Image by Susan Kare from my 2014 talk Balancing our Digital Diets

Authoritarian Technology: Attention!

Part 1 of 2

Judy Estrin
Sep 11, 2018 · 12 min read

The pervasive role of technology in today’s society

Most of the current focus on the nefarious effects of technology is on Facebook, data privacy, and elections. Yet our unhealthy relationship with digital technology goes beyond any one company or service. The combination of multiple new innovations in computing and business practices has created a rich environment — one that is ripe for abuse. Ubiquitous mobile devices with addictive user interfaces drive engagement and demand attention. A shift to ‘peer-to-peer’ based distribution has lulled us into a false sense of trust. News feeds and recommendation engines, powered by aggressive data aggregation and predictive artificial intelligence, influence our feelings and thoughts.

It is no longer enough to succeed. Companies must dominate

It wasn’t always this way. I was fortunate to begin my career in the Silicon Valley of the 70’s as a Stanford graduate student on the team developing the Internet protocol software. I felt the excitement of unlimited possibilities as we exchanged the first packets of information with colleagues in Boston and London. I went on to create companies and products that were instrumental in building the infrastructure enabling today’s digital services.

Eliminating friction

Maximizing scale and speed is now integral to the industry’s culture, incentives, and design principles. ‘Gamification’ and ‘growth hacking’ have become coveted skills. The mantra is ‘make things frictionless’. Automate everything. Value the number of connections over depth of interaction. Employ ever more sophisticated psychological techniques and minimize obstacles to enticing and retaining users. All barriers to ingesting data and to onboarding or distributing content, ads, or marketing campaigns are removed. Lowering barriers does give voice to more people and organizations. But missing are the checks and balances needed to protect us from ourselves and impede those who use these tools against us. Anticipation of potential problems is hard to automate so companies rely on detection alone. By the time we become aware of problems, it is usually too late to prevent harm.

A deeper look at what we are losing

Relationships that begin on a level playing field may degrade into diminishing or stunting growth, or all out abuse. Those being dominated often fail to realize that they are slowly losing ground. Positive and negative reinforcement, emotional abuse, isolation, and disinformation are some of the many tactics that authoritarians use to paint an alt-reality and mold their subjects. Today’s technology is seductive. Digital services that are so integral to how we engage socially, professionally, and politically make us feel well connected and informed. It is all too easy to ignore or dismiss the costs to our sense of reality, trust, and emotional well-being.

Data is power. AI is the weapon

Money is often used to dominate. Data is the currency in our relationship with digital technology. Of concern is not only the level of raw data collection, but the aggregation of data from various sources. Web sites visited, purchases, places frequented, and verbal commands to play music, call a colleague, or watch a program are all combined with likes and searches to provide a view into our private lives. The relationships between the companies that make money off of gathering data, trading it, and/or using it are often not clear.

Reversing the cycle

Resolving an unhealthy relationship begins with increased awareness, standing up for what matters and demanding change. There is no single fix. The pervasive influence, combined with the benefits and complexities of these technologies does not allow for simple remedies. The accelerating pace of technological change necessitates a different model for evaluating new technology. Authoritarian Technology: Reclaiming Control is aimed at helping to move the discussion forward.

Judy Estrin

Written by

Network technology pioneer, entrepreneur, advisor. CEO, JLabs, LLC. Author, Closing the Innovation Gap