Attention and Intention: 2022
It may be a cliché to publish the year end look back/look ahead essay, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a useful exercise (at least for me). So, without apology, this is a ten-thousand foot view of what I think will be (and should be) interesting about the coming year… and a quick look at whether or not the expiring year unfolded as I expected. (These opinions are mine alone and do not reflect the views of any employer, past, present, or future; any acquaintance, living or dead; any natural language generators; or any tea leaf reading)
One of the major themes from 2020 and 2021 was privacy and data protection. Predicting that will be a significant theme in those years was not a terribly audacious prediction and in 2020 and 2021, there was significant attention paid to privacy and data protection by companies, regulators, and (to a degree) the public at large. There is still a great deal of privacy theater going on where click-through licenses are written to grant essentially unlimited rights to to companies collecting data regarding what they can collect and what they can do with the data. Those companies rely on people not paying attention to these “agreements” and comply with disclosure rules by hiding … er … “disclosing” their data collection and privacy policies deep, deep inside their terms of service.
Since I’m one of those grumpy old guys who reads those things, (before I resign myself to accepting their terms in order to participate in the modern world), I see there are some companies crafting respectful policies aligned with the intent of the new regulations. The majority still require you to allow them to collect and share whatever they want by default and, if you want to opt out, you must send a request in the form of a haiku to the corporate office of the Director in Charge of Policies We Have No Intention of Honoring.
The most interesting story in privacy and data protection from 2021 (and one that gives me hope for 2022) is the leak of the Facebook Papers by Frances Haugan and the Washington Post. That is a story that social media companies are hoping will go away. The story did burn brightly for a couple weeks but has largely receded into the background, at least as far as the general public is concerned. The same thing happened with the mood (or “emotional contagion”) experiement from 2012, though that one had a smaller public reaction and Facebook was easily able to wait out the disclosure of their outrageous behavior. [Full disclosure: I’ve been off Facebook since October 2020 but still have some other Meta accounts.] Even if this is not an interesting story for the general public, there is enough evidence for regulators and parties interested in governance to seek significant behavioral changes for social media platforms.
My hope for 2022 is that Facebook (and other social media and data collection platforms) will be forced to address the concerns that they have so far been able to ignore or deny. This is unlikely considering that monetizing any form of engagement without regard for quality or toxicity is still a fundamental flaw in their business model. Facebook et al have showed themselves to be skilled at the theater of reforming their behavior without actually making any effective changes, but with the evidence provided by Ms Haugan, I hope some progress can be made.
Another prediction for 2021 would be that AI and Algorithms will become increasingly better understood.
Ok… that is such a weasel prediction that I can’t even believe it. Of course any improvement in understanding would make this true, so let’s just say that we need to accelerate our understanding of the use and effect of algorithms so that meaningful governance is possible.
My 2021 reading list included books from an increasing number of titles devoted to algorithms and understanding their effect. Algorithmic Accountability for the Public Sector is a paper exploring better understanding and tools for governing algorithms and AI. This is an interesting discussion and we need to broaden and deepen so that we’re not spending all our energy on developing the more clever and performant algorithms. We need to also be spending ethical, sociological, technical, economic, and legal energy developing the frameworks for governance that are required for healthy use of algorithmic decision making in all areas of our lives.
Those intentions continuing from 2020 through 2021 are still useful threads to follow through 2022, but my primary thesis for 2021 was: “As we return to offices and churches and schools and restaurants, we will have a different view of what is “necessary” and a greater appreciation for the value of interactions we had taken for granted.”
I believe that is a widely held view as we come to the end of 2021 and as we face the increasing spread of the omicron variant of COVID-19. I still believe we are years away from understanding some of the significant effects of this pandemic and the isolation that has been required. Considering the significant challenges to the entire population, I believe that well being and mental health can (and should be) a more prominent part of our decisions for what we want the future to look like.
Returning to the familiar spaces of the pre-pandemic world should not mean “going back” to normal. It may be a semantic tweak, but something about the idea of “going back” squanders the opportunity to learn from this shared trauma. I may be predisposed to this way of thinking because, in software development, “re-factoring” is part of every developers life and part of an ethic of continual improvement. Back in June, the Daily Show with Trevor Noah signed off for a summer hiatus with a phrase that sums up my view of our responsibility to learn from 2020 and 2021. “… take a chance to breathe and think about not going back to the way things were, but going forward to the way you would like things to be.” I know many people have expressed that idea in many ways over the years, but that resonates for me at this moment.
I am grateful for the interactions, opportunities, and challenges of 2021 and all the people who I’ve crossed paths with this year (virtually or physically). I wish everyone a healthy and prosperous new year where we imagine how we would like things to be courageous enough to realize that future.
“We but mirror the world. All the tendencies present in the outer world are to be found in the world of our body. If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. This is the divine mystery supreme. A wonderful thing it is and the source of our happiness. We need not wait to see what others do.”
~ Mahatma Gandhi