This week: the #TechLash bandwagon: companies, people and governments. Sandra Peter (Sydney Business Insights) and Kai Riemer (Digital Disruption Research Group) meet once a week to put their own spin on news that is impacting the future of business in The Future, This Week.
The stories this week
00:45 – Lush quits social media in UK
Other stories we bring up
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Intro This is The Future, This Week on Sydney Business Insights. I'm Sandra Peter, and I'm Kai Riemer. Every week we get together and look at the news of the week. We discuss technology, the future of business, the weird and the wonderful, and things that change the world. Okay, let's start. Let's start!
Sandra Today on The Future, This Week: the #TechLash bandwagon - companies, people and governments. I'm Sandra Peter, I'm the Director of Sydney Business Insights.
Kai I'm Kai Riemer, professor at the Business School and leader of the Digital Disruption Research Group. So Sandra, what happened in the future this week?
Sandra Well, this week comes on the back of quite a few weeks of negative sentiment around social media, all sorts of problems about social media emerging. We've seen this in the context of social networks, we've seen this in the context of big tech, elections and so on. But this week we're seeing some concrete action on this front. #TechLash.
Kai So we discussed #BreakUpBigTech, Elizabeth Warren's proposal and a whole bunch of similar attempts to, you know, narrate a way forward to how to deal with Facebook and Google. And this week there was a conspicuous amount of articles that approached this problem in different ways. We have companies quitting social media, we have some data around how people (especially in the US) seem to be fed up with social media.
Sandra And we have governments taking genuine action against social media, or sometimes taking popular action around social media.
Kai Especially here in Australia.
Sandra So we thought we'd pick three stories, one around how companies are doing #TechLash, one around how people are actually trying to take action, and a couple of stories around how governments are responding to this.
Kai So we're starting with an article from the BBC titled "Lush quits social media in UK". So Lush, obviously the British cosmetics firm, well known for its fancy soaps, bubble bath, bath bombs, and other well-smelling shit.
Sandra So of course Lush is available here in Australia as well, and their products look actually very, very pretty. Just think of the Ginger Ninja that looks like a piece of ginger with eyes and a whole ninja kind of thing, or a bath bomb called Groovy Kind Of Love in all colours of the rainbow, or you know, the Lucky Cat.
Sandra Really. They've also got Madam President and Strawberry Hill, and you know a thing that looks like a brontosaurus egg with a baby brontosaurus in it.
Kai [And while these are all interesting names and we can all have a little bit of a laugh about it, the point here is Lush is an incredibly visual company, even though it's all about the smell of course, which means it's a very Instagrammable brand.
Sandra And yet Lush has announced that its closing it’s social media accounts in the UK. It announced this news on Twitter, and it actually confessed to being, and I quote, "tired of fighting with algorithms", it wanted to stop paying to appear in people's newsfeeds, and it basically closed its Facebook account, Twitter account, and Instagram account. And just to put this into context, Lush has over 200,000 Twitter followers, and more than half a million followers on Instagram, and almost half a million likes on Facebook. So this is not a small following.
Kai And the article mentions that they are not the first British company to quit social media. Last year British pub chain Wetherspoon's removed itself from all social media citing concerns about personal data misuse, and the addictive nature of the platforms, and so taking a stand against the negativity surrounding Facebook and the like. While the article points out they had a relatively small community of 100,000 Facebook followers, and 6000 on Instagram, I would think 100,000 Facebook followers for a pub is not a bad outcome. The point here is that increasingly companies are rethinking whether they're actually getting value out of being on social media, and whether this is indeed the best place to connect with their customers, given the trolling, the negativity, and the exploitation by the algorithms of anything that we put on Facebook that is going on.
Sandra So the question is why did Lush do this? On the face of it they said, and I quote, "We don't want to limit ourselves to holding conversations in one place. We want social to be placed back in the hands of our communities, from our founders to our friends". In this Lush really hinted that they would try a new social media approach over there would rely basically on hashtags for those people to engage with the brand.
Kai They would also engage with customers one on one in online chats on their own website, or indeed in phone conversations, the company said. So, by and large, they are going for more one-on-one conversations with a smaller number of users, instead of the often-times uncontrollable and quite noisy interactions that you get on social media. So how genuine is this move?
Sandra As an optimist, I want to hope for the right reasons. I want to hope that for the sake of regaining some control over how they engage with their customers, rather than being stuck in the never-ending game of posting more and more content that is clouding people's feeds, and paying to get up there. So on the face of it, I really want to believe that's the reason behind it.
Kai Because, obviously, the cynical move would be to quit, get media attention, and then, you know, once the users say...
Sandra Once the fans ask you back.
Kai "Oh, you cannot possibly quit", then you know, just retract and keep on going.
Sandra On the other hand the article mentions that 'oh this seems such a counterintuitive move' in this age of influencers and sponsored content and so on.
Kai But interestingly they have actually said that they are going to work more with influencers, so the brand will not disappear from social media. It's just that they're not running their own accounts.
Sandra On the other hand it might not actually be a counter-intuitive move, because for the past two years now, and again we've mentioned this on the podcast about two years ago. There's been a rising #TechLash sentiment, and they might actually be trying to catch the beginning of that wave, where people are actually tired of social media, where brands with a social conscious might actually be trying to go on the social media diet. So they might be trying to catch the beginning of that wave, in which case yes it would be a publicity stunt as well, but of a different sort than just trying to retreat and comeback to social media. On the other hand, they might also be riding a different wave, which is the one trending towards a new kind of social media, which is one-on-one engagement with customers through companies having their own apps.
Kai So there was an article in Fast Company titled "Influencers are flocking to a surprising new kind of social media", which mentions a little-known company called Escapex, which are building bespoke apps for celebrities, so for single influencers, for single people who can have their own app in which they can connect with their fan-base, often times through paid access, so you might pay five dollars per month for access to the private life of this celebrity. And then the person itself can post photos throughout the day of their life, without actually fearing that they're being trolled, or that the algorithms of the platform provider will appropriate the content and use it for advertising purposes, and also being in control of who gets onto the app and who not. So if someone doesn't behave in the way the person approves of, they can just ban a user from the platform. So you regain control, and you’re actually in charge of the conversation. And we would think that this is not just a model that works for celebrities and their fans, but also for interesting brands such as Lush.
Sandra And indeed, this has been the way that some of the very high-end brands have engaged with their customers quite frequently. Companies like Hermes, for instance, maker of famous Birkin bags, and Kelly bags, and beautiful scarves, have had their own app through which they engage with the customers and they can gain quite significant followings. And if we look at the number of influencers on Escapex, there is over 350 influencers, but their collective audience is 3.5 billion people. So it's not an insignificant number of followers that would move from platforms such as Instagram to actually engage with influencers or brands within their own apps.
Kai So what we might be seeing here is in a way a #TechLash against the big platforms, who have made it their business model to appropriate people's content, and selling people's privacy to advertisers, for people and brands to retake control and run their own social platforms, which are not networks in the sense that they are network everyone with everyone, but are more hub and spoke solutions, where someone would have multiple apps on their phone which are arguably just a tap away, but then would get fairly well curated content from those brands or people they want to, and not a polluted stream of content that includes all kinds of shit.
Sandra And it would also give influencers and potentially organisations some control back over the type of content that want to post. They would not be at the mercy of an algorithm in terms of what content gets promoted, they would not have to pay for that promotion. They could also engage with audiences on their own terms, not just to content that works, but maybe through content that they consider is important.
Kai And while this might further amplify the stardom that we see on social media, and the rather superficial practice of many fans following the one celebrity, at least does away with the advertising-driven business model that Facebook is running and creates an honest 'you get what you pay for' solution.
Sandra And this actually might give people one alternative to getting out of the ecosystems of places like Instagram or Facebook, which is actually where we want to go with our second #TechLash story, which comes from NBC News and it's actually a segment from Meet the Press, that reports on Americans turning again social media by really wide margins.
Kai So it's not an article per se, but a short video clip which of course we're going to link to in the shownotes.
Sandra In its reports on an NBC News Wall Street Journal poll that found that, by and large, people are not feeling very positive towards tech. The numbers are quite staggering, when asked about their feelings towards tech, only between 50 and 60 percent of people said they feel positively towards companies like Apple, or Google or Amazon. And when it came to social media networks, those feelings dropped dramatically, only 24 percent of people said they had positive feelings towards Twitter, and only 36 percent had positive feelings towards Facebook.
Kai On the other hand, when asked about feelings about social media in more general terms 55 percent of people said that there were lies and falsehoods on social media, 61 percent said they were unfair attacks and rumours, 57 percent on 'divides us', and 82 percent said social media is a waste of time.
Sandra So 82 percent, this is a staggering change from just a couple of years ago when social media was seen as the enabler for movements like the Arab Spring, or the enabler for the Occupy Wall Street movement. Social networks were really seen as levelling the playing field for everybody, so this is a staggering move in the other direction. And this goes hand in hand with the increasing distrust we have thoughts technology. 37 percent of people distrusted Google, and over 60 percent of people distrusted Facebook.
Kai And so this is what underpins #TechLash at the individual level. And there was a number of articles in recent times, some during this week, which report on the various things that individuals have tried, to get away from these tech companies, to quit social media. We all remember the campaigns to delete Facebook or delete Uber, both in the wake of scandals such as the Cambridge Analytica one.
Sandra So this follows alongside a number of other trends coming out of Silicon Valley famous among which is the longstanding practice by some of the tech executives in the Valley to set limits or forbid their children altogether from spending time on the social media platforms or really from spending a lot of time online. And there was an article in The Sydney Morning Herald last month on why technologists are setting limits on their family’s screen time. It was really looking at the side-effects that digital devices and social media are having on children spending too much time online.
Kai Concerns around brain development or learning disorders, or just the fear that spending too much time on line kids are exposed to all the negative trends we've discussed around content pollution on these platforms, YouTube kids showing harmful videos, or setting them up for a life of smartphone addiction really.
Sandra So, executives from companies like Facebook or Google not wanting their children to become customers or users of the products that they make.
Kai So, a very interesting form of #TechLash, really. And that ties in with a broader trend around digital detoxing which all comes from the same sentiment around fighting, or at least raising awareness of smartphone or tech addiction. And also, in a quite entertaining way, attempts by often journalists to quit entirely the use of social media. What particular ones of the tech brands. So we found an article just this week.
Sandra So this was about the woman who tried to quit either Facebook or Google, one at a time, but really try to quit one of the big tech companies.
Kai So this is Gizmodo's Kashmir Hill, who previously did the same for Amazon. In this instance, she set out to not use any Google services at all. So what she did is she had a colleague build a private VPN service that would block all of Google's 8,699,648 IP addresses. And it's quite revealing, what she reports on the back of this. So besides having to use a different search engine, like DuckDuckGo, and an e-mail alternative such as ProtonMail, Apple Maps as a maps alternative, Yelp and Firefox as a browser, for example. It turns out Google underpins so many more services. So for example, she wasn't able to log into her Dropbox, because Dropbox would use an invisible Google CAPTCHA for user verification. She couldn't stream songs from Spotify, because Spotify is hosted in Google Cloud. Her Uber and Lyft wouldn't work because both of those who use Google Maps. On Airbnb photos won't load. New York Times article won't appear, because the site tried and failed to use Google Analytics, Google Pay, Google News, Google Ads, and a DoubleClick tracker, all owned by Google of course.
Sandra And this reminds me of an episode with almost two years ago which was one of our most popular podcasts in 2017, where we actually asked our listeners to choose which one of the Frightful Five, of the big five tech companies they would abandon, and in what order. Remember that one?
Kai I remember that one well, and it's still true that the one of the five that you can easily quit is actually Facebook. Although there was an article this week which outlines that even if you delete your Facebook account, they still keep tracking you around the web, so.
Sandra As an individual, technically you could give up Facebook and still lead a somewhat normal life.
Kai Yeah, but you can't really quit Google, you can't really quit Amazon, because...
Sandra And you can't really quit Apple.
Kai I do not want to quit Apple, no I don't. But the reason why we're discussing this, is to show that sometimes what sounds like a good idea 'I quit big tech or 'I quit Google', in practice doesn't really always work out that way. And that brings us to our third category of #TechLash, which is government regulation and guidelines. And we've seen quite a few of those in the last couple of weeks. Not all of which to us look entirely practical.
Sandra So let's look at some genuine attempts to provide some guidelines, not yet regulation, but some guidelines around AI and ethical AI.
Kai Because let's not forget, there's also some populist ones.
Sandra Which we will come back to before we finish this podcast. But our last article comes from TechRepublic, and it's titled "How the European Union's AI ethics guidelines will impact US businesses". And it tries to give an overview of the European Union's key requirements for trustworthy AI.
Kai So first of all, the EU has been criticised by some commentators to say 'oh yeah, of course the EU now has to play in the ethics game because they're really not up to the task to actually play in the actual AI field', because that's exclusively between the Americans and the Chinese. But to frame it in these ways, it's actually missing the point because I do think the European Union, and they have shown this with GDPR, have a genuine concern for the welfare of their citizens, and they're trying to put forward guidelines that do not regulate, but at least give guidance to how companies should develop AI into their products.
Sandra And there is a question whether self-regulation actually works in this area. So it might be a bit like talking about.
Sandra Yes, that never worked. But the EU's guidelines do point to some very interesting aspects that are often discussed in the context of ethical AI, things like transparency, things like safety and robustness, or fairness and non-discrimination, privacy and data governance, all of which are addressed by these guidelines. Also things like accountability, but they also cover some ground that really hasn't been generally addressed when we talk about ethical AI. And here I'm thinking about things like the impact on the environment. One of the guidelines put forward concerns societal and environmental wellbeing, and it talks about the fact that systems should be used to enhance positive social change, and enhance sustainability and ecological responsibility. And this is not something that is often discussed in the context of ethical AI.
Kai So the guidelines outline those seven areas which you've just summarised, but to me what's also of interest here is the practicality of applying those guidelines. So first of all the guidelines talk about AI systems, as if that was a thing, right? So AI seems to be this robot thing with agency that we can easily identify we see it and then we can talk about it and regulate it. But AI is just a different form of computing, and it's actually a collection of many different techniques, such as machine learning techniques, or deep learning. So the question of whether something is AI and the guidelines should apply, is in no way straightforward. And then, the second problem here is that some of these guidelines or principles are reasonably lofty. So they talk about ‘explainability’, for example, so a decision being made by an AI system needs to be explainable to a human. But it doesn't actually talk about what explainable means so the old example applies: Google shows me an ad, and then Google explains why it showed me this ad, because it corresponds to websites I previously visited. So that's an explanation. Is that explanation helpful? No it's not, but they explained to me why they showed me this ad. So the same might apply to AI, and we've discussed a number of times, because of the black box nature some of these algorithms make decisions in a way that is essentially opaque and not explainable. So, how realistic or how practical the application of these principles will be in practice is entirely unclear. So it's a good step in the right direction.
Sandra And a similar step has been taken by the UK government which really mirrors the EU concern with dis-information, and hate speech, and online extremism, or child exploitation. And British officials put forward this 102 page White Paper, that tries to curb the harmful effects of social media platforms and other large online tech companies. And the same questions of practicality arise in the British context as well, where the Paper really talks about a potential, yet undefined, undescribed internet regulator, who would be created somehow to enforce these rules, with tools that do not exist yet, to block offending sites for instance, from being access in the United Kingdom, or forcing people not to do business with people who post offensive content. But of course, in here is both the practicality of having such a regulator or having the tools to enforce such regulation, but also the difficulty in the definition of terms, and you've mentioned things like AI, but also things like harm. Defining what harmful content is, is extremely difficult. And then also establishing a causal relationship between harmful content online and behaviour or effects in the real world is again quite difficult. So not unexpectedly a number of critics, and of proponents of free speech have raised concerns to the fact that this might open the door to state-sponsored censorship, or at least to state-sponsored surveillance, which would be needed to identify the offensive content, and then to be able to remove it.
Kai Now to their credit, both the EU and the UK Government have put out their guidelines and ideas for consultation. So the UK one is a White Paper at this stage. The EU has not put out regulations, but guidelines.
Sandra And indeed, in this respect the EU regulations take probably the best way forward, in which they've made these guidelines a living document to be constantly reviewed and updated, as many of these technologies are changing quite rapidly.
Kai And then there is the Australian government, which in the face of the looming federal election, has hammered out in five days a piece of legislation that comes in the wake of the serious incident in Christchurch, but has nonetheless surprised commentators in its far-reaching and quite draconian nature.
Sandra So Australia has passed a law requiring social media to immediately, rapidly remove violent material. And if they fail to do so, the penalties would include things like prison time for company employees, or forfeiting up to 10 percent of the company's profits.
Kai So you can imagine the enthusiasm in the Facebook headquarters when the Australian government comes along and say 'oh you know, there was this video, and you didn't take it down within five minutes, so please hand over 10 percent of your revenue'. So, quite rightly, people have pointed out that this seems to be a stunt that comes in the wake of trying to gain popularity with people in the face of the election, because first of all how do you actually make the causal connection between a video being posted, it not being taken down rapidly. How is that even defined?
Sandra In Germany it's defined as 24 hours in which companies are required to remove 'obviously' illegal content. And this has already proven extremely difficult to meet, given the sheer volume of content that is being uploaded every second to these platforms.
Kai And then imagine how to establish which one of the many executives in Facebook or Google will have to go to jail for this. So the actual practical nature and applicability of this law seems to be fairly limited, to say the least.
Sandra Well, there is one obvious way to get around the limitations, and that is to ban things altogether. And in this respect China's top economic body has just proposed new rules that would really address tech problems all together, which is to say they are looking to close all cryptocurrency mining facilities in China. And this harks back to our EU AI ethics guidelines that we just discussed, where environmental concerns are increasingly part of the conversation. And China, of course, has the world's biggest cryptocurrency mining farms, which are an enormous strain to the environment, we'll include one of our previous episodes in the shownotes, where we discussed just how much goes into mining cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin. And really for the world's most popular cryptocurrency, roughly half the mining activities in the world are assumed to be happening in China. And the government has identified this as an energy-wasting practice, and as a polluting practice, and this is why mining cryptocurrency was among the industries that would be eliminated immediately, should these National Development and Reform Commission guidelines be enacted.
Kai And while it is known that China is not in favour of the unregulated nature of cryptocurrencies in general, we can assume that there is a genuine concern here for the energy-hunger of bitcoin mining, even though many of the miners are place near hydro-power stations. Obviously that energy consumed will not be available elsewhere in the system.
Sandra So #TechLash: companies, individuals, governments all trying to find a solution to fight back.
Kai So over the last few years we've gone from very positive utopian views of technology, to concrete applications, to a diffused anger and negativity around tech, and we're now seeing at least some solutions emerging, how those entities, companies, people and governments can deal with the problems emerging from technology.
Sandra Remains to be seen if enough momentum can be gained this time around as we were having the same conversations about this time last year. But that's all we have time for today.
Kai See you soon.
Sandra On the Future.
Kai Next week.
Sandra This week?
Kai Yes, but next week.
Sandra On The Future, This Week. Next Week. Thanks for listening.
Kai Thanks for listening.
Outro This was The Future, This Week made possible by the Sydney Business Insights Team and members of the Digital Disruption Research Group. And every week right here with us our sound editor Megan Wedge who makes us sound good, and keeps us honest. Our theme music was composed and played live on a set of garden hoses by Linsey Pollak. You can subscribe to this podcast on iTunes, Stitcher, Spotify, YouTube, SoundCloud or wherever you get your podcasts. You can follow us online on Flipboard, Twitter or sbi.sydney.edu.au. If you have any news that you want us to discuss, please send them to firstname.lastname@example.org.