This is part of a series of interviews we will conduct to get to know the board members of OffGridme.life. Hani Dabbagh is the marketing strategic advisor of our non-profit. He was also one of the panelists in our last event about the potentially addictive features inside digital products.

 

Can you tell us more about your experience in the tech world?

 

I joined Hewlett Packard back in 1986 as a systems engineer, right after obtaining a PhD in Information Engineering and Electronics from Southampton University. HP is recognized as the founder of Silicon Valley and I was privileged to have worked there for more than 30 years.

I became involved in the Digital space in 2000, about two years after Google was formed, and six after Amazon. This was only 19 years ago, and yet it is prehistory — the term “social media” was not yet coined (we called it “Web 2.0”). Since that year, throughout various roles, I was responsible for digital strategy, e-commerce, e-marketing, as well as digital tools for various divisions.

I was privileged to have been present at the early days of Digital. These were heady days, when there were no rule books, no precedent, and roles were invented and re-invented in the process. I was also privileged to have been given the trust and latitude to experiment in this new media. We piloted a lot, took many risks, but learned so much in the meantime. But, as I always say with just a pinch of “tongue-in-cheek”, that a big source of my learnings came from watching my children interact and engage with technology. They came of age at roughly the same time, and they taught me a lot.

Hani Dabbagh

If Digital Technology is to be a blessing, we need to wrest back control.

The title of your presentation was “Digital Technology: a blessing or a curse? A practitioner’s journey and learnings”. What’s your final answer to your question?

 

You may not like my final answer, but it is both. It depends on us.

Digital technology can be used as a source of good in the world. It brings humanity closer; it gives power and voice to the individual, it can hold the powerful to account (compare the various demonstrations in different parts of the world, such as in Lebanon, Hong Kong, Chile, facilitated by social media). It can advance progress in the medical and biomedical fields. These are but some examples.

The real point behind my presentation is that left uncontrolled, digital technology can have nefarious consequences. As I mentioned in my presentation, digital technology is unique in that it has three defining characteristics:

  1. It is a solution waiting for a problemWe build machines that recognise speech — because we can — and then try to find applications for them.
  2. It is insidious, with no “master plan”, morphing in directions it was not originally designed for.If someone had told me when I joined Twitter in 2008 that it would be the source of stream of consciousness of a US president, I would have laughed. Not even Jack Dorsey, the founder, expected that.
  3. It goes through exponential rates of changeThe very first web site came in 1990. In only 29 years half the population of Earth is online, about 4 billion users. Compare this to Radio, which took 38 years to reach 50 million users.

Unknowingly, we have surrendered control to a handful of multinational companies who have so much power over our lives, and yet are accountable to no-one. We have gone from a dial-up connection, to being always on and from there it was but a matter of time to become always trackable, always profiled, always predictable, and then last but not least, always manipulable.

If Digital Technology is to be a blessing, we need to wrest back control.

The current business model of tech companies is based on tracking and profiling each user in order to predict his future behavior? What can we do as citizens to have a human-centric technology that will benefit society?

 

We first need to recognise that with the current business model, the customers of Facebook, Google, etc, are their advertisers. And what are these advertisers paying for? Our attention. The more time we spend on these platforms, the higher they can charge their customer (the advertiser). So what looks a free software is actually a software we pay for dearly — with our privacy. As the saying goes, there’s no free lunch.

We need to change the business model. We need to push back. There is a number of things, big and small, that we citizens can do, and collectively we can make a difference. Some ideas:

  1. Don’t be lured by a “free” app. As much as possible I pay for my apps. I prefer to be the customer. This is no guarantee that I won’t be tracked, but there is definitely less incentive. I do find it ironic that I used to pay hundreds of dollars for a Microsoft Word back in the day, but am balking to pay 5 frs today for an app (that is many times more powerful).
  2. Track the time you spend online. It’s an eye opener. And then put limits. I went on a couple of occasions on “tech-free” weekends with my wife. It was when I instinctively went for my absent phone that I realised how much I used it.
  3. Take privacy settings seriously. Take the time to set your cookies properly. It’s worth it. Read the sections of the Terms and Conditions on data privacy and ownership
  4. Ask for your data from the companies. It is not easy, but they’re legally obliged to, and is certainly worthwhile. It’s a way for us to send the message that we’re taking back control (to find our more: personaldata.io ).
  5. Talk around you, spread the word. Most people are not aware that the tracking is not just about the latest product we bought, but goes into our very souls, inferring things about us that we never divulged, such as our gender, political inclination, sexual orientation, our personality and so on.
  6. For those who are adventurous, use digital technology to lobby governments, companies… maybe even start a movement…?
  7. Join OffGrideMe. You can join as a participant, a spectator or contributor. It’s a shared struggle.