Facebook, Cambridge Analytica… and Hippocrates

Pixar’s Wall-E is one of the most prescient films you’ll ever see. Having literally trashed Planet Earth, humanity’s home is now a private company spaceship run by a HAL-like computer whose occupants have become so hooked on their comfortable, technology-dominated life that they’ve physically evolved to become practically incapable of even standing up.

Digital technology has fundamentally, irreversibly changed the nature of our society.

We instinctively know this to be true. But we also instinctively ignore the implications, because digital technology is just so… well, normal. Alexa is now just part of the family.

More and more of our lives today is lived online, and shared with people across the globe. We use the web for information, for work, for curiosity, for escapism. We belong to virtual communities, and we share our experiences, our memories and our lives with people we’ve never met.

This is in many ways a great thing. But it also raises a number of concerns, from how our personal data is used, to how algorithms do a lot more than just feed us targeted ads, to social media’s social impact - including shortening our attention-span and creating an “always on” culture of instant gratification.

Much has already been written about how technology is dominating our lives, affecting our quality of life, eroding our privacy and changing our behaviour in ways we don’t fully understand, and this has come into sharp relief following the Facebook Cambridge Analytica scandal in particular.

But technology can and should be very much a force for good.

A reaction has already begun. We have learnt to appreciate the perils of the digital revolution. Communities of socially-conscious digital professionals and entrepreneurs are starting to get together under the banner of “humane tech”. The Centre for Humane Technology is a very exciting project, and I’m personally looking forward to reading Roger McNamee’s new book, Zucked.

But this isn’t just something for digital geeks or entrepreneurs.

Online communities like C4Urselves too have a role in ensuring that digital technology is both ethical and actually enhances our lives, instead of controlling them. Indeed, it is central to our entire ethos.

We’re doing this in two steps:

  • First, do no harm. For us, that means avoiding the things which have started to take digital technology down a dark path, chief of which is an algorithm-driven model of increasingly insidious, targeted advertising. So we decided to break the mould, and rely entirely on partnerships and sponsorship from like-minded organisations which share our values. No algorithms, no targeted advertising.  
  • Second, actually do good. We want to encourage people to pause, slow down, look around - and notice things. Explore the world through someone else’s eyes. Rediscover things. Find beauty. Not amidst a jumble of clickbait, but through a single, ethical community dedicated to enhancing our experience of the world.

We’re not destined to become a population of digital lotus-eaters. A different way is possible, one that puts technology back at the service of people, and the real world.

But we’ve got to step up. Whether or not the digital world needs its own version of the Hippocratic Oath, what’s clear is that a Wild West approach to digital technology will no longer do. Digital technology today wields great power – and in the words of a famous celebrity, with great power comes great responsibility.

It’s up to us, the digital generation, to recognise and embrace the many opportunities that technology affords us, and use them wisely.

Today, technology risks dividing us. Let’s help people reconnect instead - with the world around us, and with each other.  

 


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