As a part of the tech industry, there’s a delicate balance to be concerned by our actively contributions to the problem outlined in the Social Dilemma. Not only as users of these platforms, but as the data scientists and engineers building the AI that will eventually result in the demise of society. And with Interview Query specifically, I was asking myself if I was creating a product– meant to help people land data science jobs– that was ultimately leaving the world worse off if they worked at Facebook, Google, and the like.
Not to mention, there’s future questions to think about. For those not in tech but considering a career in it: are the ethical considerations worth it?
Let’s dive in with a quick review
If you haven’t seen the documentary, I highly recommend that you watch it. People who work full-time in tech probably won’t gain any new information, but the film still does a great job of narrating and giving specific examples of how social media could be destroying us from within.
The revelation that social media and tech platforms can be addictive, creepy, or detrimental to one's mental health is not a surprise to anyone who uses Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and the like. The Social Dilemma instead focuses on how a group of designers, engineers, and technologists went about creating some of the most revolutionary platforms that now threaten some fundamental aspects of humanity.
Ultimately, the fact remains that surveillance capitalism is only going to get exponentially better at targeting us in the future with complex AI systems that will make choices for us– and not on what is necessarily good for us, but for what is good for the company. In essence, Skynet already exists, and it is staring at you from your computer, your smartphone, and that Instagram notification you just got.
Overall, the whole documentary was fantastic. The only slight downside for me was the strange Black Mirror vibe that seemed a little tacky. Especially when they showed a high schooler being controlled by a secret room full of fat versions of himself with Toby Maguire Spider-Man 3 hair.
Is It Okay to Work In Tech?
Let’s knock this first question out of the way– yes, it is okay to strive to be successful, make a good income, and work in technology. While there are negative implications involving many large tech companies, we should still be okay with moving up the economic ladder and doing better for ourselves, while working on businesses and services that many people do need right now.
Ultimately, we should be more conscientious about understanding exactly we’re signing up for when we take these positions. I would prefer it if each person at Facebook, Google, etc. watch The Social Dilemma, have an opinion on what their company is prioritizing, and come up with their own ideas on how to fix and solve the problems they perceive to be most important. We have to remember that corporations are made up of many people, and (ideally) no one inherently wants to set out and make bad things. It’s up to each individual to go in with that mindset and have our opinions continually challenged by those around us.
The worst possible people are those who are blindly ambitious, going into these jobs and saying, “YAH ZUCK, you’re the best. If you keep on increasing the value of my FB shares, I don’t care what you do.” This is a terrible mindset. You see a lot of this kind of stuff on the forums on Blind. Please ignore.
How Can You Make A Difference Working In Tech?
Let’s say you currently do work in tech: how can you make a difference?
If you look everywhere online these days, it seems like the ultimate solution to many of our problems lie in the extremes. But throwing your phone into the ocean, deleting every last bit of social media from your life, and protesting outside Google is not the path forward towards stopping these companies that have such a wide reach and power the core functionality of our day-to-day. Finding a balance between our basic life goals and working towards a better future is imperative. This means not only being cognizant of what your company is doing, but speaking up and influencing change when you have control to do so.
There was an article that came out last week about a data scientist that quit her job at Facebook out of the stress and toll of trying to stop foreign governments from abusing Facebook for political manipulation.
This article was interesting because it gave insight to the different kinds of integrity work that Facebook was working on internally. Her job was so difficult because not only did she have to find the bad actors by diving through billions of data points, she also had to convince leadership and work through office politics to get them to care and take action on different issues within foreign democratic countries.
Imagine going to your boss and saying,
“Hey, I found about a million different fake news postings on the presidential election in Azerbaijan, can I put in a jira request to take these down?”
And your boss goes,
“Mmmm, I’m on PTO. Please don’t ping me anymore.”
The downstream effects that these companies have on our population are huge. We’ve never had this kind of power placed into the hands of corporations before. Depending on how much of an optimist you are, there’s really only two possibilities to deal with this. Join the companies with strict moralistic ideals and try to fix the platforms from within, or find some way to regulate them from the outside.
In the end, it all just goes to show that idealism has to come from the top. And whatever your ideology, you’ll find that corporations might slowly start to turn into governments of their own.
Can We Evolve Data Science For the Well-being of Ourselves As Humans?
Lastly, I want to touch on the potential of data science to evolve on these platforms, focusing on the well-being of ourselves instead of the effects on corporations.
When I first started surfing, I started going as much as I could– on the weekends, before work, after work, even during work a few times. And then I started seeing surf videos on my Instagram feed and in different ads, to the point where, now, I can’t tell the difference between surfers I follow and the ads I get.
Looking at this four years later, there’s something alarming to consider: would I have been so invested in surfing if I didn’t watch the professional surfers all the time on my phone and on Youtube, recommended to me over and over again? Who knows, because that’s how the system works. They have decided for me that my preference will always be surfing, even if intrinsically, I don’t even know if I would have ever fallen into the sport had it not permeated every aspect of my life.
This is the scary part about social media and big tech. The ideal standard would be the best effects without the bad. We need to allow users better control and customization of how technology can fit in with our own life goals. I would be open to sharing more of my privacy if I could customize it to improve my life over the long term. For example, I would share my location all the time on a platform that could accurately alert me to if I had a close friend at a nearby coffee shop that wanted to hang out, or if they could predict if a friend was interested in playing tennis or surfing at the same time I wanted to as well.
But the likely consequence is that, for such a useful AI tool to get built, the platform will take advantage of saving my data and giving me benefits that only overlap with their benefits. This is why, in our current model of building technology, something like this won’t ever exist.
Ultimately, I think the most important thing we should be doing is keeping this topic at the forefront of our minds. At the end of the film, they didn’t really have any answers for how to fix the issue, because they didn’t know how to fix it. Just like how we really don’t know how to fix climate change, even though we know it’s happening (or at least most of us do).
Not knowing the solution to huge problems is pretty much how humanity has dealt with challenges throughout history, but hopefully, like everything else, we’ll overcome it.
Thanks for reading. Be sure to visit interviewquery.com and join the community of thousands of data scientists and research scientists practicing for their next interview.