The recent documentary The Social Dilemma has highlighted the ethical issues surrounding tech titans like Google and Facebook. While their share prices have skyrocketed, so has their ability to predict and manipulate our behaviour.
There’s a race going on between the tech giants, and the winner is the one that keeps our attention the longest. The longer they have us staring at our screens, the more ads we can watch, leading these businesses to their ultimate goal of greater profits and shareholder wealth. This business model is driven by economic incentive and shareholder pressure, but what about ethics?
The Social Dilemma discusses numerous ethical issues with tech companies stemming from their desire to be the best at predicting what we will do next. The amount of data they collect on us is mind boggling. By knowing us intimately, they can use these platforms as tools of persuasion; they know just the right thing to show us, and the exact right time to do it. Did you know that if you search for something on Google, and I search Google using exactly the same wording, we are likely to have different results displayed? The greatest ethical dilemma here is that tech companies, using platforms such as Facebook and YouTube, have the ability to exploit human behaviour.
Smartphones and the social media platforms that are hosted on them have become like an addictive drug thanks to dopamine, the feel-good chemical that gets released when we get a ‘like’ on Facebook or feel the reward of a new notification. The Social Dilemma describes how social media has also increased depression and anxiety, stemming from feelings of inadequacy. As humans, we have evolved to consider social acceptance as a survival mechanism, providing comfort and letting us know we belong to our community or local tribe. But humans have not evolved with the capabilities to go through the acceptance process with a global tribe, which is what happens when we put ourselves on the internet for a worldwide audience to judge, comment and like (or unlike). Suicide rates are on the rise, and a largely unregulated industry means a lack of protection for, especially young people, who have been brought up on technology and do not know differently.
One of the greatest threats discussed in the documentary is the use of social media as a tool of persuasion, one that can be used to control populations or incite violence when in the wrong hands. We all see different feeds based on what technology has decided for us, and this is based on what advertisers have paid for. It is likely that we do not see information that conflicts with our own beliefs. This biased view has the potential for political and social polarisation.
“On Twitter, fake news spreads 6 x faster than real news” – The Social Dilemma
These tech giants are facilitating what we see, meaning we now we have less control over who we are and what we believe.
Of course, there are so many great things that have come out of technology too, and these companies did not necessarily plan for the bad outcomes. Even in the documentary they point out the ‘like’ feature on Facebook was initially designed to share love. But this leads to a question of, who is responsible for the ethics of technology? Tech is changing rapidly, and the technological future is difficult to anticipate. It is challenging to predetermine what it will be used for, so working out the ethics in such an opaque environment is tricky. For instance, at what point is it necessary to consider ethics, during the design phase or end-use of technologies? If artificial intelligence (AI) progresses such that technology is ‘making its own decisions’, when does ethical responsibility shift from the company that develops the algorithms to the AI itself, and what does this mean for human beings?
The stock prices of Google and Facebook today, reflect the views of investors and what they expect these companies will be worth in the future. These prices are rising despite privacy controversies and ethical debates, suggesting that investors see the potential prospects too.
When it comes to tech stocks and responsible investing, tech companies are commonly featured in ethical funds due to their lower environmental impact compared with other industries. In fact, ethical funds tended to perform better than traditional funds over the tech boom in the late 1990’s due in part to a tilt towards tech stocks. These days, ethical and responsible funds incorporate environmental (E), social (S) and governance (G) factors into the investment decision process. Tech stocks may seem like a better option for ‘E’ but what about the ‘S’ and ‘G’ factors? Should tech companies be accountable for the negative effects on society discussed here? Are the current antitrust investigations and ongoing privacy controversies reflected in the governance factor? Stock valuations include non-financial criteria such as ESG issues. Are these being accurately reflected in the ever-increasing stock prices of these tech titans?
The future is not set yet though. The documentary ends with a powerful message: Human beings can change technology; we built them and have a responsibility to change it.
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All the best
Paul Garner CFP®
Certified Responsible Investment Financial Adviser
This article was written in collaboration with Paul Garner of Novo Wealth and Alexandra Brown of Invest with Ethics.