We Never Intended

When Facebook’s ad targeting algorithms were used by racists to target fellow haters,  Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg explained, “We never intended or anticipated this functionality being used this way — and that is on us.”

Those three words — we never intended — are a powerful indictment, not just of Facebook’s behavior on this issue, but the lack of responsibility such tech giants take for the changes they bring to the lives of users and their communities.

After all, the racist ad placement is just a bug in a feature that otherwise performs brilliantly, right?

So what about the other impacts on our lives…you know, things like ubiquitous connectivity, virtual engagement, online commerce, balkanized politics, individual isolation and, above all else, monetization of user data to decide what to sell to them, and what they can buy?

We any of those consequences intended, or are they all pretty much a surprise to everyone except the folks who brought them to market (and got insanely rich for doing so)?

It’s kinda shocking that nobody’s responsible, if you think about the history.

Businesses have always been held responsible for the consequences of their innovations; the process is never the same, it can take far longer in one case than another, and the results have ranged from useful to futile, but never before has there been a way to duck it. Markets can’t function with it.

When industrialization degraded working conditions, people formed unions to fight back and mediate that outcome. When cars first took to the roads, it would have been laughable if their makers had claimed accidents were never intended; rather, it wasn’t long before governments posted speed limits and required drivers’ education, and car manufacturers started building safety into their vehicles.

No construction project gets green-lighted unless its impacts are not only anticipated, but priced and thereafter discussed. The uses of certain technologies that don’t even fully exist yet, like genomics, are anticipated to be so great that we agree to regulate and otherwise limit their development.

Yet when it comes to an iPad, we’re supposed to blithely cheer when a 2 year old can operate it without much effort, and thereby begin a lifelong, co-dependent relationship that nobody will impede or question.

Today’s digital technologies are inherently good, or at least neutral. If they get put to bad things, it’s not their fault, because they were never intended for those uses. Instead, it’s the responsibility of the user, and all the larger social, political, and economic effects are similarly beyond reproach.

They just are.

Apart from the biggest, most pointed issues that force the tech lobby to respond, perhaps the biggest innovation was to convince us that there’s nothing we can do about the rest of it.

I’m going to try that excuse at work, like when a client isn’t happy with something we did, I’ll explain we didn’t intend it. Or maybe when something I do utterly offends someone I love, I’ll simply say i didn’t anticipate that response.

I have a feeling it won’t work for me as well as it does for Sheryl Sandberg.

[This essay originally appeared at Recapitalism]