System Error: Where Big Tech Went Wrong and How We Can Reboot

System Error: Where Big Tech Went Wrong and How We Can Reboot

System Error: Where Big Tech Went Wrong and How We Can Reboot

System Error: Where Big Tech Went Wrong and How We Can Reboot


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"System Error is a triumph: an analysis of the critical challenges facing our digital society that is as accessible as it is sophisticated." — Anne-Marie Slaughter, CEO of New America

A forward-thinking manifesto from three Stanford professors—experts who have worked at ground zero of the tech revolution for decades—which reveals how big tech’s obsession with optimization and efficiency has sacrificed fundamental human values and outlines steps we can take to change course, renew our democracy, and save ourselves.

In no more than the blink of an eye, a naïve optimism about technology’s liberating potential has given way to a dystopian obsession with biased algorithms, surveillance capitalism, and job-displacing robots. Yet too few of us see any alternative to accepting the onward march of technology. We have simply accepted a technological future designed for us by technologists, the venture capitalists who fund them, and the politicians who give them free rein.

It doesn’t need to be this way.

System Error exposes the root of our current predicament: how big tech’s relentless focus on optimization is driving a future that reinforces discrimination, erodes privacy, displaces workers, and pollutes the information we get. This optimization mindset substitutes what companies care about for the values that we as a democratic society might choose to prioritize. Well-intentioned optimizers fail to measure all that is meaningful and, when their creative disruptions achieve great scale, they impose their values upon the rest of us.

Armed with an understanding of how technologists think and exercise their power, three Stanford professors—a philosopher working at the intersection of tech and ethics, a political scientist who served under Obama, and the director of the undergraduate Computer Science program at Stanford (also an early Google engineer)—reveal how we can hold that power to account.

Troubled by the values that permeate the university’s student body and its culture, they worked together to chart a new path forward, creating a popular course to transform how tomorrow’s technologists approach their profession. Now, as the dominance of big tech becomes an explosive societal conundrum, they share their provocative insights and concrete solutions to help everyone understand what is happening, what is at stake, and what we can do to control technology instead of letting it control us.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780063064881
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 09/07/2021
Pages: 352
Sales rank: 1,121,586
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.30(d)

About the Author

ROB REICH is a philosopher who directs Stanford University’s Center for Ethics in Society and is associate director of its new Institute for Human-­Centered Artificial Intelligence. He is a leading thinker at the intersection of ethics and technology, a prizewinning author, and has won multiple teaching awards. He helped create the global movement #GivingTuesday and serves as chair of its board.

MEHRAN SAHAMI was recruited to Google in its start-­up days by Sergey Brin and was one of the inventors of email spam-­filtering technology. With a background in machine learning and artificial intelligence, he returned to Stanford as a computer science professor in 2007 and helped redesign the undergraduate computer science curriculum. He is one of the instructors of Stanford’s massive introductory computer programming course taken by nearly 1,500 students per year. Mehran is also a limited partner in several VC funds and serves as an adviser to high-­tech start-­ups.

JEREMY M. WEINSTEIN went to Washington with President Obama in 2009. A key staffer in the White House, he foresaw how new technologies might remake the relationship between governments and citizens, and launched Obama’s Open Government Partnership. When Samantha Power was appointed US Ambassador to the United Nations, she brought Jeremy to New York, first as her chief of staff and then as her deputy. He returned to Stanford in 2015 as a professor of political science, where he now leads Stanford Impact Labs.

Table of Contents

Preface ix

Introduction xvii

Part I Decoding the Technologists

Chapter 1 The Imperfections of the Optimization Mindset 3

Should We Optimize Everything? 6

The Education of an Engineer 10

The Deficiency of Efficiency 15

What Is Measurable Is Not Always Meaningful 18

What Happens When Multiple Valuable Goals Collide? 19

Chapter 2 The Problematic Marriage of Hackers and Venture Capitalists 25

The Engineers Take the Reins 28

The Ecosystem of Venture Capitalists and Engineers 31

The Optimization Mindset Meets Corporate Growth 33

Hunting for Unicorns 37

The New Generation of Venture Capitalists 42

Technology Companies Turn Market Power into Political Power 45

Chapter 3 The Winner-Take-All Race Between Disruption and Democracy 51

Innovation Versus Regulation Is Nothing New 53

Government Is Complicit in the Absence of Regulation 59

The Fate of Plato's Philosopher Kings 63

What's Good for Companies May Not Be Good for a Healthy Society 68

Democracy as a Guardrail 73

Part II Disaggregating the Technologies

Chapter 4 Can Algorithmic Decision-Making Ever Be Fair? 79

Welcome to the Age of Machines That Learn 82

Designing Fair Algorithms 87

Algorithms on Trial 94

A New Era of Algorithmic Accountability 99

The Human Element in Algorithmic Decisions 101

How to Govern Algorithms 103

Opening the "Black Box" 107

Chapter 5 What's Your Privacy Worth? 111

The Wild West of Data Collection 115

A Digital Panopticon? 120

From the Panopticon to a Digital Blackout 127

Technology Alone Won't Save Us 129

We Can't Count on the Market, Either 133

A Privacy Paradox 137

Protecting Privacy for the Benefit of Society 140

Four Letters That Are Key to Your Privacy 142

Beyond GDPR 145

Chapter 6 Can Humans Flourish in a World of Smart Machines? 153

Beware the Bogeyman 156

What Is So Smart About Smart Machines? 160

Is Automation Good for the Human Race? 165

Plugging into the Experience Machine 167

The Great Escape from Human Poverty 170

What Is Freedom Worth to You? 172

The Costs of Adjustment 174

Should Anything Be Beyond the Reach of Automation? 177

Where Do Humans Fit In? 178

What Can We Offer Those Who Are Left Behind? 182

Chapter 7 Will Free Speech Survive the Internet? 187

The Superabundance of Speech and Its Consequences 191

When Free Speech Collides with Democracy and Dignity 198

What Are the Offline Harms of Online Speech? 202

Can AI Moderate Content? 209

A Supreme Court for Facebook? 213

Moving Beyond Self-Regulation. 216

The Future of Platform Immunity 221

Creating Space for Competition 227

Part III Recoding the Future

Chapter 8 Can Democracies Rise to the Challenge? 233

So What Can I Do? 237

It's Not Just You, It's Us 239

Rebooting the System 243

Technologists, Do No Harm 244

New Forms of Resistance to Corporate Power 252

Governing Technology Before It Governs Us 257

Acknowledgments 265

Notes 269

Index 305

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