Shortly after 9 p.m., the neighbors called the owner, complaining of a party raging next door. The owners verified this through their doorbell camera. The police were sent. Over 100 people who had responded to a post on social media were packed into the million-dollar home. At 10:45 pm, with no warning, things turned deadly. Gunshots were fired. Four men in their twenties were killed immediately. A 19-year-old female died the next day. Several others were injured.
My question: Is Airbnb partly to blame for this?
This is a prickly question, one that extends to any platform that’s highly disruptive. Technical disruption is a race against our need for order and predictability. When the status quo is upended, there is a progression toward a new civility that takes time, but technology is outstripping it. Platforms create new opportunities -- for the best of us, and the worst.
The simple fact is that technology always unleashes ethical ramifications. The more disruptive the technology, the more serious the ethical considerations. The other tricky thing is that some ethical considerations can be foreseen, but others cannot.
I have often said that our world is becoming a more complex place. Technology is multiplying this complexity at an ever increasing pace. And the more complex things are, the more difficult they are to predict.
This acceleration is also eliminating the gap between cause and consequence. We used to have the luxury of time to digest disruption. But now, the gap between the introduction of the technology and the ripples of the ramifications is shrinking.
Think about the ethical dilemmas and social implications introduced by the invention of the printing press. Thanks to the introduction of this technology, literacy started creeping down through social classes, which totally disrupted entire established hierarchies, unleashed ideological revolutions and ushered in tsunamis of social change.
But the cause and consequences were separated by decades and even centuries. Should Gutenberg be held responsible for the French Revolution? This seems laughable, but only because almost three and a half centuries lie between the two.
As the printing press eventually proved, technology typically dismantles vertical hierarchies. It democratizes capabilities, spreading them down to new users -- and, in the process, making the previously impossible possible.
I have always said that technology is simply a tool, albeit an often disruptive one. It doesn’t change human behaviors. It enables them. But here we have an interesting phenomenon. If technology pushes capabilities down to more people and simultaneously frees those users from the restraint of a verticalized governing structure, you have a highly disruptive sociological experiment happening in real time, with a vast sample of subjects.
Most things about human nature are governed by a normal distribution curve, also known as a bell curve. Behaviors expressed through new technologies are no exception. When you rapidly expand access to a capability, you are going to have a spectrum of ethical attitudes interacting with it. At one end of the spectrum, you will have bad actors. You will find these actors on both sides of a market expanding at roughly the same rate as our universe. And those actors will do awful things with the technology.
Our innate sense of fairness seeks a simple line between cause and effect. If shootings happen at an Airbnb party house, then Airbnb should be held at least partly responsible. Right?
I’m not so sure. That’s the simple answer, but after giving it much thought, I don’t believe it’s the right one. Like my previous example of the printing press, I think trying to saddle a new technology with the unintentional and unforeseen social disruption unleashed by that technology is overly myopic. It’s an attitude that will halt technological progress in its tracks.
I fervently believe new technologies should be designed with humanitarian principles in mind. They should elevate humans, strive for neutrality, be impartial and foster independence. In the real world, they should do all this in a framework that allows for profitability.
That’s what reasonable to ask from any new technology. To try to ask it to foresee every potential negative outcome or to retroactively hold it accountable when those outcomes do eventually occur is both unreasonable and unrealistic.
Disruptive technologies will always find the loopholes in our social fabric. If there is an answer to be found here, it is to be found in ourselves. We need to take accountability for the consequences of the technologies we adopt. We need to vote for governments committed to keeping pace with disruption through timely and effective governance.
Like it or not, the technology we have created and adopted has propelled us into a new era of complexity and unpredictability. We are flying into uncharted territory by the seat of our pants here. And before we rush to point fingers, we should remember: We’re the ones that asked for it.