the Many Fails of the Selfish Ledger concept

It’s becoming increasingly apparent that big tech is living in its own filter bubble – unquestioning, utopian, and infused with the assumption that adding technology will improve everything. This fallacy undermines the potential for a humanistic technology industry – one that would genuinely serve and empower human beings.

Yet products developed from this mindset have become more entrenched and pervasive in our daily lives; the problem with assuming the inherent goodness of the technology becomes more apparent and more urgent. The leaked Google film, the Selfish Ledger, is a clear demonstration of the lack of critical thinking about this foundational belief within the tech industry.

It’s creators admit it may be ‘uncomfortable’ to watch. Yet, they don’t seem to understand the internal contradictions of the proposal, or the faulty premise it’s based on. Here are just a handful of the many failures of the film and its concept.

1. The past isn’t the future.

Looking only at past behaviour precludes the possibility of future change. This is the ‘big picture’ in the film: how could the fine-grained mass collection of data across a vast population be leveraged to change the behaviour of that group? The film suggests that use of such data could drive change which is inherently positive. Recent history suggests this premise is false. Further, choices can only be made within a paradigm that is defined by choices that were made in the past.

2. Free will and choice.

The Ledger is not simply a record, but an active participating external stimulus. Who is in control of that? How can free will be exercised withing a system whose goal is to manipulate your behaviour?

3. Personal goals vs societal goals.

Can selfish personal goals be leveraged to create a better society without altruism, cooperation, or intentional contribution to the public good? The Selfish Ledger assumes that the answer is yes. Yet, history and contemporary events show us that this isn’t a safe assumption. And who is defining these goals anyway?

4. People aren’t inherently good, and their goals aren’t inherently altruistic.

This will always be true and technology cannot ‘fix’ it. Communities can make choices about the ideals they uphold and standards of behaviour they require. This allows the larger group to flourish, by rewarding or punishing behaviours that don’t benefit the larger community. The Selfish Ledger scenario proposes that a private company - a priveleged group - should determine which types of behaviour are beneficial, not diverse communities of people.

5. The Ledger serves itself, not people.

This is made obvious in the film itself. The governing ledger software will provide ‘users’ with the products the ledger needs to fulfil its own data collection goals. The purpose of the ‘users’ is to enrich the dataset, acting as its ‘custodians’. Human activity will become driven to fulfil the goals of the ledger, rather than enrich human society or improve human well-being. This is, of course, to say nothing of improving humans’ ability to co-exist with other beings in the biosphere and within planetary boundaries.

6. Algorithms are corruptible, just like any human system.

The film suggests that vast stores of data would enable humans to better understand entrenched global problems like poverty. This is both wildly naive and extremely hubristic. Poverty exists within a complex emergent system, designed by human choices. This is already known, and decisions could be made which would reduce poverty – if that were desirable to the people making the choices. Similarly, many poor health outcomes are well understood to be a result of systems which benefit some at the expense of others. Private healthcare and pharma companies profit at the expense of patients. Processed food companies profit at the expense of the obese and poor.

The lack of data is not the issue – it’s the lack of will to change the parameters of the economic and political systems that give rise to and perpetuate these problems.

“If we just had all of the information, we could solve all our problems” the film seems to say… We have the information – we know we have problems. We choose not to devote resources to solving them. More data and more tech will not change that.