Friday Brainstorm 14 🧠

Tech ethics, social media, and the future of AR

Hi friends,

Shanah Tovah to those of you who are celebrating Rosh Hashanah and happy Friday to everyone else. Welcome back for issue 14 of Friday Brainstorm.

This issue will focus primarily on tech ethics. You can expect:

  • the struggle for our freedom of attention 📱

  • Facebook’s principles for building AR hardware 👓

Let’s get into it!

The struggle for our freedom of attention 📱

The Social Dilemma is a Netflix documentary/drama hybrid about the corrosive impact of social media. This is a must-watch — as a society, we need to start a conversation about how our attention is being exploited and sold.

The Social Dilemma | Netflix Official Site

For those that remember, I often touched on attention when I first started writing. There’s an important idea from The Freedom of Attention that I want to resurface:

While the defining paradigm shift in tech over the past few years has been that of data privacy rights, the next movement will be over our freedom of attention.

In other words, we've fought for transparency and regulation around how companies handle our information, but not around how they manage our attention.

Attention is quite literally our most precious resource in life — it’s the filter through which we take in the world. What we pay attention to determines what we do, what we think about, and who we are.

It’s no surprise that our attention is valuable to companies. There is a fierce global competition between digital products and services all vying for our attention. The business model is almost always the same — it’s free to join but you pay with your attention, which they sell to the highest bidder via advertisements.

Where does this lead? An environment where companies are financially incentivized to keep you scrolling/watching for as long as possible. There is a deep misalignment between the goals we have for ourselves and the goals our technologies have for us.

“We are more profitable to a corporation if we are staring at a screen that if we're spending that time living our life in a rich way.”

The Social Dilemma screenshot

This is where we find ourselves today. But what if there was another way? What if companies were financially incentivized to direct our attention towards things that helped us pursue our goals and values?

I really do hope that The Social Dilemma brings these issues into the national spotlight. It’s not too late to correct course, but first we have to acknowledge the problem.

After watching the documentary, here is some further reading:

  • The Freedom of Attention: a deep dive into the ideas of tech ethicist James Williams on the modern attention crisis and how to approach solving it.

  • Digital Minimalism: comparing two books on living a more intentional, distraction-free life by transforming your relationship with technology.

  • Dopamine Fasting: if you’re going to do a digital detox, you need to be observant and intentional about the experience

Facebook’s principles for building AR hardware 👓

Speaking of tech companies that mine your attention, Facebook recently held their Connect conference where they unveiled their latest progress in VR and AR. Among other things, the company announced that they will be partnering with Luxottica (the makers of Ray-Ban) to create a pair of stylish, augmented reality (AR) glasses by 2021.

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As we’ve seen with the infamous Google Glass, controversy and backlash is inevitable when dealing with camera-enabled eyewear. This is compounded by the fact that Facebook has a poor record on privacy and has usually been reactive (rather than proactive) about societal issues created by its far-reaching software and services.

This time, the tech giant is trying a different approach — launching initiatives around safety, privacy, ethics, and inclusion years before it is ready to sell AR hardware.

  • Project Aria. Research tool (pictured above) to help Facebook “develop the safeguards, policies, and even social norms necessary to govern the use of AR glasses and future wearable devices”. Read more.

  • Research grants. Facebook is offering $1M in funding for research focused on the impact of AR, VR, and smart device tech on non-users — with an emphasis on perspectives from under-represented communities and outside the US.

Facebook also published a set of responsible innovation principles to guide the company’s work on existing and future hardware products.

Here’s are the four principles from their website:

  • Never surprise people. We’re transparent about how our products work, the data they collect, and how that data is used over time so that people know what to expect.

  • Provide controls that matter. We build simple controls that are easy to understand, and we’re clear about the implications involved in people’s choices.

  • Consider everyone. We build for people of all backgrounds, including people who aren’t using our products but may be affected by them.

  • Put people first. We strive to do what’s right for our community, individuals, and our business. When faced with tradeoffs, we prioritize what’s best for our community.

The fourth principle suggests that Facebook will put people’s interests over profits, but how realistic is this promise for a company whose business model is built on advertising? How will “put people first” extend to monetizing the platform? What guardrails and protections will there be for advertisements in the AR environment?

In some sense, the financial incentive structures in place today make it impossible for Facebook to truly live up these principles.

Here’s another thought along the same lines:

“Facebook's commitments to investigate AR's potential impact on racism and inequality, for instance, sounds good on paper. But how will the company really react once law enforcement agencies put in orders for its future AR glasses? How will it weigh potential contributions to public safety against concerns that this technology may exacerbate systemic racism?” — Janko Roettgers

While it’s heartening to see that Facebook is trying to anticipate challenges around privacy, ethics, and inclusion — I wonder how effectively it can follow through.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this edition of Friday Brainstorm! What did you think? Anything that stood out or sparked your curiosity? Let me know by replying to this email.