It’s Time for Tech to Tackle ‘Unintended Consequences’

on March 22, 2019
Reading Time: 4 minutes

Mark Zuckerberg did not set out for Facebook to be a platform for Russian hackers, or for Facebook Live to be used a broadcast tool for killers. Steve Jobs did not intend to cause screen addiction and some of the societal ills that have come from that. Travis Kalanick might have wanted to disrupt the taxi industry (which was sort of ripe for it), but he probably didn’t intend for Uber and his TNC brethren to be a cause of both an alarming rise in traffic congestion and a decline in investment in public transportation. Brian Chesky didn’t intend for AirBnB to become a vehicle for property investment companies, driving a surge in rental prices in some cities. And if you’d asked Jack Dorsey whether he thought a U.S. president would conduct nuclear diplomacy or fire his senior staff over Twitter, he might have said, ‘umm…don’t think so’. But this is where we are.

So while last year there was a lot of focus on data privacy and security issues, leading to GDPR and the beginnings of some change at Facebook and others, I think we do need to start a broader conversation about ‘unintended consequences’.  Here, I’d like to focus on a couple of particular examples of companies whose current avenue of growth seems to have strayed from the original mission, causing some broader societal repercussions. Put another way, I’d like to see a little more questioning along the lines of  “Yes, We Can Do This, But Is It A Good Idea?”

Uber/TNC. In their first phase, TNC companies were successful because they were a ‘better version of a taxi’, leveraging the power of software and a smartphone. There was little love lost for the taxi companies (though sympathy for individual drivers), and the ‘medallion’ structure in some cities that concentrated money and power in the hands of a select few. But the rapid (and largely unregulated) growth of TNCs has caused a marked increase in traffic congestion in many cities. TNCs have also induced a reduction in transportation ridership…creating a vicious circle of higher fares and lower investment in infrastructure. And along have come corollary services, such as Uber Eats, having a further impact on congestion (plus more double parking and other such behavior). At some point, have any of these companies asked the question: “Is it really a good idea to have all these cars out there just to deliver a cup of coffee or a sandwich?  What is the impact of this on a city’s transportation network?

AirBnB. The idea was initially welcomed as a complement to the prevailing lodging industry. Want to occasionally rent out your away-at-college kid’s bedroom, or your house for a week while on vacation? That phase of AirBnB was great…while it lasted. And, they used the power of the platform to create related, and valuable experiences such as AirBnB Experiences – pasta making in Florence, a history tour of New Orleans.

Unfortunately, however, the corporados have corrupted the AirBnB model. Investors and developers have bought millions of properties, with the sole purpose of turning them into temporary rental apartments. As has been well documented, neighborhoods have been altered, and rents have been driven up in many cities. Using one of the travel sites like Expedia today is a totally different experience, as one is presented with a mélange of accommodation options, including AirBnB-type apartments.  It’s very difficult to tell who’s who or what’s what. And now, predictably, regulators are stepping in, sometimes with draconian (and very uneven) measures. But along its path to Super Unicorn status (or whatever you call a private company valued at $30 billion), AirBnB grew unchecked, with almost no self-policing, not really asking, as vast swaths of New York and Miami and Paris were being transformed, “Is this a good idea? How are young people going to be able to afford to live in cities now?”

Amazon. A great company, in so many ways. The bets on AWS. On Amazon Prime. The creation of wonderful content. A ruthlessly efficient machine. And, their platform has enabled success for millions of small businesses. But, with a perhaps unintended consequence of having hollowed out physical retail. And there’s the larger question of the path that Amazon is on, as Recode’s Jason Del Rey articulated in a recent article, Amazon wants to sell “every genuine product in the world.” That’s a mistake.  To quote Amazon’s SVP Dharmesh Mehta, Amazon wants to sell  “every genuine product in the world.”, which, Del Rey points out, has “created all sorts of openings for what Amazon’s trust team calls ‘bad actors’” – counterfeit goods, fake reviews, etc. “It’s a fork in the road moment for Amazon, as its ambitions to grow even larger, there’s greater risk of ‘eroding customer trust’”.  Here’s a company that controls nearly 50% of on-line retail spend. Consider what a $300 billion company has to do in order to just maintain growth. It might be time to be asking what the longer-term implications of all this are.

Facebook Live. In an ideal world, Facebook Live might be a great idea – “a fun, engaging way to connect with your followers and grow your audience”, as Facebook says on its website. But, there’s a certain percentage of bad actors who are going to use this type of platform to broadcast inappropriate content or for other unsuitable purposes, as happened last week in New Zealand in the most extreme of examples. There is no way, regardless of how many people monitor the site or how much AI is thrown at it, that Facebook will be able to prevent other, similar exploitations of its platform. Even YouTube is different, because content is uploaded and it is easier to monitor – and therefore prevent/take down.  There might be some ways to de-risk Facebook Live (and other, similar concepts). But in its current incarnation, the risk of bad actors, even if an extremely small minority, makes the case for Facebook Live too perilous, in my view.

We are clearly at a point where there is some revisionist thinking going on about the impact of tech. And the risks multiply when AI is thrown into the mix. As part of this thinking, I suggest we expand our consideration to include long-term societal consequences: “Just because we can, is it a good idea”?