Is Ethics the Kryptonite of 10x – Book Reviews & The Great Hack

Netflix’s documentary “The Great Hack“, I hope, is an eye-opener to the infliction point the tech industry is at. How far should a business grow-fast-and-break-things, when breaking things equals invoking genocide and supporting illegal tampering in sovereign nations, empowered by a systemized lack of transparency and rampant lack of responsibility.

I could not sympathize with Kaiser (Cambridge Analytica’s BD Director), even though I felt the documentary narrative was subtly attempting to. What’s frustrating time and time again is that the unethical misuse of technology against “others” seems to always be justified with no thought to how that can come back and harm the perpetuator… a combination of ego-mania, aloofness and entitlement.

Coincidentally, I happened to have just finished reading three books that tackled the state of unethical practices of design and product development in today’s business world (technology and all).

P.S. I did not realize these books would converge in such a manner before reading them, but they did end up being quite complementary and reinforcing or each-others narrative.

Ruined by Design

by Mike Monteiro

This book is must read for anyone responsible for making, developing, researching, designing (in the exact sense), and bringing to life in any way a product that could impact the lives of individuals beyond their comprehension. Mike makes a passionate and compelling plea for product makers around the world to be held more accountable for the products they unleash into the wild. Maybe, just maybe, we’ll have more people thinking before breaking the “internet”.

Below are some thoughts and snippets from the book:

When we look at the social media influenced world around us it’s worth noting that: “Either by action or inaction, through fault or ignorance, we have designed the world to behave exactly as it’s behaving right now. These are our chickens coming home to roost.”

We have reached here because “Companies ask designers to move fast and break things. How has become more important than why.”

“We [now more than ever] have to be ready for any tool we build to have a global impact. But even if it only impacts the area around you, chances are it is going to hopefully, reach people who are different from you…Don’t you want all of those people using your tool? Don’t you want them to be able to participate in what you’re making? …And, for the capitalists …don’t you want their money? If we intend to build successful tools, we need to expand our definition of we.”

Some may argue that ethical considerations makes their work less-innovative and more constrained. Innovation has long flourished “not in spite of constraints, but because of them.”

Amazon | Website

Technically Wrong

by Sara Wachter-Boettcher

This book is among the wave of female voices calling out the “frat” culture flourishing in tech companies for its lack on inclusion and intolerance of diversity. Sounding an alarm towards data-powered “intelligence” that these companies monopolize and are being given reign to make life altering decisions, from facial identification to bank loans! Sara makes a timely argument: “People need to understand that data is not truth. It is not going to magically solve hard societal problems for us”, and it’s our responsibility, not the data’s, to build better solutions.

Meritocracy can sometimes mean training algorithms on existing data, which is far from ideal and while considered “pattern recognition” by some, it’s also “profiling or stereotyping”.

And this: “Default settings can be helpful or deceptive, thoughtful or frustrating. But they’re never neutral. They’re designed…[by] designers and developers who’ve been told that they’re rock stars, gurus and geniuses, and that the world is made for people like them.” Who also happen to be generally from similar cultures, upbringing, maybe race, ethnicity, political affiliation, belief and education.

Amazon | Audible | Website

Mismatch

by Kat Holmes

I happened to read this book during a trip to Tokyo last spring, which made me appreciate the city in a way I wouldn’t have otherwise; Tokyo is an awe-inspiringly accessible city (besides the language barrier).

Kat’s tone is less pessimistic, but still critical of the limited vision of products. Mismatch highlights a reality we rarely address in our blanket of assumptions about “accessibility”: “Many of us are temporarily able-bodied and will face new kinds of exclusion as we age. When we design for inclusion we are designing for our future selves. Not just for the changes in our bodies but for our ability to contribute to society. It is designing how the next generation will treat and care for us. It’s making solutions to uphold the human connections that are most important to our lives. Our dignity, health, safety, and sense of being at home.”

“If inclusion isn’t explicitly part of that leadership, exclusion will be default.”

Amazon | Website

So it’s no surprise that when I watched the documentary over the weekend I was not surprised nor sympathetic. Cambridge Analytica was commercial product that was designed be destructive, with intentions stemming straight out of military intelligence. Facebook was designed to be irresponsible for user-generated content; plain-old-trolls and systematic-war-machines alike, and grew to a disproportional size by simply getting away with it. A match made in heaven.

Twitter, Google, Uber, Amazon, Apple, etc are making ripples across supply-chains, financial systems, news outlets and media, climate, social dynamics, politics and probably facets of life we are not aware of even. Being ethical and inclusive in how they impact our world should no longer be a stock-price driven decision.


I understand that making choices about whom and how you work may seem like a privilege to many, but I echo Mike’s call for designers and developers taking oaths of good conduct. You wouldn’t want a doctor that has not sworn their oath designing a medical treatment for you nor an uncertified lawyer arguing your case in court, then why would you want people that have no accountability designing every other living facet of our increasingly connected lives?

MENA’s Digital News, Week #4

A weekly round up of the top headlines from the digital sector in MENA, covering startups, corporate and public sector news.

Investments & Acquisitions

Careem raises $200M from existing investors, increasing it’s valuation to over $2B (EN) https://goo.gl/6kPEML (AR) https://goo.gl/wvnY3H

Unifonic, Saudi telecom startup, raises more than $21M in a Series A round from STV, Riyad TAQNIA Fund, Endeavor Catalyst, ELM, & Raed Ventures (EN) https://goo.gl/XYhcjx (AR) https://goo.gl/pJ2tS6

HitchHiker, Egypt’s crowd-shipping startup, raises its $200k seed investment https://goo.gl/XjbS79

Kashtah, Bahrain-based on-demand pool reservation, acquired by Kuwaiti Investors with plans to launch in Kuwait during 2019 https://goo.gl/4YN4gL

Emaar Invests in Texas based 3D printed housing technology startup ICON along with other investors https://goo.gl/GQUGWS

Sector News

UAEPASS, a National Digital Identity and Signature Solution, launched in partnership between Smart Dubai and the Telecom Regulatory Authority (TRA) https://goo.gl/NisR1H

Dubai’s Emcredit launches blockchain powered payment with Pundi X POS systems https://goo.gl/2ibrvm

Ecommerce platforms in Egypt are now required to charge and remit VAT https://goo.gl/umfpe8 

New Pan-African Data Centre Association launched in Morocco https://goo.gl/nbVzvo 

Smaat launches programmatic advertising platform Shaheen https://goo.gl/JhLYAA 

The Lab:Suli, Iraq’s first co-working space launches in Sulaimani https://goo.gl/KHM5Gm

UAE-based global satellite operator, Yahsat launches YahClick in Zimbabwe https://goo.gl/FWP2bm

PolicyBazaar, Indian Insurtech startup back by Softbank, expands to the UAE https://goo.gl/TWco65

RYOT Studio, Verizon Adtech subsidiary, launches in MENA in partnership with ConnectAds https://goo.gl/kLKp6T

Further Readings

Softbank Vision Fund in active talks with UK based Oaknorth, digital lending platform, for potential investment, this would mark the fund’s 3rd UK investment https://goo.gl/osJxrw

Recent Books 

The Fix, How Countries Use Crises to Solve the World’s Worst Problems by Jonathan Tepperman
A global cruise exploring how different leader solved national disasters from lack of natural resources to fighting poverty. 

“…when confronted with an impossible situation, wisdom often lies in forgoing the optimal for the acceptable”

No Is Not Enough: Resisting the New Shock Politics and Winning the World We Need by Naomi Klein
I wish we could apply this book to really life, but in my humble experience in the emerging world, the immediate realities of poverty, lack of access and education would make this utopia a little far off

“multinationals were competing in a race toward weightlessness: whoever owned the least, had the fewest employees on the payroll, and produced the most powerful images as opposed to things, won the race” – about the rise of brands that led to the election of the “Trump Brand”

The Coming Storm by Michael Lewis (audible Only)
Highlights the historic treasure trove of environmental data held at the US economic department threatened by corporate influence on politics and the lethal implications that can ensue due to ignore the facts on climate change. 


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In Personal News…

This has been published later than usual today, as I have been caught up with preps for a short vacation and work trip to Istanbul starting tomorrow to attend Startup Istanbul, and speak at Global South Tech’s Turkey Meetup. If you’re in town, do reach out or join either event! 


Book Review: Unscaled

Unscaled: How AI and a New Generation of Upstarts Are Creating the Economy of the Future Book cover
Unscaled: How AI and a New Generation of Upstarts Are Creating the Economy of the Future
“In a regulated industry companies are too often motivated to serve the regulators, not the customers, and the economics of a regulated company give the company little incentive to innovate” — Hemant Taneja, Unscaled: How AI and a New Generation of Upstarts Are Creating the Economy of the Future

This book gets a 3/5, for it’s hyperbole unrestrained devotion to AI, both an admirable and not-so-much aspect.

Hemant Taneja is the General Manager of General Catalyst in Palo Alto California, and an investor in Stripe, Snapchat, (among others) as well as a board member in Khan Academy, TuneIn and more. It is great to get a glimpse into the mind of some of the tech sectors’ successful investors and supporters and I appreciate the books breakdown by verticals, that coverL Energy, Healthcare, Education, Finance, Media & Consumer Products.

While I agree with the general premise of the book, I personally find that the true power of artificial intelligence (or mere analytics and algorithmic learning) remains in data. We have yet to figure out to how harness, un-bais and standardize data at an efficient enough rate to get to AI – but that’s not our discussion.

The book explored the power of “AI” across sectors, the existing players and possibilities that could shape our future. However, I had a hard time going through one sector of the book: Healthcare.

The book argues that with enough genetic data we can personalize drugs to a persons condition allowing pharmaceuticals to surpass years of approvals and tests to ensure a generic drug can be made available to a mass market full. This will allow for even health insurance to be more tailored (albeit discriminately and controversially as the author highlights) to the genetic predispositions for disease.

But how realistic is it? A startup mentioned a few times in the chapter Crispr, a genome editing technology, is under scrutiny as EU rules that food modified with their technology needs to be labelled as such, similar to GMO produce, as the long term affect of the process are yet-to-be-realized. While advocates are excited, the potential of such a technology is alarming and the research on genetic modification in plants and labs alone has not been around long enough to measure it’s impact, let alone on humans. From an ethical point-of-view, and given the level of human-greed and denouncement of scientific research (e.g. the rise anti-vaxxers leading to resurgence in measles), oh and lets not forgot the new-age of racism, I’m not too confident we need to add more tools to the shack.

On medicine modified to an individual’s unique genetic composition, while I love the idea and I’m entranced by it’s potential: almost like 3D printing customized, no-waste, concussions. I don’t see research (there may be some in labs, but a quick search online didn’t show market-confident) that signals we could be close to even risk such a venture en masse. We do not yet know enough about the complexity of our genetic composition to assume that one strand may be independently linked or tackled to adjust for curing an illness without affecting other parts of the functioning organism. While Crispr, 23andme and other such technologies may have helped identify pre-dispositions for certain diseases, that doesn’t mean they can identify a “cure” or that “snipping” those genes is the right way forward. We don’t have enough research that matches the long term effect of drugs on the unique genetic composition of individuals to able to pin point the data needed to come up with is. Which makes me wonder, if medicine is eventually tailored to one, can medical research labs justify research for one? Is research in need of disruption. 

This topic is of course not new in the healthcare field, but I hope researchers are as confident as marketers are with results. Worth checking out: a magazine dedicated to the topic: Genome.

Another fear is health insurance, echoes by the author. Tailoring health insurance and premiums based on genetic dispositions can create a form of social discrimination & “untouchables” that could affect people’s livelihood based on genetic predisposition that may or may not actually surface in this individual’s life time. In emerging and advanced markets alike, skin and eye pigmentation, birthmarks and other physical traits already plague individuals livelihood, imagine adding the unseen layer of perceived “negative” genetic traits to the mix. I don’t know if humanity has the maturity to embrace the differences that make the human race beautiful at it’s current superficial state, let alone one that can be spun with so much “alternative-facts”

One part that got me thinking, is the author’s emphasis on historical health records and data ownership. Something I’d sign up for: an encrypted lifetime health record that can only be accessed with a biometric password or a physical encryption key, were only the patient owns their data and can “lease” or give access to their data to doctors and health care providers as needed (or to pharma and researchers). With all the data breaches affecting healthcare institutes (NHS in the UK, SingHealth in Singapore) protecting ones data with such measures may not be outstretched.

As we embark on this journey of lives daily impacted data-driven technology, ethical problems are rising. I keep remembering the video of Jane Elliot lashing out on AlJazeera a few years back: “The is no race but the human race”

Maybe the reason the healthcare section irked me, is that I felt that the author showed the same level of enthusiasm for the potential of AI across sectors, which, while applaudable, over-simplified the complexities of a biological human being in my humble opinion.

My favorite chapter: Media. 

With the “war” on news and media happening today across the globe, and the “accidental” discovery of social platforms for their innate power of impacting politics (though the western world didn’t seem to complain during the Arab Spring). It’s a critical time for innovators to reflect on the ethics of their work, global ramifications of their actions and responsibility such reach and power sets upon us as a race.

Recommended read: Yes
Did it irk me: Yes, but that made me think and research to learn more. Always a win. It also inspired the last short post “Is Lebanon Ready for a Smart Electricity Grid? 
Take away: Scale has come to an infliction point. Scale itself is being disrupted.