An open letter to chief technology officers and the journalists who interview them.
I haven’t been on Facebook much these days, partly due to all the idiocy of the US election and party due to a video I saw on someone’s feed, someone who is just one of the many people you meet a few times in person and then find yourself friends with on Facebook.
It was a pretty short video, maybe about a minute or two long. The location was somewhere in the Middle East. There was about 10 men standing around with mobiles in hand and guns slung over their shoulders, nothing much happening, no yelling, no raised arms, just listening to one man talking to a woman in a language I couldn’t understand. But as the seconds ticked by I sensed this was not going to end well. And it didn’t. In the final few seconds the woman got on her knees, the man raised his gun, the onlookers held up their camera phones, and the woman was shot in the head.
I sat there shocked.
The woman must have known what was about to happen: she wasn’t crying, she wasn’t begging, she wasn’t talking back. Was she defiant or resigned to her fate? I don’t know. But there she was, surrounded by a group of men, dead.
And I chose to watch, rather than censor myself.
Fast forward to this week and a Charlie Rose interview with Mike Schroepfer, Facebook’s chief technology officer. It was pretty fascinating, listening to all the amazing possibilities of virtual and augmented reality; like being with your family who live on the other side of the country or the other side of the world as though you were sitting on the same couch; budding surgeons training in a 3D virtual environment; visiting that alien planet you always dreamed about. But the more I listened to their mutual enthusiasm, the more my questions started to emerge.
Would these possibilities allow me to experience what it’s like to stand amongst those murderous men, to experience — in person — the build up to that final deadly climax? Would VR transport me to a live ISIS slave market, one step up on ISIS posting “woman for sale” on Facebook? Can I join in on a deadly college hazing, even if I’ve left college? Where’s the off button in this new world for those connecting for the darkest of intentions?
All I ask is that before you lead us into new virtual lands take a moment think about what you could be enabling and plan for the worst. By all means, push the boundaries of what’s possible, move fast and break things, but also think of those who will use your product to push the boundaries of what is truly evil and sick.
When I watch and read all the tech hype going on in the media, all I ask is that a few hard questions are asked, just as I’ve been asking myself since I watched that woman die.
PS: To anyone else reading this, please donate to an organisation that supports women in conflict and war. Let’s make this world a little more bearable for the women and girls who suffer the worst.