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What Are the Real Issues We Must Urgently Address?

The planet is at risk. Political dysfunction is rampant around the world. Societal progress is increasingly stymied. Political stalemates make it harder to address global warming. And the dysfunction is significantly worsened by failures and oversights of the technology community, especially of the largest global platforms. 

Sadly, technology failures help explain a shocking amount of the world’s current travails, even as new risks loom from incipient technologies like AI, facial recognition, deep fakes, and a rising unregulated internet of things. 

In the face of this interlinked chain of systemic failures, governments for the most part are acting too slowly, if at all. As a result, many people increasingly expect business to step into the breach. But companies often either can’t, haven’t learned how, or, in the case especially of some of the most critical players, simply don’t want to. 

These are the real issues faced by the world. This is what we have to start focusing on. Techonomy exists to curate, organize, and marshal this conversation. 

It is not hard to envision a world in the near future in which all these issues have worsened, partly because the world is so small and the problems are increasingly interconnected. Here’s the future I fear: 

  • Tech platforms fail to purge hateful, dishonest, deceptive, and manipulative speech and advertising from their platforms, leading hundreds of millions on every continent to make decisions based on bad information. Dishonest politicians and hostile nation-states seed and corrupt public dialogue with informational poison at mass scale.
  • Politicians, paralyzed by hyper-partisanship that is heightened by online disinformation, are unable to take action on global warming. 
  • The planet heats up more disastrously. 
  • Climate change leads to droughts and extreme weather, rendering substantial parts of the world uninhabitable. Hundreds of millions of displaced people start moving to what they hope will be safer, more fertile territory, often countries that are more affluent than they came from.
  • Xenophobia and nationalism become inflamed in many countries, as refugees surge inward and anti-immigrant sentiment grows much greater.
  • Demagogic populists take over more and more of the world’s countries, promising to protect the motherland by keeping out the other.
  • Countries become less and less able to work together towards common goals, as extreme nationalism undermines regional and global consensus.
  • Internet communications and social platforms continue being abused by politicians and parties seeking advantage in country after country.
  • The planet heats up even more.

And so on. It is an interlocked cycle of moral, political, and technological failures.

Even if you think such an apocalyptic scenario is hyperbolic, it’s hard to argue we shouldn’t work hard to keep it from happening. Techonomy’s specialty, and the specialty of our community, is technology, so we are working on that side of things—for tech companies and general business alike. These issues urgently concern every company.

At Techonomy in November we bring together a large number of thinkers seeking to find ways to harness tech towards harmony. This is, we believe, an urgent mandate–maybe the most urgent mandate. Below are some of those who will join us:

  • Jeff Weiner, CEO of LinkedIn, will talk about compassion. It informs how he manages and leads, and even how he develops strategy at the giant global social network, which does not primarily make its money from conventional advertising.
  • Katherine Maher runs Wikimedia Foundation and Wikipedia. Her focus is the power of collaboration in a diverse community and the value of being a non-profit. Wikipedia is a model for how more systems ought to function, in which users pay directly for the value they receive (in this case through donations).
  • Konstantinos Karachalios heads the standards division at the IEEE, the world’s association of engineers. Its motto is “advancing technology for humanity.” He is deeply concerned that not enough engineers–the people building the systems that surround us–are doing so with ethics and responsibility. He wants IEEE to join with other groups around the world to find common solutions to all the problems I’m discussing here.
  • Tristan Harris co-founded the Center for Humane Technology after serving as a product designer at Google. He concluded that the so-called “persuasive technology” that undergirds the advertising systems of many large internet companies is leading to emotional injury, social decay, addiction, and political dysfunction. He is determined to stop it.
  • Esther Dyson several years ago started Way to Wellville, a hugely ambitious non-profit project to show how Americans’ health could be improved if it were approached holistically. She works in depth in five midsized cities around the country on everything from child care to addiction to obesity to preventive checkups. She once headed ICANN, the organization that manages the internet’s naming system.
  • Marissa Mayer is one of tech’s great programmers, leaders, and strategists. She played a huge role developing Google as a search tool, map company, and email service. Later as Yahoo’s CEO she took on the giant task of trying to reverse a deep decline. Now she leads an incubator developing new forms of productivity software for this modern era.
  • Casper Klynge is ambassador of Denmark to Silicon Valley and the global tech community. That country, uniquely and early, realized that net platforms often have more global influence than states, so it was critical to formally reach out, develop relations, and exercise influence. He has extensive insight into the challenge of tech company/state interaction, regulation, and, we hope, cooperation.
  • Tim O’Reilly is one of Silicon Valley’s longest-standing leaders and visionaries. A publisher, convener, and author, he recently published WTF: What’s the Future and Why It’s Up to Us. Few people have thought more about what rampaging changes in technology mean for tech companies, business, and society, and how we can respond productively and compassionately.
  • Andrew Keen is one of the most trenchant, eloquent, and outspoken critics of Silicon Valley. He has laid out his concerns and suggested remedies in a series of books: Digital Vertigo,The Cult of the AmateurThe Internet is Notthe Answer, and How to Fix the Future.
  • Casey Newton of The Verge is the leading journalistic voice about social media and its impact. His regular newsletter The Interface breaks more news about Facebook than anyone, and his in-depth articles about emotional and physical pressures on moderators at Facebook content management centers have altered the global dialogue about social media.  

And we will hear from 30 more great speakers and scores of other important participants as well. Our conversations are participatory and multidisciplinary, just as the global dialogue needs to be.

We believe our work is important. From the beginning, Techonomy has defined itself as working towards progress by convening diverse communities to better understand how to positively harness tech-driven changes. That challenge is more urgent than ever, and so is our work. 

We hope you will join us in these collective efforts. If you are not already signed up to join us at Half Moon Bay in November, please consider doing so. (Full agenda is here.) If you can’t come, stay close, so we can find more and better ways of working together in future. We need to work to find ways for everyone everywhere to work better together. If you think that statement is naïve, we don’t care. Abandoning this approach could mean surrender to a very dark future.

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