Blog, Crisis Management, Technology

Technology’s State of Crisis Demand Crisis Management

San Francisco Chronicle, September 16, 2018, p. E7.

Make no mistake about it, technology is in a state of crisis of its own making.

Technology has betrayed our deepest sense of trust and well-being. It has allowed itself — indeed, its values are deeply woven into the underlying business model of tech companies — to be used for nefarious purposes.

It has collected and sold without our full awareness, let alone permission, our personal information to third parties for their gain, not ours. It’s monetized every aspect of our being. It’s provided a platform for fake news and hate speech. It’s allowed foreign governments to interfere with our elections. It’s served as a vehicle for cyberbullying, thereby hounding people every moment of their lives.

One of the deepest fears is that, instead of aiding us, artificial intelligence will take over and control us. In these and countless other ways, technology has sown distrust into the very fabric of society.

Every day brings news of but yet another crisis caused by all-too-powerful tech companies. More and more, the crises affect not only them, but all of us as well. When Facebook’s stock took a big hit, for example, it affected tech stocks across the board thereby negatively impacting the entire economy.

The concerns lie not just with the problematic intended uses of technology but the failure to think about and anticipate the unintended uses. Technologies are fundamentally abused and misused in ways that their creators didn’t envision, and in far too many cases, didn’t ever want to consider. For instance, from my more than 30 years in the field of crisis management, I’m convinced that virtually all of Facebook’s enumerable crises could have been foreseen if crisis management had been an integral part of the company’s culture and thinking from its founding.

Prior to the Facebook technology’s launch, there is reason to believe that teams of parents, teachers, psychologist and kids would have come up with the possibility of it being used as a vehicle for cyberbullying. If steps had been taken before it went live, we still would have had something like Facebook, but hopefully a much more responsible one.

We need a government agency, similar to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, to not only oversee the social impacts of technology, but to protect us from those that present a clear danger to our well-being. We must establish panels composed of parents, social scientists, child development experts, ethicists, crisis management authorities — and kids — to think of as many ways as they can about how a proposed technology could be abused and misused.

Ideally, tech companies would do this on their own. Indeed, research has shown that companies that are proactive in anticipating and planning for crises are substantially more profitable than those that are merely reactive. Crisis management is not only the ethical thing to do, it’s good for business; it heads off major crises before they are too big to fix.

Crisis management needs to be built into every technology, from inception and across its lifetime. As difficult as the invention of a technology is, its management is just as difficult, if not more so. It requires a different set of skills and levels of maturity than that which is needed to invent a technology. We need different types of technologists and tech companies.

But that’s no reason to hesitate: The backlash against technology and tech companies is clearly brewing.

Blog, Business, Technology

Tech Companies Must Be Strictly Regulated: They Have Only Themselves to Blame

Originally published November 1, 2017 on The Huffington Post

Tech companies are part of an all-too-familiar pattern. First, resist and decry all reasonable regulations, thereby asserting repeatedly that there are no regulations that are acceptable. Second, engage in and/or allow disreputable behavior (provide a platform for disinformation, hate speech, unscrupulous ads by foreign governments). Third, do everything possible to ensure that a backlash is inevitable resulting in onerous regulations, the very things one adamantly opposed in the first place.

Tech companies have only themselves to blame. By not acting responsibly, by being unable and unwilling to consider how all of their marvelous and wondrous creations would be both abused and misused, and by not engaging in proper steps to mitigate harmful actions and behavior, they have made the need for severe regulations abundantly clear.

In short, they are no better than those industries such as tobacco that have come before them and resisted all reasonable regulations until they were forced on them. But then, what does one expect of an industry run primarily by young socially immature males?

This post is based on a forthcoming book: Out of Control: Combatting Technology Run Amok, Columbia University Press.

Blog, Media + Politics, Psychology, Technology

The New Media: In Your Head and in Your Body All the Time

Originally published May 16th, 2016 on the Huffington Post

The early days of commercial TV are aptly characterized as “appointment media.” One had to make specific “appointments” as it were to watch one’s favorite shows since they were broadcast only at precise times and rarely repeated. With the advent of cable TV, we moved to “destination media.” Certain channels offered 24 hours of programming that was targeted at specific groups such as kids, gardening enthusiasts, news junkies, etc. Today, we have “always on media.”

A personal experience, but one which is all too common, illustrates the nature of “always on media.” More than once, our out-of-state niece has stayed with us. She literally sleeps with her cell-phone next to ear, which of course is “always on” lest she fail to be instantly “in touch” with all her friends. Anything less is cause for great shame and humiliation.

In a word, we’ve moved from fixed TV screens to small portable ones that are integral parts of our every waking moments, and unfortunately for teenagers everywhere, when they should be asleep.

The psychological and social effects are enormous. Parents report great difficulties in getting their children to turn off their cell-phones, iPads, etc., and to engage in meaningful conversations at the family table, assuming of course that families still have regular mealtimes at which they eat together. When families do get together, parents report that heated arguments often break out over getting kids to turn off their “screens.” But more than this, occupational therapists report that today’s children do not have the necessary core strength to sit and walk properly because too much time is spent slouching in chairs glued to their “screens.”

Yes, we know that there have always been complaints over new technologies that have both improved and disrupted our lives. Thus, when air-conditioning came into widespread use, it was feared that it would destroy a sense of community because people would no longer congregate on their steps on hot nights. Instead of talking with one another, and thus getting to know their neighbors, they would retreat to their homes where they would be isolated. Of course such fears were overblown.

Nonetheless, we feel that something is very different about today’s media and technologies. Today’s technologies are not only disrupting old established businesses (think Uber and Airbnb), but they are disrupting our lives even more. In part, this is because those who develop such technologies have little if any training, and hence even less interest, in human, and especially, child development. Instead, what happens is that the latest, great technologies are largely dumped on society, and more often than not on the most fragile and vulnerable members, without any forethought given to their potential deleterious social effects.

Take Facebook. If one had deliberately set out to intentionally design a perfect mechanism to bully young children relentlessly 24/7, one couldn’t have designed a better platform coupled to cell phones! Ideally, parents, child psychologists, and even kids themselves should have been involved before the launch of Facebook to talk about possible ways to curb cyber-bullying.

While not perfect by any means, enough is known about the history of technology such that there are no valid excuses for not having historians, psychologists, and sociologists involved from the very beginning in the development of new technologies. In the case of cell-phones, the genie is already out of the bottle. It will take a concerted effort by parents to band together politically to push for greater controls.

If you think that cell-phones have bad effects, stay tuned. Even more worrisome are technologies on the horizon. We already have clothes and gloves that are full of sensors that “meld” seamlessly onto one’s body, “sense, “and relay all kinds of data to interested parties for their personal gain. The day is not far off that we will have implants such that we won’t need external cell-phones. They’ll be integral parts of us by literally being in us.

If there are any doubts whatsoever about whether such concerns are overblown, then consider that recently Carnegie Mellon announced that engineers have developed new technologies whereby a person’s skin essentially becomes a “touch screen.” Talk about “being always on and literally ‘in’ one’s body!”

Who’s thinking about the effects, both positive and negative, of such “developments,” if we can truly call them that? If we don’t start thinking about them now, it’ll be too late.

Blog, Technology

Big Data ≠ Big Wisdom: Mismanaging 21st Century Problems with 19th Century Thinking

Originally published May 8, 2015 on Huffington Post

Today we are witnessing the unparalleled explosion of technology. But the sad fact of the matter is that Big Data and more technology alone have not improved the quality of our thinking and the ways in which the majority of people and organizations make important decisions. By themselves, Big Data and technology do not help people avoid what are known as Type Three Errors: Solving the Wrong Problems Precisely!

There is no doubt that technology enhances, magnifies, and improves the senses, but it does not necessarily improve our sensibilities. Thus, technology allows to see and to travel farther and faster, etc., but it does not necessarily make us wiser.

Lest I be accused of being anti-science and anti-technology, let me point out that I have a BS in Engineering Physics, an MS in Structural Engineering, and a Ph.D. in Industrial Engineering, all from UC Berkeley. The thing, however, that changed my thinking forever is the fact that when I was studying for my Ph.D., I deliberately chose to take a 3 ½ year minor in the Philosophy of Science. Furthermore, the particular kind of Philosophy of Science that I studied was deeply interdisciplinary. Accordingly, no single discipline has a monopoly on The Truth or The Way to study Reality. In short, interdisciplinary inquiry is the only guarantor of which we know for minimizing and avoiding Type Three Errors!

Expert Consensus
One of the primary ways for acquiring knowledge in Western societies is by means of Expert Consensus. In this system of inquiry, “truth” is that with which a group of experts agrees strongly. Alternately, it is also the average of a set of tightly bunched data, observations, scores, etc.

Consider global warming. The “body of ‘reputable scientists worldwide'” is now in strong, if not overwhelming, agreement that human activities are mainly responsible for global warming. This fact which is based on enumerable scientific studies is taken as “strong evidence” that the debate whether humans are or are not responsible for global warming is essentially over even if all the mechanisms for the phenomenon are not understood completely.

The point is that agreement is as important in science as it is in any field of human activity. One could in fact argue that agreement is even more important in science because so much is riding on the outcome of scientific knowledge.

Big Data
The latest incarnation of Expert Consensus is Big Data. The hope is that by compiling enough data from different sources, it will reveal, say, the “underlying, true buying habits and preferences” of a selected group of consumers. However, writing in The New York Times, Alex Peysakhovich and Seth Stephens-Davidowitz note that for Big Data to actually work one is dependent on Small Data. That is, one needs old-fashioned interviews and surveys to understand in-depth why people give the numerical responses they do. In other words, by themselves, numbers are never enough.

The biggest downfall of Expert Agreement is that it assumes that one can gather data, facts, and observations on an issue or phenomenon without having to presuppose any prior theory about the nature of what one is studying. In other words, it assumes that data, facts, and observations are theory and value-free. It’s not just that one can’t interpret anything without a theory of some kind, but even more fundamental, one can’t collect any data in the first place without having presupposed some theory about the that underlies the data, certainly why the data are important to collect and how they should be collected such that they accurately reflect the “true nature of phenomenon.”

In contrast, the philosophical school known as Rationalism assumes that theories are free or independent of data, facts, and observations. In principle, the formulation of theories is dependent only upon pure thought or logic alone. In reality, theories are dependent upon the background, experience, and life history of the one person or small set of persons formulating the theories.

In sum, I’m extremely critical of Big Data. It’s not because the concept makes no sense at all, or that I’m fundamentally opposed to collecting data. Instead, as it’s currently conceived, the concept is deeply flawed. If all data are dependent upon some underlying theory or theoretical concepts before the data can even be captured, let alone analyzed, then what does it mean to put all kinds of data indiscriminately into larger and larger pools?

Unless one knows a lot about the different theories that underlie different sets of data, and how they can be reconciled and integrated, then one is literally squishing together apples and oranges.

Mush is the inevitable result!