The Cassandras — the real technology heroes of 2018

The first decades of widespread web and smartphone technologies brought excitement about how digital tools were helping people feel more connected, can challenge authorities and make life easier. Feelings about technology have soured over the past couple of years as people assess the downsides of technology and the companies that are creating it. 

The story of 2018 in technology is one of grappling with the bad influence of many popular technologies. That’s why the stars for this moment of reckoning are the Cassandras [taken from Greek mythology, referring to those who give valid warnings or concerns that are dismissed or disbelieved], who were sounding the alarm about technology’s dark sides before most of the world caught on.

People such as Renée DiResta, Tristan Harris and Lina Khan are sleuthing the spread of misinformation online, identifying the characteristics of new-economy monopolists and warning about the harm of technology over-use.

Their ideas have shaped opinions of lawmakers and regulators, technology executives, academics, journalists, investors and the wider public. These outsiders are seeking to make technology more humane, accountable and maybe less powerful, and their views have flipped from fringe to the mainstream.

The Cassandras played a significant role in forming an analytical foundation for technology scepticism. DiResta, a former Wall Street trader turned technology worker and entrepreneur, first attracted attention for tracking bogus information about vaccines that spread on Facebook. What she found — initially in her spare time — helped unlock how internet hangouts, such as Facebook, tend to feed people information that reinforces their views, inflate the popularity of fringe beliefs and lead people from one conspiracy to others.