018 in Vancouver. I’ve since found myself reflecting on how different this year’s event was from many TEDs of years past. The awe and wonder of how new technologies could transform our world, a hallmark of TED, was certainly alive and well. But this year, the negative impact of technology was also very clearly present, as many talks focused on how our increasingly technology-centric economy is producing outcomes both unexpected and dangerous.

Throughout the event, the content’s tone and topics switched back and forth between optimistic and pessimistic views of technology. We heard talks that inspired us with technology’s potential, such as how we might more nimbly detect cancer using red light. Other talks, fueled by a sense of despair, decried technology’s risks, such as the privacy risks inherent in in-home devices.

The predominant tone, however, was neither gloom nor optimism, but dissonance. Although the critique of tech at large may be growing louder, the so-called ‘techlash’ has polarized Silicon Valley. Some people have joined the chorus of critics, generally directing their barbs towards whatever company is in the news due to its latest crisis. Others present a more measured response, citing the long history of societal concerns about new technologies that have been exaggerated.

I believe it’s time for a new kind of leadership in tech — leadership that takes responsibility both to realize technology-driven progress and also to avoid and address its potential downsides. Indeed, technology is now so omnipresent, and with such wide-ranging consequences in our lives, that it’s hard to imagine a status quo where people wouldn’t have concerns about its potential risks for society and for individuals. In that vein, there are a few TED talks that particularly stuck with me, because in their critiques I see massive and important opportunities.

Beyond Ads and Subscriptions

Virtual reality pioneer Jaron Lanier’s refreshingly candid talk unpacked what went wrong in the internet 1.0 era. In the early days, the tech industry wanted internet-driven services to be widely available (and thus made free to everyone). At the same time, the industry wanted charismatic entrepreneurs to make lots of money and scale quickly. As a result, we got ad-driven business models, in which widespread data collection has left some individual users vulnerable to manipulation for political and other purposes.

For Lanier, free was a mistake with dangerous consequences. However, he takes hope in alternatives that can give users truth and authenticity, as well as enable companies to improve and grow. Many have pointed to the rise of subscription models, but the way forward is likely more nuanced than simply a choice between ads or subscriptions. It’s an area that’s ripe for a new generation of entrepreneurs to tackle — and indeed we are starting to see money flow in this direction (see examples here and here).

Catering to Users’ Complex Intentions

I also find myself mentally replaying Netflix CEO Reed Hastings’s closing talk. In the past, Netflix’s algorithm was based on asking users to rate their favorite content. Interestingly, the resulting metrics show that people’s self-reported ratings are less reliable than their observed (tracked) behavior. Netflix now prefers to remain neutral and offers, Hastings says, “a mixture of candy and broccoli — and allows people to decide what a proper ‘diet’ is for them.”

Similar claims of neutrality are often repeated in tech. Although this makes sense in theory, in practice tech companies sometimes abdicate responsibility for designs that cause users to do things that they regret over time. For example, we may get a dopamine hit from those extra few pieces of content that we stumbled upon late at night. But over time, we may also come to regret the sleep we lost or the conversations we could have had with the human beings seated right across from us.

Here too is tremendous opportunity for positive change. I predict an exciting frontier in which companies experiment with measuring the complexity of their users’ intentions. For example, we’ll begin to see products that let users choose how much control vs. serendipity they want in their content consumption, even when that answer depends on context. A few years ago, such technologies were mainly seen as sub-commercial experiments. In the next few years, this will become the terrain on which companies gain strategic market share as trust becomes the new currency of growth.

As I continue to reflect on TED2018, I take heart in the debate around tech’s potential and risks. There is clearly much progress being made as new technologies improve lives and the world around us. At the same time, it’s important that the unintended consequences of technology evolution become front and center and part of an ongoing conversation. The answer is not to simply slow down technology growth, but to proceed with insight and intention into its impact at every step of the way. Today’s critiques become opportunities for tomorrow’s advancement, producing new solutions that put the interests of individuals and societies first and foremost.

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