The rise of the dark side
Our relationship to technology is deeply paradoxical. On the one hand, we buy and constantly use more technological devices and apps, leaving our traces in the digital space. On the other hand, the dark sides of how these digital traces can be used and abused are increasingly evident and concerning to many. Unregulated fake news, fueled by algorithms that constantly present users more of the same, spread without much restriction on social media and have ultimately facilitated the storming of the Capitol in Washington, D.C., by fierce supporters of the former US president. Even the most ridiculous conspiracy theories get amplified and make fighting the current pandemic less effective. But fake news and conspiracies are only two of the many problems that inspire and challenge researchers, fiction, movies, regulators and – well, yes – even Big Tech, the obvious beneficiaries of the world´s digitalization. Other problems are data privacy, hate speech or the question of free choice. Are humans still in control of their actions, or are we becoming puppets on the strings of global players with motives we do not even know?
This state of affairs and potentially dystopian future developments were not intended
Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, built it on the utopian promise of giving all people access to the best information at any time. Social media were supposed to connect the world and enable community between long-lost friends and strangers alike. User-generated content would equalize the information differential between traditional content producers and consumers. These new technologies would enable companies to achieve true customization and build authentic individual relationships with their many customers.
In many ways, this utopian vision has actually been achieved: Wikipedia is the world’s largest, freely accessible, user-generated knowledge resource; Facebook connects almost three billion people; and even small companies can reach out to customers all over the world in a more targeted way than ever before. Yet, we are also increasingly grappling with the unintended consequences of these technological advances.
Why unintended consequences arise
To help us think about unintended consequences, it is useful to ask why and how they arise in the first place. In his classic essay in the American Sociological Review in 1936, the sociologist Robert Merton describes four main causes of the emergence of unintended consequences of social action, which are still relevant today (see Figure 1).