Have you heard of the chaos monkey experiment?
Imagine you let loose a bunch of chimpanzees inside a server room and they start unplugging random cables. Is the infrastructure resilient enough to handle it?
This is what Netflix used as a starting point when building a tool which tests reliability in cloud environments by running failures before they actually happen. This “chaos monkey” system was implemented to encourage developers to build resilience rather than assuming no breakdowns will occur. Inspired by this analogy, the controversial tech entrepreneur Antonio Garcia Martinez published a biography sharing the same name, which is what I want to take a closer look at today.
In the book, the former Twitter advisor and Facebook product manager argue that big tech is the chaos monkeys of society. Despite Garcia Martinez’s controversies (e.g. dedicating the book to “all my enemies” and gleefully boasting that he has “raced sports cars on the 101” and that he lives on a “40-foot sailboat on the San Francisco Bay”), there is no denying that he has sparked a critical debate about the tech establishment and the unforeseen consequences of digital evolution.
There are endless examples to choose from, with the impending doom of more to come, but let’s start with Uber. What happens to the cab industry when we launch an app where prices are slashed and being a driver requires little-to-no experience? Then, there is Airbnb. What happens to a big city housing market that is already suffering when you introduce an app that allows anyone and everyone to rent out their places to tourists instead of residents? What happens to television and cinemas with the rise of streaming services such as Netflix? What happens to our romantic lives at the hands of dating apps? And what happens to abortion rates when we trust an algorithm’s fertility predictions as contraception?
The questions above are only scratching the surface, yet showcase some of the ways that the systems we have taken for granted and our very social fabric are under reconstruction due to technological innovation. Like any kind of evolution, time brings disruption and transformation. Without it, there would be no progress. However, tech has an immense cultural, economic and political influence and it looks like it is advancing at a much faster pace than our understanding of it and the complications that may follow.
A tool or accomplice?
Tech enthusiast Gianluca Mauro recently started an interesting conversation among his followers when he presented them with the chaos monkey thought experiment. Referring to tech as a tool, one follower claimed: “Tools are just tools. They are neither good or bad. It depends on who uses them.” In contrast, it was pointed out that tech is, in fact, not neutral and can be the source of dire consequences when it goes unregulated. The consensus seemed to be that while tech can add much value when used ethically, it is important to evaluate whether the innovation has the capacity to be used ethically and it needs to be regulated to benefit society.
Unfortunately, the ethics of technological progress proves to be a catch-22. If you release tech inventions to the public and hope for the best, you are co-signing to unpredictable risks. On the other hand, if you keep tech from the public, you might find yourself contriuting to tech oligarchy. Regardless of your stance, the discussion keeps coming back to accountability. Both in terms of holding Silicon Valley accountable for the products they unleash into the world, as well as the governments that are failing to protect their citizens due to a lack of reiterative laws. Furthermore, as Mauro’s followers pointed out, exploitation of tech’s potential is often rewarded under capitalism. One user suggested: “I don’t think it’s ‘tech’ that is the monkey; tech is the tool. The monkey is capitalism.”
There are no right or wrong answers in this debate, but the chaos monkey thought experiment encourages some crucial reflections. When we think about the potential dangers of technological advancement, it’s easy to jump right to the scenario of AI turning on humans and taking over the world. However, as you can see, there are many pressing questions about the impacts of digital innovation that are far more imminent than AI sentience.