happy monday system

Ethical Pickle

Technology is increasingly frightening. Big pushes are being made into artificial intelligence and virtual and augmented reality, and as cool as that may seem on the surface, I don’t think the companies at the top of the technology industry can be trusted to use these technological breakthroughs in sane and ethical ways.

It should be no surprise that I’m not thrilled most of the big leaders in the tech industry are backed by advertising. It’s incredibly hard to avoid these companies’ attempts to collect data on you online, and sometimes it feels like ad and tracking blockers such as Ghostery are completely ineffective at helping you get away from their prying eyes. But if we let digital assistants like Siri become omnipresent in our homes or virtual reality becomes the new normal, it will become even harder to escape the clutches of the Internet advertising empires, and then almost everything will become mineable by advertisers.

The catalyst for all of this concern was watching the keynote from Facebook’s F8 developer conference last week where they announced their ten year plan for the company, and that they’d be making big bets in artificial intelligence and virtual reality, and it’s fucking terrifying to think of how much more intrusive they will be in our lives with this technology in their hands. Facebook is fucking terrifying. I started a new job in December, and despite not even saying where my new job is or what technologies we use on either Facebook or Messenger, all of my ads were for one of the frameworks we use at work just two days into the job. I had never seen an ad for the company prior to then. If that isn’t creepy enough an example, I have never mentioned my accountant or financial planner on Facebook or Messenger and both are suggested to me in People You May Know regularly despite having no mutual friends. There are people in there Facebook shouldn’t be capable of connecting me to unless they are physically reading my (snail) mail as it comes into my mailbox.

All of this shit is fucking creepy. Google is only slightly more trustworthy but not by much. What makes this situation even more insidious is that artificial intelligence requires droves and droves of data in order to be good, and naturally, the companies that are the likeliest to have a ton of data are tech companies with advertising-based business models, because they are obsessed with collecting as much data as humanely possible in hopes of mining it for advertising purposes anyway. This is precisely why Siri isn’t as good as its competition; Apple’s obsession with respecting users’ privacy and collecting as little data as possible is working against what they need to do to make the product better.

But what about virtual reality? Well, there’s a good chance (that Facebook has bet on by acquiring Oculus) that VR and AR go beyond the domain of purely entertainment applications, and we start using it in order to create shared virtual spaces for people around the globe to congregate in. Like The Palace except probably a bit cooler. What if that starts becoming normal? Because everything we see is virtual, does it become possible to recreate their point of view and spy on what they are doing? How attractive will that become to governments and hackers? Do we have a privacy policy for things that happen on VR? Surely it’ll vary from one application to another, but since Facebook controls one of the major headset players, I feel like it’s a legitimate concern. And even if there was a privacy policy, will anybody even care? Unlikely.

I’m not saying I have the answers to most or any of these questions, but I worry that no one who could suggest regulating this stuff is even aware of the issues at play. Too few tech companies can be trusted because their business models go against protecting users’ privacy, and because they’re leaders of these technologies, their actions should be as closely monitored as Facebook monitors me. We also need to educate people about the true faces of tech companies. Too many people seem completely unaware how companies like Google and Facebook make their money, and perhaps their online behaviour would have been different if they had known in the first place. But I fear it’s too late. No one wants to go pay for other competing products now because they’re not as good, because they didn’t have as much data to build off of, because they were the ones trying to respect your privacy all along.

And then people wonder why I’m a misanthrope.