Mr. Rogers and the navigating the ethical crossroads of emerging technologies

Fred Rogers may seem like a strange subject for an AI-related blog post, but bear with me.  Everyone knows Mr. Rogers from his long-running PBS show, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.  Fewer people know that he was an ordained Presbyterian minister prior to his television career.  And fewer still know the quality of Fred Rogers that led me to write this post: namely, that he was a technological visionary.

You see, television was in its infancy when Mr. Rogers completed his education and was attempting to decide what to do with his life.  When he saw television for the first time, he immediately recognized the new medium’s potential, both good and ill. The programming that greeted him definitely fell into the latter category. As he later recounted, with what is probably the closest Mr. Rogers ever came to betraying frustration and annoyance, “there were people throwing pies at one another.” In other interviews, he expressed dismay at the number of cartoons aimed at children that used violence as a method of entertainment.

Mr. Rogers saw the negative impact such images might have on people’s minds and behavior.  He wanted to ensure that the technology was not just used for mindless entertainment and trivializing violence.  Just as the new technology could be used for ends that were unhelpful at best and corrosive at worst, it could also be used to improve people’s conceptions of themselves and their interactions with others.  If he could harness the power of television for more productive ends, he could use the technology to build a better world. That was the genesis of the Neighborhood he built and maintained for the next thirty-five years.

It is easy to see the parallels between the challenges and potential that Mr. Rogers saw in television and those that we see today in the era of Big Data, AI, and social media.  Like television programming, the algorithms that drive Facebook and Twitter news feeds effectively decide what information people receive.  They also make it possible to disseminate that information with unprecedented speed.  One imagines that if Fred Rogers had lived long enough to see the current social-media-driven world, he would have had much the same concerns about Big Data and algorithms as he did about the pie fights and cartoon violence he observed on television six decades ago.

Particularly in light of the recent scandal involving the use of Facebook users’ data by Cambridge Analytica, it seems that tech companies face a stark choice. On one hand, they can look to maximize their short-term profits by aggressively monetizing the unprecedented access they have to ordinary citizens’ personal data, even if that means encouraging divisiveness and vitriol, with fake news and other forms of digital manipulation taking the place of pie-throwing. On the other hand, they can use their new methods of reaching and influencing people to help build a better world.

It will, to be sure, be a difficult and often lonely fight for companies that decide to take the socially responsible route.  But then again, it was not an easy road for Fred Rogers either. Violence on television most certainly did not diminish in the decades his programmed aired.  Quite the contrary–by 1999, according to a report from the University of Michigan, the average American child had seen 16,000 murders on television by age 18. His own show had a near-death experience in its infancy, when Congress nearly cut off the funding that made Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood possible.

But Mr. Rogers recognized that even though he could not control what other media outlets did, he still could make an impact by making sure there was a Neighborhood that did things the right way. He, almost single-handedly, convinced Congress to continue funding public television (see video above). Over the following decades, he used his initially modest platform to reach tens of millions of children with a message of hope and self-affirmation. In the process, he proved that even amidst the cacophony that modern technology was generating, it was possible to use it to build a better world.

This past Tuesday would have been Fred Rogers’ 90th birthday. Now more than ever, people working with new technologies would do well to follow his example.

One comment

  • Daniel

    Thanks for sharing this, Matt.

    This reinforces the need for (maybe even preemptive) regulation, since we can’t seem to trust the desire of innovators to be socially & ethically careful in light of their competitive pressures and profit motive. I will be curious to see how these now highly salient data privacy/cybersecurity issues in the public eye and their regulatory responses shape AI going forward. Can we ever learn from the lessons of Mr. Rogers before we make terrible missteps?


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