Digital technologies for learning, health, politics, and commerce have enriched the world. Digital heroes like Sir Tim Berners-Lee, Batya Friedman, Alan Kay, JCR Licklider, and Joe Weizenbaum have blazed trails. Yet there is trouble. We depend upon software that nobody totally understands. We are vulnerable to cyberterrorism. Privacy is overrun by surveillance capitalism.Totalitarian control advances. Daily internet news matching our beliefs makes it hard to tell true from false. People are addicted to devices. Jobs disappear without social safety nets. Digital leviathans threaten to control all commerce. Our values are threatened.
There are risks of premature use of AI in domains such as health, criminal justice, senior care, and warfare. Much current AI is unreliable, without common sense, deceptive in hiding that it’s an algorithm, unable to explain decisions, unjust, neither accountable nor responsible, and untrustworthy.
Today’s digital technology industries are characterized by intense degrees of corporate concentration.
Amazon revolutionized access to books and continues to grow its market share of both print books and eBook sales — approaching 50% of print sales and more than 90% of eBook sales. It is also starting to dominate the sale of many other kinds of goods, and now vigorously seeks a dominant market share in sectors such as grocery retailing and pharmacies. Facebook, which owns 54% of the social media market, is responsible for a great deal of the Internet hate speech and fake news nightmares we face today. Google, which revolutionized the business of search, and now owns 76% percent of that market, seems to manipulate the search engine algorithm for its own commercial benefit. Apple, which demonstrated that it was possible to design for ease of learning and ease of use and still achieve commercial success, now owns 66% of the tablet market and 22% of the mobile phone market, and seems to manipulate the policies of software distribution on its platforms for its own commercial benefit.
A session at the New Yorker Festival this past weekend discussing how history will judge Trump got me thinking again about media, tweeting, and Donald J. Trump.
Media play a huge role in politics. Here are some examples. In the medium of a large enclosed space filled with people, Adolf Hitler was able to whip crowds to a frenzy. Franklin Delano Roosevelt in his radio fireside chats reassured Americans that they could and would survive the economic hardships of the Great Depression. Winston Churchill’s stirring oratory during World War II lifted the spirits of people in Great Britain despite the Germans’ intense aerial bombardment. John F Kennedy‘s photogenic and relaxed television manner when contrasted with Richard Nixon’s swarthy scowling played a huge role in his victory in the 1960 US presidential election. Finally, Ronald Reagan’s commanding performances in televised addresses and his style of speaking to Americans in ways that they could understand and could trust justified his being called “the great communicator“.
Many issues discussed in Computers and Society: Modern Perspectives suggest a need for legal remedies, such as the case of monopoly power in digital technology industries. Other issues raise ethical quandaries, such as the cases of employees of such firms who find actions of their employers immoral. In almost all cases, such as technology addiction, fake news, and unjust algorithms, wise legal actions and informed moral choices depend upon having good information about what, how, and why things are happening. This requires research. In an excerpt from his excellent recent book The New ABCs of Research: Achieving Breakthrough Collaborations, published by Oxford University Press, Emeritus Prof. Ben Shneiderman suggests that what is needed is applied research illuminating context and situations coupled with basic research illuminating causes.
People generally agree that the Russians have for at least three years been election hacking, notably in the US 2016 presidential election, but also in other parts of the world, as well as in important votes such as the UK referendum on Brexit. What happened in the US election was substantiated as early as in a January 2017 by a report from US intelligence agencies, and as recently as March 2019 by the Mueller Report. These reports, and the landmark 2018 book Cyberwar by Professor Kathleen Hall Jamieson, assert convincingly that this interference did in fact help to elect Donald Trump.