26 Aug MIT Media Lab director on #TechWontBuildIt

As we continue to explore the shift from command & control to collaborative innovation, a milestone worth sharing is  MIT Media Lab director Joi Ito’s speech on August 14, 2019, at my favorite place Chautauqua Institution.

The #TechWontBuildIt movement refers to the tech workers who are concerned about ethical dilemma of the Silicon Valley. But Ito’s concern is wider. He refers to the cognitive bias of Silicon Valley’s idolization of tech:

“Ito noticed computer scientists in Silicon Valley believe the entire world can be reduced to a formula and that ‘everything is about optimizing and winning.'”

The risk of cognitive bias when reducing a situation to a formula, it turns out, gives tech all the flaws of the humans that make it.  In Ito’s book, Whiplash, he speaks to the ambiguity of the consequences of technological advancements – they may be good and bad. For example, crowdsourcing.

In 2007, before becoming MIT Media Lab Director, Ito predicted “that the Internet was giving rise to a new political phenomenon, a kind of collective intelligence that, like honeybees or other colonial organisms, would possess qualities far beyond the capabilities of a single individual within it.” (Whiplash)

Less than ten years later, as MIT Media Lab director, Ito describes that crowdsourcing may have both good and bad consequences: “such ‘emergent democracy’ can be seen in certain aspects of the Arab Spring that roiled Middle Eastern authoritarian governments in 2011, though it sadly failed to move beyond the coup to the creation of a government.” (Whiplash)

How do we disrupt the ambiguity that innovation can be good and bad?

As evidenced by the tech workers who are protesting projects issued from the top down, the company’s staff see the ethical dilemma. Why not engage them in collectively thinking about how to design a solution that doesn’t risk a negative sum game?

In principle, crowdsourcing, like democracy, offers collective intelligence for 360° situation awareness. But  crowdsourcing is just an idea until there is a structure for implementing it, just as democracy was just an idea until Jefferson et al crafted the US Constitution.

What is the crowdsourcing structure that will empower all the voices to be heard (not just the ones management wants to hear), develop the relationships for collective resilience (to survive the “finger pointing room”), and verify that consensus is authentic (not bought or bribed or even just a whim).

These are structural solutions that will improve the odds of a successful shift from command & control to collaborative innovation.