I attended my first SXSW Interactive in 2006 where I moderated a panel discussion with two teen bloggers – this was shortly after launching my youth culture blog Ypulse. While there are certainly many people who have been attending SXSW Interactive longer than I have, making the annual pilgrimage to Austin for more than a decade has given me perspective on where we were in those early days and where we are now. I am still an optimist when it comes to digital, and I’m lucky to be in a role at the Ad Council where I get to see it used for good every day. But I also believe we have reached a moment of reckoning in our industry when it comes to the negative impact of technology.
In those early years of SXSW, we saw Facebook eclipse MySpace and Twitter launch. The crowd was very optimistic about the potential for these new platforms to build communities around common interests that would transcend geography, democratize knowledge and allow families and friends to stay connected. Critiques of these new platforms and how they would use our data and privacy were certainly present but relatively muted. Many of us, myself included, were fighting what we saw as another moral panic being fueled by the media around “stranger danger,” bullying, sexting and the other darker realities of the internet, especially as it related to teens. In my 2007 book for parents and educators, Totally Wired, I argued for a balanced approach in addressing the reality of kids growing up with this new technology.
I wrote Totally Wired before I had my daughter, who is now 8! While many parents were grateful to read a balanced perspective on technology, I also received a lot of, “Wait until you become a parent!” They were right in that I feel that instinct to try to protect my daughter from any potential harm – and I’m going to attempt to wait until she’s 12 before allowing her to have her own smartphone (we’ll see…). The New York Times recently profiled other Silicon Valley executives who were well intentioned and optimistic in those days but have also “The story is filled with anecdotes including an early Facebook executive who now limits screen time for his kids and a former Instagram engineer acknowledging that “the idea that a product could make your life worse was not in anyone’s perception.”
Fast forward to this year’s SXSW Interactive – where conversations about the need for ethics around data and privacy, intentionally designing technology to be addictive, what to do about “fake news,” and European regulation of the big tech companies abounded. Sadiq Khan, London’s mayor, gave a keynote address where he spoke about the need for Facebook, Twitter and YouTube to do more to prevent the proliferation of hate speech, harassment and propaganda. I spotted an intriguing thread in my Twitter feed just this week from an engineer tweeting about how computer science is experiencing a revolution similar to what chemistry experienced in the 19th and 20th centuries with dynamite and then chemical weapons.
I agree that computer scientists, and really anyone who works in technology, have an obligation to anticipate how anything new they build could be used for harm, while businesses and governments need to institute substantive guard rails against abuse. If what happens on these platforms is a virtual extension and at times an amplification of what happens in “the real world,” we need to enforce ethics and rules for the greater good just as we do offline. It’s time.