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Complex ethics: Facebook's new algorithm and our rights in the digital economy

By: Roy Lamphier

Facebook is making changes to its News Feed algorithm prioritizing friends and posts that spark comments between them over public content, viral content and some sponsored material. All this is an attempt to make time spent on Facebook more meaningful. But there’s more to the story than a friendlier version of Facebook.

On January 11, 2018, CEO Mark Zuckerberg wrote on Facebook, “One of our big focus areas for 2018 is making sure the time we all spend on Facebook is time well spent”. The term “time well spent” has been bouncing around Silicon Valley with growing velocity. I first heard it discussed a few years back in a talk by Tristan Harris, the former Design Ethicist at Google, featured Ted X speaker and co-founder and Executive Director of Time Well Spent, a nonprofit movement to create an ecosystem that aligns technology with our humanity.

The major concern is that the technology that consumes greater amounts of our time and attention is not necessarily designed with our best interests in mind and it’s costing us and our society. One of my favorite podcasts is the Stanford University DFJ Entrepreneurial Thought Leaders Series. In an episode titled "Making Technology Less Manipulative," Tristan Harris explains the dilemma tech companies face in creating products that rely on our finite attention, and how a seemingly innocuous app is really backed by teams of engineers all focused on gaining and retaining your attention. That’s not to say that we the users don’t enjoy the applications nor that they are necessarily bad. But when people are unwittingly manipulated to surrender their attention, it raises ethical issues. In Facebook’s case, the issue has obviously gone beyond lost time scrolling through algorithmically driven news feeds to broader societal impacts on politics and civil discord.

Of course, Facebook is not the first “media” company to struggle with fake news. In his book, The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads, author Tim Wu cites an example from 1835 (yes, the eighteen hundreds) of the New York Sun running a headline story of “astronomical discoveries” on the moon with a five-part series describing all manner of absurd fiction. These were the first companies to embrace the business model of aggregating reader’s attention and reselling it to advertisers.

The trick today is that tech is pervasive and hard to ignore. It’s not as simple as turning off the news. Now there are feeds, alerts, notifications and a constant stream of “triggers” to grab our attention. For a great primer on how behavioral science and technology are used together in today’s products, check out Nir Eyal’s book Hooked: How-to-build-habit-forming-products and his terrific blog, Nir & Far. Nir’s insight into behavioral design is both informative for product managers and users looking to understand how and why consumer tech operates the way it does - and how to make it work for you.

It's easy to hear of the disruption technology brings and want to go back to a simpler time. After all, society has always wrestled with the impact of innovation. I believe it was the ancient Greek playwright Sophocles who wrote “Nothing vast enters the life of mortals without a curse”. Yet technology also brings great benefits and creates new opportunities. We created Excelerate America to help small businesses and entrepreneurs to adapt to life in a digital economy by leveraging technology to achieve success. I believe technology also has the power to improve the lives of those in under-served communities and the ability to empower people to connect with their dreams.

While technology is only a tool, what will weigh most heavily on society has nothing to do with tech itself. How this all plays out will have more to do with the ethical choices we build into our businesses and products and the responsibility and empathy we show for one another.

Roy Lamphier is Founder and CEO of Excelerate America, a second stage small business growth accelerator based in Pleasant Ridge, MI. Roy's passion for entrepreneurship, tech and helping small enterprises succeed are central to the Excelerate America ethos. If you'd like to share your thoughts on digital ethics, or are looking for some excellent podcast recommendations, shoot him an email at roy.lamphier@excelerateamerica.com.

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