3 ways big tech behaves badly

4:54-min read

Hello from 20 Minutes into the Future. Next week marks the first anniversary of the newsletter. That’s a whole year of stories about big tech behaving badly. I wanted to use this week’s edition to contextualise the work around 3 big themes I’ll continue to explore in the next year.

The high cost of convenience

Big tech CEOs are the robber barons of the 21st century. Revenues at many of the biggest Silicon Valley companies are predicated on suppressing workers compensation and rights. Our addiction to the convenience of their products make too many of us complicit in that unethical behaviour.

Amazon made $33 million an hour—while endangering employees lives—during the pandemic. That callousness should come as no surprise to anyone given Amazon's grisly body count. Oh, and Amazon Web Services (AWS) is also pumping (at least) 626,000 pounds of CO2 into the environment.

Amazon isn’t the only company taking advantage of its workers. Using tactics initially developed by The Koch Brothers, Uber has plotted to take over mass transit while fleecing their drivers of billions and declaring economic war on people of color & the poor.

The wicked cycle of outrage and propaganda

Big platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube profit from outrage.

Far-right politicians know this all too well and use strategies pioneered by Henry Kissinger and Ronald Reagan and modernised by Vladislov Surkov to monstrous effect on social media. Their posts promote conspiracies that radicalise their supporters and drive them to acts of stochastic terrorism. And sometimes even outright genocide.

Groups like Cambridge Analytica and the Russian Internet Research Agency have leveraged big social to break Democracy. And they haven’t stopped.

Algorithmic injustice and other big tech bigotry

Big tech has a big inclusion problem. As a result terrible biases are encoded unconsciously—and consciously—into many products and services. As an example, TikTok’s algorithms and content moderators have been found to suppress the poor, transgendered, disabled, and people of colour.

Google’s image recognition systems (still!) misidentify black people as gorillas. In an effort to fix them and hock more phones they surreptitiously outsourced an unethical facial recognition program targeting Black homeless people in Atlanta. Nothing says plausible deniability like outsourcing dodgy work to consultants.

Perhaps even more troubling is how Facebook’s lax policies on hate speech serve to encourage police brutality and racism. There were even allegations recently that the platform was used to plan the lynching of Ahmaud Arbery. Facebook is even terrible for civil rights off-platform given their frequent court room battles to preserve racial injustice.

Big tech is also exacerbating the flawed state of modern policing. Companies like Amazon, Microsoft, and IBM provide an arsenal of surveillance tech to law enforcement even as they issue proclamations of support for Black Lives Matter. Palantir’s predictive policing product, Gotham is trained on racist data and generates racist outcomes.

Oh, and let’s not forget about all the brown kids ICE is putting in cages thanks to Amazon and Palantir.

In the time you’ve taken to read this far Jeff Bezos made over $300,000.

A better world is possible

We're not going to fix the problems white technocrats have created if we don’t start evolving our design practices. Getting inclusive design right is key for the future of design and artificial Intelligence. Your capacity for empathy is important but it is a pale proxy for someone else’s lived experience.

The world is on fire. And for too long designers, technologists, and business leaders have been complicit in that blaze. We have to change the climate of ideas around existing frameworks and forge a new way forward.

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10 stories this week

  1. Facebook Said to Consider Banning Political Ads https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/10/technology/facebook-politcal-ads-ban.html

  2. Why visual design has never been more important for educating the masses https://www.fastcompany.com/90526283/why-visual-design-has-never-been-more-important-for-educating-the-masses

  3. We’re losing the war against surveillance capitalism because we let Big Tech frame the debate https://www.salon.com/2020/06/20/were-losing-the-war-against-surveillance-capitalism-because-we-let-big-tech-frame-the-debate/

  4. Not far enough. In fact they’ll likely do precious little. https://www.theverge.com/2020/7/14/21323988/vergecast-podcast-interview-rashad-robinson-color-of-change-facebook-ad-boycott

  5. The amazing @sarahtgold of the equally terrific @projectsbyif writing brilliantly again on society centered design https://www.oreilly.com/radar/society-centered-design/

  6. An Ethics Guide for Tech Gets Rewritten With Workers in Mind https://www.wired.com/story/ethics-guide-tech-rewritten-workers/

  7. K-Street needs to burn https://www.protocol.com/facebook-privacy-laws-white-paper

  8. Are. Not could be. https://www.fastcompany.com/90527961/youtubes-algorithms-could-be-harming-users-looking-for-health-information

  9. Google is being sued (again) for ‘blatant lies’ about user privacy https://www.inputmag.com/culture/google-is-being-sued-again-for-blatant-lies-about-user-privacy

  10. Another brilliant read from Real Life. This time by Molly Sauter on how conspiracists and the Internet were made for one another. https://reallifemag.com/the-apophenic-machine/

Sick and tired of big tech behaving badly? 20 Minutes into the Future is about holding the bastards to account. One way we can do that is by spreading the word of their misdeeds.


Bastard watch

You might be shocked to hear this but I’ve not put Zuckerberg in the bastard watch before. His henchmen like Joel Kaplan, Nick Clegg, Adam Mosseri but no Zuck. That’s because you don’t need me to tell you he’s bastard. You know he’s hurting people at scale. You know he’s an American oligarch that will do anything to stay in power. #FuckZuck

Kindred spirits

Amber Case is an inspiration and a friend. Part designer, part technologist, part anthropologist, she has an eclectic skill set she brings to the fight against big tech. If you haven’t already then you should read her book on calm technology. You can find out more about her thoughts on the subject in this great talk from UX London.

We need more Ambers and less Marks working in tech today if we want a better tomorrow.

A personal note

Just wanted to thank you for giving me your time and attention. It means the world to me that I’m not just screaming into the ether here. Also thank you to all who have reached out to talk about this stuff further. Talking about this stuff helps me sharpen my thinking and learn from others. Don’t be a stranger.

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Good night and good future,

20 Minutes into the Future is a critical look at how technology is shaping our lives today. And what actions we can take for a better tomorrow. If you're not already a subscriber and found this newsletter worth your while then please sign up.

My name is Daniel Harvey and I write 20 Minutes into the Future. I’m a product designer and have written for Fast Company, Huffington Post, The Drum, & more. If you're pissed about the current state of tech and want to see us do better then you’ve found a kindred spirit.

You can email me at daniel.harvey@gmail.com or follow me on Twitter @dancharvey.