Tech’s underdeveloped moral compass is threatening our democracy

Protesters gather to storm the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. “The physical world is becoming more like the Internet,” writes the author. “Dysfunctional, angry, lawless, and a complete banana republic.”
Kent Nishimura—Los Angeles Times/Getty Images

Many of us are shocked and appalled by the violence that caused the U.S. Capitol to go into lockdown last week. We should be appalled, but not necessarily surprised. This is, after all, what any regular day on the Internet looks like—with information unregulated and manipulated to communicate skewed views and fake news, more often than not encouraging political fury and violence. What we are seeing now is the consequence of years of unchecked growth in the technology industry. 

Today, the Internet and social networks influence all the information we consume, the opinions we form, the misinformation we believe. Yesterday’s events underscore our new reality. The physical world is becoming more like the Internet: dysfunctional, angry, lawless, and a complete banana republic.

As the CEO of a software company and member of the technology community, I am proud of the many good things my industry has achieved, including technologies that have saved lives; helped the differently abled; and increased access to everyday conveniences, among many other achievements. Over the pandemic, technology has thankfully allowed millions of us to continue working and our kids to continue to learn.

At the same time, for all of these achievements, the technology industry contains inherent flaws. The most critical flaw we need to address immediately is an underdeveloped and naive moral compass which has led to the current toxic and destructive situation. Social media channels have been actively working on monitoring content for potential harmful societal consequences, but the efforts at oversight and responsiveness have not been nearly sufficient for far too many years. 

While Congress has called Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey to testify numerous times, what has been the result? So far, a number of state-led antitrust suits that may be extremely difficult to win, and could take years and years to try in court. Twitter finally banned Trump, and Facebook has suspended his account indefinitely, but we still need to figure out the much larger problem here. 

In the “physical” world, people have a clearer and stronger sense of good versus bad, right versus wrong, positive versus negative. Farmers, construction workers, civil engineers, blacksmiths, carpenters, accountants know what they are working on, and whether it is a benefit to society or not. Most of these technologies have had the advantage of developing and evolving over thousands or hundreds of years. Human beings had some 12,000 years to develop agriculture, around 5,000 years to develop metallurgy, and 500 years to develop a free press. That gradual pace of evolution has ensured that regulations and industry knowledge helped practitioners build a highly developed moral compass. Whether passed on from parent to child, master to apprentice, instructor to student, shared knowledge and traditions made it easier to discern beneficial uses of these technologies from ruinous ones. In addition, social reputation, regulations, and due process provide additional checks and balances.

In contrast, the technology industry has had just a mere handful of decades to evolve from being a niche, geeky world of transistors, diodes, and microprocessors to becoming the pervasive platform for distribution of news, interpersonal communication, and virtually all forms of content. Major new advancements happen every five years, which further amplify the reach, and possible destructive impact, of technology-driven misinformation.

Humanity has overcome incredible odds to get to where we are. Yet the power of the technology industry, and the fact that young engineers do technically brilliant work without fully grappling with the societal and civic implications of that work, are a huge concern. Does a young engineer joining Facebook or Twitter understand how his or her algorithmic expertise in optimizing better-performing content may cause an act of anger by a mob?  

As even more data becomes ever more easily available online, and with the proliferation of artificial intelligence, I am convinced that the real world will become even more like the Internet if we don’t make changes. This industry has incredible talent; it’s time that talent develops algorithms that enable our companies and workers to do good. I am confident that over the long term we will improve the technology industry’s moral compass, but we need to start working on it hard and fast now. 

Sirish Raghuram is the cofounder and CEO of Platform9, which provides open-source SaaS managed solutions for private and edge clouds.

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