Techonomy’s events and publications look broadly at the impact of technological progress on all areas of life, but of the many topics we covered in 2018, three major themes came up repeatedly: the fall of Facebook, the rise of China, and mounting concerns about the negative impact of connected devices on our economy, government, and society.
Facebook in the Crosshairs
2018 was a tough year for Facebook. A seemingly endless string of scandals and bad publicity led to new calls for legal action against the company, massive declines in its share value, and a slew of high-profile executive departures (see Why Schrage Left Facebook by Techonomy founder David Kirkpatrick). Among Facebook’s many stumbles—including its inability to control fake news, protect user privacy, and prevent electoral manipulation—many in the Techonomy community were particularly outraged by its failure to protect human rights in some of the world’s poorest and most vulnerable countries.
In one of the Techonomy’s most widely read stories this year, Kirkpatrick documented some of Facebook’s most egregious missteps, especially in politics, including disturbing case studies from Sri Lanka and Myanmar in which the social network failed to respond to repeated warnings of abuses on the platform (see Facing Facebook’s Failures from the Fall 2018 edition of Techonomy Magazine). Part of the problem, Kirkpatrick argues, is that Facebook “expanded full tilt into innumerable geographies where it lacked local expertise,” prioritizing growth over governance, and standing idle as the social network was weaponized by autocrats, racists, and other bad actors from around the world.
This topic was further explored in the closing panel of Techonomy 2018 (watch Can Facebook Recover?). Sanjana Hattotuwa, a Sri Lankan internet activist, argued that Facebook needs to engage the public more proactively and openly. Roger McNamee, an early investor in Facebook who has since turned negative on the company, felt its ad-driven business model is the root of the problem, suggesting that paid subscription models might reduce incentives to sell ad space and user data to the highest bidder. Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg believes that AI may also play a role in protecting users, but until the company regains the trust of its investors and the public, black box algorithms are unlikely to assuage its many critics.
China’s Tech Dragon
While America’s tech sector faced major difficulties in 2018, China seemed to consolidate its position as a global tech powerhouse. Baidu, Alibaba, and Tencent—three leading Chinese tech companies that are collectively known as the BAT—continued to pursue internationalization and gain access to advanced technologies, observed China expert Rebecca Fannin (see China Releases a Tech Dragon: the BAT from the Spring edition of Techonomy Magazine). This includes plays in AI and other cutting-edge sectors that China aims to dominate in coming years.
China’s rapid rise is driven partly by government policies and commercial practices that have many American policymakers and businesses on edge. In a session onstage at Techonomy NYC in May, Fannin discussed the current climate with Merit Janow, dean of the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University (see US-China Trade Talk Casts Pall Over Tech Industry). Janow, who served as a U.S. deputy trade representative to China and Japan from 1989-1993, expressed concern about the recent escalation of tensions, but also said that growing competition—if managed correctly—does not necessarily have to be a zero-sum game.
China also benefits from a hard-driving and gritty entrepreneurial culture, according to Kai-Fu Lee, a prominent Chinese-American investor and AI expert who spoke at Techonomy 2018 and also penned an editorial for Techonomy about China’s unique approach to innovation (see Chinese Entrepreneurs Discard Silicon Valley’s Model). Lee argued that Chinese companies tend to focus on execution rather than technology innovation, producing a “maniacal work ethic” that makes Silicon Valley “look lazy and lethargic” by comparison. This may be the special sauce behind major successes like Tencent’s WeChat, the Chinese super app with unparalleled reach into the lives of its users (see Life on WeChat by Ann Babe, from the magazine).
The Need for Ethical Tech
Another recurring theme in Techonomy’s events and publications in 2018 was the mounting concern about the negative impact of connected devices on our well-being and cognitive function, and particularly the growing risk of tech addiction (see Worries About Tech Addiction Pervaded Techonomy 2018). Even as new technologies expand access to education and healthcare services, some feel that our devices and most popular apps are actually making us dumb, lazy, and fat. And even as global connectivity promises to make the world more open and connected, many believe our technologies produce echo chambers that make us more siloed than ever.
Children may be particularly vulnerable to the negative effects of technology, according to Catherine Steiner-Adair, a Harvard-affiliated psychologist and author who specializes in the impact of tech on K-12 education. Steiner-Adair is especially alarmed by the heedless use of education technologies in the classroom (see her piece in the Fall 2018 magazine, Will Technology Be the Death of Education?). Part of the problem is that many ed tech products are not rigorously and independently evaluated, resulting in widespread adoption of solutions based on flimsy evidence or wishful thinking.
While many of the most powerful and successful technologists have good intentions, to prevent their innovations from being co-opted by bad actors or leading to unintended negative consequences for society, we need to “create a system of design and development that places real value on ethical thinking from the outset,” according to Paula Goldman and Raina Kumra (see Omidyar Network and Institute for the Future Introduce Ethical Framework for Tech). While some think the tech industry can regulate itself, or that unrestrained market forces are the best driver of progress, others see more government regulation of technology as increasingly necessary. The tension between these two views will likely be a major theme in 2019—stay tuned!