Facebook, Twitter and Google have been invited to Capitol Hill on Wednesday to testify in hearings about possible bias on their platforms. The companies have all been pledging to do better in recent months. But there’s no escaping that their platforms have been used to undermine democracy, incite violence and spread hate speech, among other ills. Jane McGonigal is a game developer and researcher at the Institute for the Future. That group, partnered with others, just released an online toolkit they call an “ethical operating system.” It includes questions and exercises to help aspiring Googles and Facebooks “not be evil.” Molly Wood talked with McGonigal about this new Ethical OS, starting with an example of health data. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.
Jane McGonigal: What might happen when employment decisions are made on algorithms that assess our mental health? There are already researchers figuring out how to tell if you are prone to depression or anxiety or you might be a narcissist or a sociopath just based on which things you like or favorite on your social media feeds. And what if employers had that data and they were using it to decide who they want to hire? Do we want people assessing our mental health using our public behavior on the internet?
Molly Wood: Are you trying to differentiate between companies that really need to think about this? Or do you think every startup needs to really think about this?
McGonigal: You can’t always predict how what seems like a trivial app will go on to evolve and scale. Obviously, nobody thought that deciding which of your college classmates were hot or not was going to turn into the most important connecting technological platform on the planet 10 years later. So embedding this way of thinking in a company early on it gives us all more of a fighting chance.
Wood: When you’re asking startups to think this way, how much of a difference can this approach make when the incentives not to act in the best interests of society can be pretty strong? And by incentives I mean billions of dollars, unfortunately.
McGonigal: Yeah, I think what we’ve seen recently at Google is a good indication that companies are going to need to listen to their employees about the kind of work that they want to do. So recently, there were over a thousand signatories on an open letter of Google employees saying we need to have more transparency about the work we’re doing in China. We want to understand the ramifications for freedom of speech, and we don’t want to do work that has a negative impact on people’s ability to live freely. And I think if you want to have a company of functional people who are excited to change the world, that companies are going to have to be ethical in the same way that companies are increasingly having to be sustainable. It’s just going to be something that we do to keep people excited about doing this work.