More than ever before, this was a year in which technology touched every aspect of our lives.
We warmly welcomed artificial intelligence into our homes with voice-activated virtual assistants, while we grew weary of the constant barrage of news in our social media feeds, with a dangerous dose of fake news mixed in.
Mostly we discovered that the technologies that were meant to do us good may not always have the desired result.
Among experts — ranging from the fields of AI to big data, and from information privacy to entertainment — there’s no disagreement that this was the year digital turned to the dark side.
“The social platforms we built have created serious unforeseen consequences,” says Loc Dao, chief digital officer at the National Film Board of Canada. “They have a much greater long-term impact on ourselves and the fabric of our society than we ever imagined.”
One of those impacts — and a big reason 2017 was a dark year for tech — was the loss of net neutrality in the U.S.
That “will only amplify our challenge of knowing what is true and false.”
For AI expert Robert Seamans, of New York University, the story that shaped 2017 was “the evidence that Russia hacked the 2016 [U.S.] presidential elections.”
For Canada’s former privacy commissioner Ann Cavoukian, it was the massive Equifax data breach, which was “staggering,” she says, “especially since sensitive, personally identifiable data was placed at risk, including the names, home addresses, dates of birth and, at times, social security numbers.”
For early Canadian YouTube partner Dan Speerin, vice-president of the Independent Web Creators of Canada, 2017 was a year of reckoning for the “little guy.”
“It sure did feel like the democratic nature of the internet and internet creation was more at risk than ever,” he said. The old Google motto “Don’t be evil” went from “a sincere mantra to an ironic T-shirt.”
‘Time to fight back’
So what lies ahead?
Will robots steal our jobs? Will our social-media-induced anxiety continue to fester as we remain hooked to the slow drip of the ever-updating timeline? Will we cede more decision-making to ethically confused algorithms? Or will things start to look up?
Will 2018 be a little more, well, human?
‘Now that we’re admitting that we have all of these problems on the platforms we all interact with, hopefully we can get down to solving them.’– YouTube creator Dan Speerin
“We have a lot of work to do in the years ahead as citizens, academics and policymakers,” says Frank Pasquale, author of The Black Box Society: The Secret Algorithms Behind Money & Information. “From fake news to abusive content to extremist, harassing accounts, bad actors are weaponizing social networks and search engines. It’s time to fight back.”
“Now that we’re admitting that we have all of these problems on the platforms we all interact with, hopefully we can get down to solving them,” he says.
Silicon Valley used to be like “a bad birthday magician,” Speerin says, waving away problems with a “‘But algorithms’ — and the issue seemed to vanish from the news in a puff of smoke. But in 2017 the smoke ran out.”
Cavoukian puts 2017’s dark year in tech dow to “mainly because of stupid human mistakes made, and a lack of vigilance for protecting the data in one’s custody and control.”
In 2018, tech titans won’t be able to blame their missteps on algorithms gone awry or other technological factors, because we’ve learned that behind each line of code is a human being — and, in turn, we’re demanding more accountability from the giant corporations that dominate our digital lives.
Many experts are hopeful for the year ahead — at least, for those of us outside of the United States.
“For Canada and Europe, I’m optimistic,” says Pasquale. “I think leading policymakers are really starting to get to grips with the dark side of the net.” In the U.S., he says, the big tech platforms are just too dominant and influential at the present moment, “but that could change.”
And so, as we head into the new year, let’s try to be hopeful. We have more powerful tools at our fingertips than ever before. But even more importantly, we now have the knowledge to try and shape those tools instead of idly sitting back as they shape us.
“Alexa, please read 1984 to me,” says Dao, adding, “I’m still optimistic that people find a way and critical thinking will survive.”
This might be the year that the most powerful thing in tech is humans.