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Brief Published: 3 Mar 2021

DLD 2021: Creating Consumer-Empowering Technologies

DLD 2021 went virtual

Building more positive, empowering technology was top-of-mind at this year’s virtual Digital Life Design (DLD) conference (February 21-23). Speakers advocated for pivoting away from exploitation of consumer attention, giving citizens self-sovereignty over their data, and constructing meaningful experiences within virtual worlds. We spotlight three standout themes.

  • Guarding Against Digital Harms: At last year’s DLD, Tristan Harris of US nonprofit the Center for Humane Technology urged “a global understanding of how technology has distorted society.” That mission is succeeding thanks to 2020’s The Social Dilemma, the anti-Big Tech Netflix documentary featuring Harris, which he said has reached 100 million people across 190 countries.
    Harris advocates for technology that protects users from human weaknesses like hunger for validation (via social media likes). A more humane technology will “help us become more immune to our own hackability” – in other words, “reverse-engineering our own code,” he said.
  • Look for the Bright Spots: The attention economy can shift away from easy-win engagement strategies that exploit our vulnerabilities, Harris said, by following the bright spots theory – emulating positive examples of what’s working, versus trying to fix stubborn problems.
    Several speakers pressed for government intervention, like the online harms bill recently introduced in the UK to curb harmful social media content. Maria Ressa, co-founder of Filipino news site Rappler, said stringent laws are needed because humans are so susceptible to misinformation. “There’s a virus of lies that has been released in the information ecosystem, and it is contagious,” she said. “Once you believe them, it changes the way you look at the world.”
Humans are susceptible to misinformation
  • Granting Self-Sovereignty Over Data: “Data is created by us and by our bodies, but we don’t own it, and we can’t use it, share it, or protect it,” said Don Tapscott, co-founder of Canada’s Blockchain Research Institute and an advocate of data ‘self-sovereignty’ – meaning individuals control the data that forms their digital identities. 

    Blockchain technology underpins this concept, as we outline in Consumers Reclaim Control. Companies in this space include identity-verification specialists Evernym in Utah, which this month is launching a Travel Pass with the International Air Transport Association (IATA) and several major airlines to instantly verify Covid-19 status while preserving privacy.
    Tapscott’s institute also worked with IBM and Toronto research hospital University Health Network to create an app that enables patients to access their health records, control who sees the information and optionally share the anonymised data for research purposes.
    In a secure, blockchain-enabled system, individuals could easily share or sell the data in their sovereign health record, while anonymised, aggregated citizen data could help solve public health crises. The pandemic exposes the need here, Tapscott said, since critical information has been siloed within organisations, leaving experts to “work in the dark”.
Evernym Travel Pass
Aggregated citizen data could help solve public health crises
  • Constructing Meaningful Virtual Experiences: “Increasingly young people are having meaningful moments, like seeing their first concert, inside virtual environments,” said Herman Narula, co-founder of UK tech firm Improbable, which builds infrastructure for real-world simulations. Improbable’s gaming arm recently released its first product, the multiplayer game Scavengers.
    Tech-mediated experiences can be as meaningful as real-life ones, Narula said. They extend and expand our worlds, and “give people the opportunity to do things they could never do in the real world.”

    Unlike social media, Narula said shared virtual environments, with their shared constraints, tend to elicit co-operation rather than become echo chambers – as long as builders of these worlds “learn from the lessons of social and [don’t] create the wrong incentives.”
Young people are increasingly experiencing life 'firsts' in virtual contexts