The problem with technology platforms is rooted in start-up culture.
Agile. Lean. Market size. Time-to-market. User take-up. Engagement rate.
These are terms that help start-ups compete across “how much” and “by when.”
We need a performance metric that tracks “how long before it breaks”
The documentary “The Social Dilemma” displays how engagement-driven technology facilitates the development of amoral machine learning, echo chambers, and, eventually, crime and social unrest.
Its critics say this is too dramatic a narrative.
But where exactly in the start-up scene are morality, long-termism, and social stability tracked as growth metrics?
I haven’t seen it outside the social enterprise niche.
You have the odd conference stream titled, “The paramount importance of ethical AI”.
But we accept that these are more show-and-tell than go-and-do.
You have companies’ value statements. You have HR trainers, moderation teams, ethics consultants who “work collaboratively with designers and engineers to ensure a diverse range of opinion.”
Forget brainstorming sessions and sugary statements. Decision-makers must be prepared to discuss and integrate ethics in every single one of their workdays.
The era of growth-by-engagement must end to allow growth-by-impact
Yet, in 2021, after providing free passes to fake news, hate groups, and deathly insurrections, are we expected to continue believing in Facebook’s mission?
Mark seems to think that speed-dialing his apology-speech writer after every catastrophe leaves Facebook’s mission unsoiled.
Companies don’t model in their negative externalities until the proverbial fan gets hit.
And whether or not they admit responsibility for their users’ violence is rendered irrelevant. Because, even if they do, what structural changes are being made within product design and business model?
Humans are subject to confirmation bias
They can say “I hear you” and “I will change.”
But the extent to which they improve their behavior depends on their willingness to be wrong.
We don’t like to be wrong.
If you build a company from the ground up and it becomes successful, it’s because of the systems you’ve put in place. Or that’s what you tell yourself.
You don’t want to think the market conditions you entered were a factor in your expansion. Your company would collapse without the systems that fuelled its growth. Right?
So, you do the bare minimum to assure onlookers that you’re doing something — anything — to mitigate your product risks. Until the next internet scandal hits in someone else’s court.
Who came first — the greedy investor or the complacent entrepreneur?
Research published by the Harvard Business Review (2019) showed that investors consider the “soul” of a start-up irrelevant, whereas “professional management and process discipline” are key.
This can give rise to a chicken-or-egg dilemma.
The most soulful of entrepreneurs may strive to create ethical products. But unless they bring a higher financial turnaround than other early-stagers, they lose out on critical injections.
In a post-January 6 insurrection statement, former Facebook VP of Growth, Chamath Palihapitiya, said to CNBC:
“Unfortunately, the skeptical part of me says that we optimized for short-term profitability at the sake of our democracy. … If the feedback loop to Facebook was, fix this problem or otherwise we will sell your stock, they would have fixed it a long time ago.” - Chamath Palihapitiya
Facebook does not compete for social media accounts. Facebook is in an attention marketplace. It’s competing for time.
Thus, to keep shareholders happy, it’s not user well-being that’s driving decisions. It’s the time they spend looking at ads.
Dave Morin, an early Facebook exec, said this about Facebook’s “People You May Know” feature:
“It can either show you people you’ll become closer to and who will make you happier if you add them to your world. Or it can show you people that are advantageous for Facebook, the system.” - Dave Morin
Morin admitted to algorithms being programmed to choose the latter option. (Facebook: The Inside Story, by Steven Levy)
When unethical products raise concerns, barriers to debate can make or break the platform
Tristan Harris, former design ethicist at Google and subject in Netflix’s “The Social Dilemma”, said in an interview published on OneZero:
“[Technology products] weren’t designed by social theorists who say, ‘Well, what makes a healthy social fabric’ or weren’t designed by child psychologists to say ‘What’s good for children.’ They were just designed based on, ‘Hey, did we get a flywheel turning and get engagement and growth going up and to the right?’” - Tristan Harris
Kelsey L.O. wrote in The Startup that one sign of toxic start-up culture is “You’re surrounded by ‘yes’ people.” This can be damaging if the people getting the “yes” hold the power.
In start-ups, job security is low. The opportunity for quick promotion is high. Egos can run rampant under the guise of ambition.
The risk of slowing down traditional performance metrics with ethical considerations is substantial enough for the company’s inner circle to give in to groupthink.
Now picture this
What if tech platforms spent more time nurturing the humanity of their users, as opposed to using their psychological vulnerability for profit?
What if start-ups got subsidies to invest in socio-political risk divisions, as opposed to waving off ethical afterthoughts?
What if investors pushed social sustainability up the priority list, as opposed to infantilizing entrepreneurs who balanced morals and profitability?
The culture shift isn’t going to happen overnight, but it’s a necessary one. The longer we delay it, the deeper the cracks in our collective safety and democracy.
It starts with what start-up culture glorifies and what it silences
Gary Vaynerchuk’s grind mentality may be glitzy, but it doesn’t allow room for transformation in the entrepreneurship sector.
Talking strictly about numbers, whether they be number of hours worked, monthly active users, or funding rounds, creates a blind spot. Businesses don’t track or understand how unethical groups form on their platforms and the impact they have offline.
Such willful ignorance allows growing businesses to ignore acts of hate speech, data misuse, and fake news while tooting the achievements of traditional engagement metrics.
The way we measure start-up success must change
If we are to pass technology onto future generations which serves instead of uses people, we must redesign start-up culture from the ground up.
If we are to empower entrepreneurs and their teams to truly work collaboratively, the word “ethics” must be freed of any connotations of weakness.
If we want future technology makers to stand a chance at changing the narrative, we must keep existing leaders, investors, and lawmakers accountable for their failure to make technology safe for all.