Bringing Social Responsibility back to Tech
In recent years, research has emerged on how technology is inhibiting our ability to focus, encouraging smartphone and digital addiction, and enabling social isolation. In addition to this research, news articles have come out about how tech giants have engaged in unsavory practices in the name of profit. This past year, Facebook underwent a senate hearing for allowing Cambridge Analytica to improperly access 87 million users’ data. Meanwhile, Google received a $2.7 billion antitrust fine for “[denying] consumers a genuine choice” and biasing its search engine results. These studies and news articles have only emphasized the negative externalities of technology and the “profit-at-any-cost” mindset of tech companies.
Google’s 2018 I/O keynote sought to change this narrative and portray technology in a positive light. In his talk, CEO Sundar Pichai explained that Google wants “to get the user experience and expectation right,” and he reiterated the company’s mission of making information useful, accessible and beneficial to society. Pichai mentioned promising technology like artificial intelligence (AI), but he framed its potential through its ability to solve global problems like health care and accessibility. The keynote sought to change the perception of technology and tech companies from profit-seeking businesses to do-good social enterprises.
Both Google and Apple expressed awareness that users may be overconsuming their technology, and they introduced solutions to self-monitor and help. Google introduced its Dashboard, offering transparency and control into users’ “digital well-being,” while Apple introduced a similar functionality, “Screen Time Reports,” which summarizes users’ time spent on each app. Furthermore, Google Assistant’s new “Pretty Please” feature encourages users to make requests politely, encouraging better manners and addressing concerns that home assistants are teaching children to be rude. These new features mark Google and Apple’s attempt to ameliorate some of the downsides of their technology.
Both keynotes shifted away from simply pitching “Buy this new product” to offering to responsibly help consumers with their new products and features. This shift is a promising step forward for the tech industry, as it shows companies are increasingly aware of their products’ social and health implications and are taking action. Amazon has taken a similar step by having its voice assistant Alexa reward children who say “please,” but it will be interesting to see if other tech companies, like Uber and Airbnb, follow suit to address or ameliorate the negative externalities of their products.
 Google I/O 2018 Keynote.
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