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Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella Invokes George Orwell and Aldous Huxley

May 10, 2017, 10:36 PM UTC
Microsoft chief executive officer Satya Nadella talks at a Microsoft news conference October 26, 2016 in New York. / AFP / DON EMMERT (Photo credit should read DON EMMERT/AFP/Getty Images)

Unlike most technology conferences, Microsoft’s annual developer showcase kicked off on a somber note on Wednesday.

Yes, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella would use this year’s Build conference in Redmond, Wash. to brag about his company’s supposed superiority over rivals in hot areas like artificial intelligence, business productivity software, and cloud computing. But before he jumped into Microsoft’s (MSFT) product highlights, he cautioned the audience of software coders to remember that their products “will have profound implications” on society.

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Nadella urged developers to consider the potential “unintended consequences” of their creations so that the “dystopian societies” presented in the works of authors George Orwell and Aldous Huxley don’t come to fruition. He cited Orwell’s 1984 and its prophecy that one day technology will be “used to control and dictate” the masses, which he said he wanted to avoid.

Nadella also wants to eschew Huxley’s vision that technology could be used to create an endless wave of distractions for the public, leading to people living “without meaning or purpose.”

“Neither of these futures are something we want,” Nadella said.

Nadella didn’t say what prompted him to talk about these post-apocalyptic scenarios, but judging from recent bad news about big, powerful tech companies, it’s easy to speculate what’s recently been on his mind.

Microsoft, by virtue of its size and significance, is often lumped with Facebook (FB), Google (GOOG), Apple (AAPL), and Amazon (AMZN) into what The New York Times describes as tech’s “Frightful Five.” Hundreds of millions of people interact with these companies daily, sharing with these businesses their online habits and shopping lists, for example, that the companies use to improve their technologies and sell more services or digital ads.

But as these companies get bigger and arguably gain more influence over people online, privacy advocates and those who fear an Orwellian future are increasingly questioning their power. Facebook, for example, has been battling the perception that its news feed contributed to Donald Trump’s presidential victory because it distributed fake and misleading information to users.

Although Nadella didn’t explicitly mention Facebook, it was easy to deduce his meaning when he mentioned the “unintended consequences of technology.” Since its news feed debacle, Facebook has been overhauling its technology and plans to hire humans to sift through controversial content.

By calling attention to the potential negative effects of technology, Microsoft is trying to position itself as a company that understands how to use its own technological powers for the betterment of society.

“As the world becomes more digital, building trust in technology is crucial,” Nadella said. “I think it starts with us taking accountability— accountability for the algorithms we create, the experiences we create, and ensuring there is more trust in technology each day.”

Still, it’s ironic to hear Nadella warn of a possible future in which technology negatively dominates our lives. Microsoft, like Facebook and Google, has been criticized for the way it collects user data despite privacy concerns. Microsoft was also the poster child for a tech company run amok in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

Additionally, one of Microsoft’s on-stage demonstrations on Wednesday showed an employee interacting with Microsoft software several times during an imagined day, including commanding a web-connected speaker to organize her daily routines and joining an online meeting from her car so she could get more work done. The demonstration even showed her Xbox video game console being compatible with business software, thus blurring the lines between fun and work.

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A future in which technology is so pervasive that people can essentially never stop working is probably not something Orwell or Huxley would agree is healthy. In fact, it may be “an unintended consequence” that perhaps Microsoft hasn’t yet imagined.