Exploring Technology’s Impact on Markets and Society with Anil Dash

Last week, technology entrepreneur, activist, and writer Anil Dash gave the 2017 Rolf Buchdahl Lecture on Science, Technology and Human Values at the NC State University’s Hunt Library. Dash spoke on making technology, the tech industry and society more humane. The big takeaways for educators:

  1. Technology isn’t made in a vacuum, guess what, learning isn’t either.
  2. You can’t change the world without changing the world. Being a neutral change-maker isn’t an option.
  3. Surprise, a liberal arts education still offers value in today’s world

The opposite of a vacuum is… a community

Dash’s company Fog Creek Software, incubated Stack Overflow (community discussions and one of the top 50 websites in the country) and Trello (lightweight project management tool), which offer him two massive windows into how technology is made today.

Examining the data available to those companies, Dash remarked how technology isn’t created in a vacuum. It’s created with others, in a community.

Technology isn’t created in a vacuum. It’s created with others, in a community.

Learning also doesn’t occur in a vacuum. Even self-taught learners reach outside their brain to books, journals, websites, videos, and communities to gain understanding. In guided learning, discussion, collaboration, or reviewing peer’s assignments add tremendous value to a student’s learning experience.

A platform is not a market

Two recent works, Platform Revolution and The Inevitable, dig into the transformation technology companies have undergone.

  1. From firms with definitive boundaries
  2. To marketplaces with permeable borders
  3. To platforms which let outsiders build products & services upon them
  4. To the multi-sided markets Facebook, Apple, or Uber offer us today.

There are many positives this evolution provides consumers every day, but Dash explores the negative impact technology is having on markets.

The move from analog to digital, breaks down barriers between buyers and sellers. It allows them to find each other. How likely would you have found that last etsy or ebay purchase if the web didn’t exist and you had to find and buy the item in person?

In the mobile app era, buyers and sellers no longer find each other manually. Today, opaque (at best) platforms use algorithms to do all the matching. Do you search out a specific driver on Uber or Lyft? No, just tap a request button and the app finds the best match for you.

Amazon’s impact on retail

So much commerce data passes through Amazon’s site, that it can easily determine what product categories are most profitable. No longer a mere connector of buyers and sellers, Amazon knows what specific products within industries are profitable and can make themselves, without having to invest in the market in it’s entirety.

Dash elaborated on the Amazon example using bed sheets. A traditional fabrics company would enter the bed sheet market, offering the entire array of sizes and options. Amazon, can look at the purchasing habits of it’s users and decide that perhaps most bed sheets aren’t worth making, but boys twin bed sheets are highly profitable and make only those.

This changes the competitive landscape in that market. Add to that, other competitive strategies, like the ability to make products under a brand most consumers don’t know are affiliated with Amazon and you get quite an interesting case study.

Uber’s impact on transportation

Imagine the Google of the year 2000 being asked to solve the problem of hailing a taxi. They’d most likely solve it the same way they handled the rest of the web, make a system that optimizes the market as it is.

Google2000 may have asked for rides to be marked up in a specific HTML format that it could crawl and index quickly, then list alongside other search results. That’s not what happens in the modern Uber era.

Instead of optimizing the ability for buyers and sellers to find each other, technology companies have shifted to moving the market entirely into their platform and begin replacing user decisions with algorithms. Dash asks, if I can’t choose who I’m buying from and the seller can’t choose their selling price, is this a market?

If I can’t choose who I’m buying from and the seller can’t choose their selling price, is this a market?

Dash says, no, we no longer have markets, we have fake markets. Asking, in an opaque, fake market, how do you gauge whether companies are making ethical choices?

If a market dies in the woods and no one hears it…

After wondering what would be worse than fake markets, Dash realized, what’s worse than a fake market, is no market.

Take Uber’s publicly stated end goal, self-driving cars. In the self-driving car market, there is no market of drivers and riders, it’s riders and the Uber service.

The same could be said for 3D printing, manufacturing, publishing, just about any industry that AI and robots can take over.

Dash believes the fake market metaphor extends to education as well, that the conversation would be different for k-12, higher ed, and for-profit education.

One thing academia has going for it is a mature ability to resist.

Dash said, “One thing academia has going for it is a mature ability to resist. Sometimes this is seen as an industry of luddites, but sometimes it’s a healthy response that allows the academy to have a nuanced conversation on the matter at hand.”

Facebook’s impact on publishing

Facebook’s Instant Articles changes the relationships between readers, publishers, authors, and advertisers. Users don’t know how the algorithm is selecting articles for them, advertisers don’t know how much revenue they’ll get or what articles their ads will be placed in, and publishers don’t know what ads will be placed in their articles.

Transportation is hard, the car has to actually get you to the destination safely, bot written journalism just has to make people feel good when they read it.

Does a bot written article have to be true to make people like it, to sell ads?

Dash asks, if political leadership isn’t going to criticize tech and users don’t have enough information or skills to evaluate for themselves, what do we do?

And this is where we (the liberal arts education) come in.

So many connections to the need for information literacy education can be seen here.

  1. Teach students the skills to evaluate information for themselves, to dig deeper.
  2. Give students the opportunity to expand their conversations, burst the filter bubble.
  3. Allow students the environment to be vulnerable, express their values.
  4. Realize that every decision, assumption, research project, or line of code they make, has those values baked in.

During his talk, Dash shared some tweets which prompted his thinking and led him down this path. I’ve selected some and shared them below.

Overall, the talk was wonderful and if you have the chance to see Anil speak, I recommend that you do. He left me wondering.

How does the fake markets metaphor apply to edtech, advising, curriculum and career pathways or other parts of academia?
How might we influence our students to make more humane tech, more humane industries, a more humane society?

Tweet @DukeCIT and let us know what you’re thinking.

One final thought

Dash mentioned he’d be back in the Triangle from time to time. His experience and perspective would be quite interesting to bring to campus.

Anil, if you’re reading this, we’re hosting the Duke Learning Technology Workshop on June 12-13. I hope you’ll stop by!