The People of the Year in Technology: The Cassandras

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- The first decades of widespread web and smartphone technologies brought excitement about how digital tools were helping people feel more connected, challenge authorities and make life easier. Feelings about technology have soured the last couple of years as people assess the downsides of technology and the companies that are creating it.

The story of 2018 in technology is one of grappling with the bad influence of many popular technologies. That’s why the stars for this moment of reckoning are the Cassandras who have been sounding the alarm about technology’s dark sides before most of the world caught on. People like Renee DiResta, Tristan Harris and Lina Khan are sleuthing the spread of misinformation online, identifying the characteristics of new-economy monopolists and warning about the harm of technology overuse. 

Their ideas have shaped opinions of lawmakers and regulators, technology executives, academics, journalists, investors and the wider public. These outsiders are seeking to make technology more humane, accountable and maybe less powerful, and their views have flipped from fringe to the mainstream. 

The People of the Year in Technology: The Cassandras

The Cassandras played a significant role in forming an analytical foundation for technology skepticism. DiResta, a former Wall Street trader turned technology worker and entrepreneur, first attracted attention for tracking bogus information about vaccines that spread on Facebook. What she found — initially in her spare time — helped unlock how internet hangouts such as Facebook tend to feed people information that reinforces their views, inflate the popularity of fringe beliefs and lead people from one conspiracy to others. 

It was a pattern that DiResta saw in other types of social and political misinformation campaigns such as terrorist propaganda and then the Russia-backed effort to sow U.S. divisions around the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Along with other data-savvy researchers such as Jonathan Albright of Columbia University, DiResta’s work showed how the qualities that made Facebook, YouTube and Twitter so popular also made them a breeding ground for viral misinformation and how the companies behind them were doing too little about the problem.

Recently, New Knowledge, the misinformation security firm for which she serves as director of research, was among the groups that  U.S. senators asked to analyze how Kremlin-backed social media messages spread ahead of and after the 2016 election. Meticulously researched and critical about the U.S. tech giants’ lack of candor and cooperation, the Senate report bore the hallmarks of DiResta’s work. 

The People of the Year in Technology: The Cassandras

In 2013, Harris was a product manager at Google when he circulated a document to urge his colleagues to rethink the design of technologies that made them distracted and habit-forming. His document was discussed widely at Google, and the company created the role of “design ethicist” for him. Harris later left Google and formed his own organization — now called the Center for Humane Technology — to circulate ideas about how tech companies had a responsibility to make their products less harmful. 

Slowly his ideas gained ground. And then in January, Mark Zuckerberg effectively validated Harris’s ideas with a manifesto about reprogramming the social network to encourage meaningful online interactions and weed out aimless scrolling and surfing. One of Facebook’s priorities for 2018, Zuckerberg said, was “making sure the time we all spend on Facebook is time well spent”— echoing a phrase for which Harris had become known.

Other technologists also embraced the idea. This year, Google’s Android, Facebook and Apple’s iPhone software each introduced settings for people to see how much time they’re spending on their phones and provide ways to cut back. It might have been window dressing, but it was also a validation that Harris was on to something when he was warning about addiction being a goal of technology itself.  

The People of the Year in Technology: The Cassandras

Khan was still a law student when she wrote a piece two years ago for the the Yale Law Review that said the application of U.S. antitrust law had became too narrowly focused on higher consumer prices as evidence of harm from monopoly power. Her paper focused on how Amazon.com Inc. could hurt consumers in the long run by eliminating competition, and Khan’s piece was seen as a call for different applications of existing laws to tackle technology superpowers. 

Khan’s piece, and work by her employer — the left-leaning think tank now called the Open Markets Institute — has become an underpinning for economic critiques of big internet companies. And the criticisms are coming from all political persuasions. The leftist U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren and conservative Senator Marco Rubio have each called for legal limits to tech companies’ size and power. In a speech last spring, the head of the Justice Department’s antitrust agency said Kahn’s Yale paper was an example of  “fresh thinking” that’s needed for how to apply existing laws to digital companies. 

What ties the trio together — apart from their vocal warnings about the downsides of technology — is they’re not Luddites. They’re young and using tools of technology and their knowledge of how the industry works to examine the industry’s vulnerabilities and demand change. Lawmakers have cited their work, and the technology superpowers are belatedly acknowledging they bear responsibility for mitigating the harmful effects of their products and power.

No one believed prophesies from the mythical Cassandra. It’s a sign of the power of DiResta, Harris, Khan and other technology Cassandras that their views have become something like conventional wisdom, even if there’s not yet consensus on how to fix the worst elements of technology.  The industry products, executives and companies are no longer lionized without question, and that’s unquestionably a healthy thing. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Shira Ovide is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering technology. She previously was a reporter for the Wall Street Journal.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.