Digital is modern, innovative, efficient, reliable, creatively eclectic. Just like everything that is technological. For years, this thought has brought together whole meeting rooms, inspired millions of blog posts and the editorial offices of the glossiest magazines in the world. No further ado, no discussion.
Then something happens and that deep-down certainty begins to reveal a few hiccups.
Part 1 Side effects
January 2016 - Tristan Harris, Design Ethicist & Product Philosopher of Google, leaves the Mountain View company to create a non-profit organisation: Time Well Spent. This latter aims to amplify the debate on the effects that technology has on our behavior and on the quality of our life. The project leads to the creation of the Center for Humane Technology, "a world-class team of deeply-minded former tech insiders and CEOs who intimately understand the culture, business incentives, design techniques, and organisational structures driving technology hijacks our minds" according to the biography on the website.
Harris and his team highlight some of the side effects of smartphones and social media, such as the well-known tendency to generate addiction, the lack of concentration in children and to support the transmission of false or aggressive messages. One of the topics brought to light is the phenomenon of "filter bubbles": Facebook, by showing only what we may appreciate and by excluding what we could deny, creates a sort of consensus that prevents us from having a dispassionate opinion.
The articles of the Center for Humane Technology generate a huge echo in the media. Financial Times and Bloomberg support in making public a debate that will become more and more spoken about.
The Nonexistent Restaurant
December 2017, London - Oobah Butler, a 25-year-old who supplements his income by writing fake reviews for restaurants, challenges TripAdvisor by opening the profile of a fake restaurant located in the garden shed of his house. He publishes photographs of dishes containing shaving foam instead of cream and brown paint for chocolate. The gag is shared with friends who are invited to post fake positive reviews. In two months’ time and without any hacking trick, The Shed At Dulwich becomes the best restaurant in London on TripAdvisor. Oobah publishes everything on Vice UK:
"A restaurant that does not exist is the best reviewed restaurant in one of the largest cities in the world, and even the one whose reviews people trust the most."
The credibility of the platform is seriously questioned. The reaction of the American colossus ($ 1.6 billion sales in 2017) sounds a little defensive: "Since there is no incentive in the real world to create a fake restaurant, it’s not a problem we normally deal with. This 'test' isn’t an example that can be matched in everyday life". Closed chapter? No, because the news goes round and around and many start doubting the reliability of online reviews.
All the President's Bots
Christopher Wylie, who worked for data firm Cambridge Analytica, reveals how personal information was taken without authorisation in early 2014 to build a system that could profile individual US voters in order to target them with personalised political advertisements. - Video: The Guardian
March 2018 - Guardian and New York Times publish several articles concerning the misuse of a huge amount of information taken from Facebook by a large consulting firm, expert in data analysis and communication. The company, Cambridge Analytica, specialised in the political sphere, is known for having worked for Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and the "Brexit" one.
Cambridge Analytica, which failed due to the affair we are talking about, develops models and algorithms to create the profile of each single user. The analysis is based on psychometric methods, that is, trying to measure the inner personality characteristics. The more "like" comments, shares, messages and other content are analysed, the more precise the profile of each user. Based on these profiles, the company distributes various types of content and even false news against Hillary Clinton, modifying the activity according to the election campaign.
Cambridge Analytica claims to have developed a system of "behavioral microtargeting" that allows the production of highly customised advertising messages that would be able to leverage not only on tastes, but on the emotions of users.
But let's get down to the scandal: a few years earlier, in 2014, a researcher at the University of Cambridge, Aleksandr Kogan, created an application called "This Is Your Digital Life". The app aims to produce psychological and behavioral profiles by relying on the online activities of users who used it.
To access it, users must log in through Facebook Login, the service that allows users to subscribe to a site without having to create a username and password. As for many free online services, Facebook Login is monetised through user data: the application that uses it gains access to personal information contained in the Facebook profile. So far nothing strange, the user is correctly informed on the information flow.
Approximately 270,000 people subscribe to This Is Your Digital Life agreeing to share some of their personal information. At the time, Facebook allows application managers to collect the data of the newly enrolled person’s network of friends. In this case, the handling of privacy is inadequate: the friends of the person enrolled are not informed on the sharing of their data and cannot prevent this from happening. Later on, Facebook recognizes its own practice as overly invasive and changes its systems accordingly.
According to the New York Times and the Guardian’s estimate, Kogan's application collects data on 50 million profiles, coming from the network of friends of the 270,000 subscribers.
Christopher Wylie, former Director of Research at Cambridge Analytica, claims that Facebook has been aware of the problem for over two years. It’s not clear, however, why Facebook decided to suspend Cambridge Analytica only on Friday, March 16, 2018, and only after becoming aware of the forthcoming publication of the Guardian and New York Times investigations.
To make matters worse, Cambridge Analytica is investigated as suspected of supporting the Russian government in the campaign against Hillary Clinton and in favor of Trump. According to the prosecution, large amount of fake accounts managed automatically ("bot") were used to spread false content against Clinton.
September 2015, London Design Festival - Punkt, a Swiss company that produces consumer electronics, presents MP01, a mobile phone whose technology is reduced to a minimum: no Internet, no apps but just phone calls and SMS. The Punkt device does not propose itself as a substitute for the smartphone, but as a second phone useful to detoxify from the reverberation of the high-definition screen and its continuous notifications. The aim is simply to ensure a little relaxation and authentic human interactions for a few hours, or maybe a few days for the bravest.
"Nowadays technology controls the world, and perhaps distracts us too much in our everyday life. I started Punkt. to offer a valid alternative to those who feel overwhelmed by the various technologies that now take up a large amount of our time." says founder Petter Neby.
While remaining a niche product, the MP01 is a hit for Punkt that, as I write, is about to unveil his successor, MP02: an evolved version, able to connect to the data network and turn into a Wi-Fi hotspot. This way it can be connected to a tablet or laptop to access the Internet through a different and appropriate screen. Being online should go back to being a choice and not a kind of conditioned reflex.
January 2017, New York - Light Phone, product of a start-up based in Brooklyn and financed through Kickstarter, is a device as big as a credit card, no Internet connection and literally thought to be used as little as possible: no app, no social media, no text messages and only 9 phone numbers can be saved in the phonebook. This small phone lives in symbiosis with a smartphone and is thought to receive calls only when the main phone is off. The description on the website says: "It's a casual, secondary phone that encourages you to leave behind your smartphone and enjoy quality time doing the things you love the most, free of distraction". The start-up has already collected over four hundred thousand dollars in pre-orders and the phone has not yet been produced.
The two devices are anything but traditional: they are not intended as substitutes, nor even as competitors of the smartphone. Their value proposition is to support a healthier and more aware use of technology.
Frame taken from “Her”, a movie written and directed by Spike Jonze - Annapurna Pictures, Warner Bros, 2013.
June 2018 - A debate with a significant title was published on the summer issue of 99u: "Have New Technological Innovations Made Your Work Life Easier or Harder?". Surprising considering that the publisher (Adobe) is one of the most important tech companies in the world.
The words of Martin Lorenz, designer and co-founder of twopoints.net, fully hit the point: "We should remember that the computer is just one of many tools. You control it; it does not control you". The message sounds more like an omen of truth, but it has the merit of bringing the main question regarding the opportunity of all technology that surrounds us back to the right level.
Internet, social media, smartphones are tools and, as such, they cannot be judged either aesthetically nor morally. It is beyond dispute that digital brings enormous opportunities with it. At the same time, we must treat technology with greater maturity, critical spirit and awareness so that it can return to offer us its best.
PS: While writing this post, Facebook has released new tools to fight social media addiction. Yes, this is something but we should not forget that "We cannot solve our problems with the same level of thinking that created them" - cit. Albert Einstein
Credits: - Cover picture by Taylor Harding, Unsplash
- Part 1: screenshot taken from humanetech.com
- Part 2: first picture by Theo McInnes , three pictures in the gallery by Chris Bethell
- Part 3: video by The Guardian
- Part 5: Frame taken from “Her”, movie written by Spike Jonze (2013)
- English translation by Paris Nobile
- "Time well spent" is shaping up to be tech’s next big debate - The Verge - I made my shed the top rated restaurant on Tripadvisor - Vice UK - Design Debate: Have New Tech Innovations Made Work Life Easier or Harder? - 99u