It seems like every week, the public discovers a new case of rampant data collection from another tech company—Google, Uber,
Nothing better exemplifies this better than the recent Zuckerberg hearing in front of the US Congress, where he gave cop-out answers and excuses to sometimes-intense questioning in front of the American people. As a viewer, it seemed like Zuckerberg was still living in a different era, one pre-Cambridge Analytica, during which “connecting people” could justify any means, but that tide turned without him.
This narrative is easy to write. It’s been written before. No one here is unaware of Facebook’s privacy scandals, of the horrors of their data collection and emotional manipulation of users. This is old news. (Possibly too old, yet we haven’t stopped it yet. I’ve argued for a GDPR-style law in the US before, and I still believe in it.)
The question of user data is so big and vague and scary, I think we need a way to step outside the usual box. One way to step out: what if it was all over, tomorrow?
In 1859, the Carrington Event happened. It was a large-scale coronal mass ejection (CME), which is essentially when a chunk of the outer layer of the sun sloughs off and goes flying through space. In 1859, one of those chunks hit Earth. (A similar one almost did in 2012, but missed us by 9 days.) We didn’t have computers then, but we did have telegraphs, and the system suffered widespread damage.
Another CME could happen anytime. There is absolutely nothing even remotely feasible humans could do to stop this. We’ve gotten lucky so far, but we may not forever. If it hit, we don’t know exactly what would happen, but depending on the magnitude, it would likely take out much of the electrical grid, perhaps data centers, computers, and digital technology across the world with it. A world with no more power or internet or telecommunications or telephones means a world with next to no food, healthcare, banking/money, information, or supplies. Again, depending on the scale of the storm, it could be a calamity of epic proportions. Add this to the list of unknowable societal horrors there is a nonzero chance of my generation experiencing.
So let’s say we suffered a massive CME. Years, if not decades later, when we’ve rebuilt critical infrastructure (without the help of any information stored digitally before the storm), we’re returning to our next-generation keyboards to build the next generation of digital experiences.
Looking back at this era of data collection, what would we think? What would we regret? What would we immediately rebuild? What realizations would seem obvious in hindsight?
Big questions like handling user data can be hard to grapple with. But these questions might be informative for building systems before the storm, too.
As technologists, it is imperative to consider the moral & ethical implications before, during, & after creating any piece of technology. If we’d been doing this from the beginning, standard practices & the industry’s moral conscience would look very different.