The new year typically leads us to pause and reflect, to change bad habits, and possibly follow a diet. For David Ryan Polgar, convincing each of us to do all those things is part of his mission — except Polgar wants us to reflect, change and even consider “dieting” when it comes to how we use technology and social media.
Polgar, of West Hartford, regularly uses the comparison of technology and the information we get via our gadgets with food in order to nudge people to think about the role each plays in our lives. “Technology and food are both facts of life in our world today, but while most of us realize that it’s unhealthy to eat too much or to consume lots of junk food, for instance, a far lower percentage of the population stops to think about how much information we’re consuming, how much we’re allowing technology to dominate all we do and especially to pause and consider if we’re consuming healthy information — something that adds value to our lives — or consuming mostly ‘junk’ information that fills us up but has no real value,” Polgar says. “That food and tech analogy really clicks with people.”
Clicking with people about their relationships with technology from an ethical, legal and, most importantly, human perspective has forged a new professional focus for Polgar, whose reach as a pioneering tech ethicist has stretched beyond Connecticut to virtually around the world. He’s regularly featured in national and international media as an expert on tech ethics, digital citizenship and striking a balance between healthy tech use and tech addiction and information overload. In addition to co-founding the global Digital Citizenship Summit, which has convened yearly since its inaugural event in Connecticut in 2015, the 39-year-old has given three widely viewed TEDx talks and spoken at tech conferences throughout Connecticut and elsewhere in the U.S., as well as in Europe.
“I think most people stumble a bit when they hear that I’m a tech ethicist, but I strongly believe it’s a growing field that will greatly expand in the coming years, largely because it’s so needed,” explains Polgar, whose former career paths centered on being an attorney, a writer and a college professor. “When I’m asked what a tech ethicist does, I say my main objective is to shed light on the many blind spots that exist relating to technology, whether that’s how we as individuals and a society use it, the impacts technology has had or might have on the human condition, and ensuring that there is more responsible awareness and ethical mindfulness in the design and deployment of technology by its creators in today’s world.”
To highlight the blind spots that likely exist for individuals, Polgar relies on that food/tech and info comparison, employing a “mental food plate” model that encourages people to approach their digital information consumption more holistically and mindfully, rather than gobbling down whatever is dumped on their plate by the internet, smartphones and social media. “The idea of a balanced digital diet can replace mindless consumption of information, leading people to make thoughtful, healthier choices about what they take in on a daily basis and getting them to think about quality of information over quantity, much as we do with food,” he says.
David Ryan Polgar offers these tips on being an ethical consumer of tech:
Move from passively consuming tech to actively considering your impact.
Slow down. It is incredibly easy to post and share, but that runs counter to considering consequences. Imagine your online Jiminy Cricket as your digital conscience.
Don’t focus on the amount of time you spend online, but instead focus on the impact. How is your thinking? How is your relationship with friends and family? Technology should add value to our lives and deepen bonds and abilities to get together; if it is doing the opposite, there is a problem.
There is no such thing as a free lunch, especially online. Think of your data as currency which you are constantly sharing in exchange for services.
Clean up your digital life, just like you clean your house or apartment. Consider apps that should be deleted and passwords that can be changed.
Recognize the major impact that YOU might have on the health of the internet. How you communicate and share is both part of the problem and part of the solution. Be a part of the solution.
In terms of big tech, or giants such as Google, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Apple and Microsoft, Polgar believes there is a perhaps overdue, but definite, promising shift toward becoming more thoughtful about their existing technologies and new inventions and the impact they could have on individual users, society, commerce and business, and democracy. “Consumer pressure, political questioning, some self-reflection by the heads of these tech giants and the ramifications of missteps brought about by their products have all led to companies introducing a level of tech ethics and awareness before an innovation is unveiled, rather than trying to clean up the mess or push back when problems arise after a new gadget or platform is launched,” Polgar says.
Citing Facebook’s data and privacy scandals, the negative reception of Google’s Duplex voice assistant, and the spread of bogus Twitter accounts, Polgar says “we’ve seen very clear cases of tech developers either not thinking ahead about issues and problems that could stem from their technologies, or at worst-case scenario not caring if that occurred. That’s definitely changing now, as companies are bringing in tech ethicists and other diverse sets of eyes to think of the impacts and implications of tech before it’s sent out into the world, rather than after. It’s a positive step, but also the tip of the iceberg of what will come in terms of ethics and responsibility for tech.”
Polgar points to a confluence of factors about six years ago that led him to take such a deep dive into technology and how it’s changing people and the way we live. “Looking back, it doesn’t seem to me to have been an instantaneous, conscious choice where I said, ‘I’m going to be a tech ethicist,’ or digital lifestyle expert or the other ways people describe my work,” he says. “Instead, there were a few key things that shook up the way I thought about my own relationship with technology, and then I felt this slow but steady pull deeper into looking at tech’s impacts. Coming at it from a legal, intellectual and ethical perspective because of my background as an attorney and working in academia was a natural progression, but I quickly realized that I needed to explore this from an emotional and psychological viewpoint. Technology isn’t really about the machines, hardware or software — it’s about how humans interact with it. It’s about us.”
That sentiment is the name of another of Polgar’s many educational and outreach initiatives. All Tech Is Human is a multi-pronged, collaborative program aimed at better aligning the business interests of tech companies with the human interests of individuals and society. “Those interests right now are misaligned, but I think it’s important that we realize that they don’t have to be opposing objectives. Companies can and should make money in a capitalist society, but it’s possible for them to be profitable while also being responsible,” Polgar says. “Bringing more voices to the table rather than just telling tech engineers to innovate and accelerate will bring about the responsible change that’s needed.”
Polgar has experience in the tech industry, working at a parental control tool startup in Connecticut called Copilot Family, as well as for the social media network ASKfm, and Friendbase, a Swedish social messaging platform. He’s also consulted for a number of tech startups and companies over the last six years. But he said that his varied and non-tech background is more valuable to the work he does.
“Big tech is not lacking for technologists,” Polgar says. “Instead, it is in dire need of cognitive diversity that would allow a diverse range of perspectives to shine a light on blind spots. The very fact that major tech companies have been claiming to be surprised by how platforms and technologies can be misused and perverted to spread misinformation, sow discord, and lead to violence, showcases that the companies were not actively building workforces that thought much about the unintended consequences and negative externalities associated with technology. In other words, big tech needs more people with backgrounds in psychology, sociology, philosophy and law. Lately, I have personally seen an upsurge in college students who I talk to that are double-majors in computer science and philosophy. This is the future of education, moving away from the strict confines of disciplines.”
While public opinion seems largely to call on the tech companies and social media platforms to do the heavy lifting when it comes to addressing digital problems such as the proliferation of internet trolls, widespread hacking, and the spreading of misinformation via Twitter and Facebook, Polgar says that individual users of technology and social media can do our part in creating a healthier, less problematic digital aspect to our lives and society. That’s why he created the Digital Citizenship Summit, first held at the University of Saint Joseph in West Hartford in 2015, and later at Twitter headquarters in San Francisco, drawing a global audience and resulting in spin-off events around the world. He’s also launched digital citizenship classes in person and online, and a virtual tech ethics hub for college students and educators at cengage.com.
So what exactly is digital citizenship? “Digital citizenship is the safe, savvy and ethical use of social media and technology. It has been a major topic in K-12 education for the last 10 years. Similar to how there are rights and responsibilities to being a citizen, digital citizenship is based around transitioning from passive users of social media and technology to digital citizens that are educated, empowered and engaged. Lately, there has also been an uptick in legislation around digital citizenship and media literacy education, including here in Connecticut.”
In yet another of the initiatives he’s launched, Polgar takes a more off-beat approach to delving into many of the most serious issues involving technology: humor. Polgar co-hosts a live show and podcast, Funny As Tech, that he dreamed up with former Hartford resident Joe Leonardo, a comedian, writer and improv actor who co-founded the Hartford-based Sea Tea Improv Theater and performs with the Upright Citizens Brigade in New York City. “The idea behind Funny As Tech is that our relationship with technology is messy, and so sometimes we need to get away from the staged talking points and seriousness of it all to take a humorous look into how technology makes us feel and how we interact with it,” Polgar says. “We definitely look for the funny and absurd aspects of tech on the show, but we’re also tackling thorny issues such as concerns about online privacy, artificial intelligence, tech addiction and other problems.”
Polgar’s reputation as a leading voice on tech ethics continues to grow as rapidly as the advance of technology itself. But one principle of improved tech ethics that Polgar says should apply to both individuals and tech companies is to slow down, rather than speed up. “Speeding up accessibility and shareability of information has been the driving force in technological innovations and social media platforms in the past 20 years — reducing friction for access and sharing, as it’s referred to in tech,” Polgar says. “But I think we’re turning the corner in realizing that maybe it’s better to aim for responsibility and usefulness, rather than ease of use and speed, when it comes to technology and platforms such as Facebook or YouTube or Twitter. It’s the same for users of social media, isn’t it? Just taking some time to stop and reflect before sharing, for example, is both a simple concept but a complex change to introduce when it comes to tech and our use of it. I think that message is starting to be heard at the corporate level, by society and by individuals. At least I hope it is."