Must Technology be Predatory?

I spend a lot of time in San Francisco. I hear a lot of platitudes from tech companies about the virtue of disruption. It ushers in new possibilities. Meanwhile, homeless roam the streets. Their numbers are growing while they die in slow motion right in front of us. You harden your heart in order to get on with your day.

Now, in the sixth month of Covid (as we know it), tech workers are fleeing the city for the suburbs and house prices are plummeting. They were always too high, anyway. Perhaps, this will create an opportunity for other people in future but in the meantime it’s making parts of the city look increasingly barren. The seaside tourist traps look like something post-apocalypse. I recently came across a man on a bench overlooking the sea who was taking a nap after he had shat his pants.

This only confirms to me how predatory tech companies - and even their workers - are. Can you imagine thousands of people moving to a place, gentrifying, driving up prices, creating new business opportunities and then suddenly all vacating at once for greener pastures? What other inhabitants of a city behave like that? They are like vultures… or aggressive seagulls (to push the seaside imagery).

In any case, it reminded me of something I wrote a year or two ago which seems prescient (again)…

You are not the Customer - You are the Product

A couple of days ago here in the US, the Mueller investigation indicted 13 Russians for attempting to defraud the 2016 presidential elections. The Russians’ weapon of choice was Facebook. They used it to spread disinformation, fake news about candidates and recruited unwitting Americans to phony groups that put on activist stunts. Radiolab even interviewed Trump supporters who had been organised by the Russians to stage “Lock her up” rallies with actors playing Hilary and Bill trapped in a cage on the back of a pickup truck that toured towns for local press and social media coverage.

It shouldn’t come as any surprise that Facebook was used to influence the outcome of the elections. Given that its 2 billion active users get more than 80% of their news from their Facebook feed, it seems a low-ball estimate that ONLY 160 million Americans saw the fake ads posted by the Russians, as recently made public by the company. Facebook has become the worlds largest media organization - except that they don’t want to be recognized as such. Facebook refuses to embrace the editorial responsibilities that come with the territory and, instead, argues that it is a communications company, like a telco or the post office, and not responsible for the content that travels across its network.

This is disingenuous. Unfortunately, it is also a familiar pattern with this company. Why do they find it so hard to do the right thing? When it comes to security, privacy, and now political dirty tricks, they seem to come down on the wrong side of history. Even now, as I write this, they are part of a fresh controversy in which a wholly false, smear campaign against the victims of the latest school shooting in Florida is climbing the Facebook charts, a conspiracy theory video claiming that the high schools students are in fact paid actors. This video went viral before the company could react to it.

Facebook’s achievements are impressive because most of us feel bombarded and distracted by our devices, overwhelmed by information, and yet we give a great deal of out time and ourselves to the Facebook platform above all others. Facebook won the lion share of the attention economy by training us to obey their signals, select from their menus and activity feeds to narrow our choices and filter out the rest of the world. They show us only what they want us to see, and we seem happy to participate in this Faustian bargain.

Facebook’s ethical dithering is motivated by the same forces as their economic success - which is to say, their own business model. It is a business model in which the consumers are not the customers; they are the product. Consumers get free services in exchange for giving up their private lives to the Facebook surveillance engine. All of our behavior is then data-mined to produce exquisite ad-tergeting tools that categorize us not simply by demographic but also by creating psychographic profiles through artificial intelligence. Facebook advertisers are able to find like-minded or “look-alike” people, irregardless of their outward party political, religious or social affiliations. In other words, Facebook is glimpsing deep within our inner worlds and then selling our souls to the advertisers. And they make a huge amount of money doing this. Currently, at this time of writing, their market cap is $520 billion. To put that in perspective, their market cap is more than four times the size of General Electric, despite employing less than a tenth of its employees (25,000 workers vs 300,000).

Just as organizational structures can dictate hierarchy and relationships, business models align incentives. Facebook’s incentives are not to protect their consumers but to exploit them, because that is their business model. This explains their reluctance to do the right thing by social standards. If they were to stop exploiting consumers, their share price would plunge, and it would negatively affect the other main pillar of capitalism and American society - shareholders. So everything they do, they do to protect advertisers and shareholders.

Technology ethicist Tristan Harris likens Facebook to “a living, breathing crime scene” that has upwards of 5 million advertisers cycling through their system every day without any accoutability to all of that complexity. Facebook engineers are the only ones who have any access to what happened during the election and they haven’t been very forthcoming with the information, unless pressured to do so by government or external forces. Why should they? That would be career suicide.

Facebook doesn’t intend to be the evil empire. Like so many other Silicon Valley megacorporations, they just want to disrupt for disruption sake and make a lot of money doing it, without thinking too much about the long-term consequences. There is little value to having a social conscience when there’s a lot of money to be made by ignoring it. Facebook set out to build the world’s greatest ad-distribution platform and they did; but they also built the world greatest reality distortion field, a mind manipulation machine of epic proportion in the process. Even worse, they are reluctant to contrain it. Perhaps, they don’t even know how to control it - a far more frightening thought.

Technology commentator Zeynep Tufekci says that our media ecology not only makes it easy but also rewarding to spread disinformation and to polarize us. People like to have their prejudices confirmed. The Russians used Facebook exactly as it was intended - as a platform designed for mass influence without any checks or balances. Facebook is a wonderful playground for mischief and not just for advertisers but for anyone that wants to carry out some social engineering. It can amplify the cognitive biases that are already out there and then fully weaponize them.

So many of the Silicon Valley business models are not being geared to the benefit of humanity but for get-rich-quick schemes. Not serving customers but surveilling them. Google has very long and deep ties to the NSA and department of defense, which makes sense given the overlap of business activities and psychological affinity of these organisations. Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter, Facebook - you name it; all of them want to monopolise your time by any means necessary, even if that means repeating very vapid and banal activities, so long as you are captivated by their network long enough to sell you to the Mad Men - Devil may care what comes of it all down the line. This is kicking the can down the road. Nevermind that social media seems to be making more and more people physically and mentally ill. The cause is indirect enough to obscure and the impact small enough to be called collateral damage - at least for now.

Perhaps, none of this is very surprising given the average age of the megacorp tech worker these days. These are not seasoned engineers with lots of experience in life, worldly or otherwise. These are fresh-faced young turks living very sheltered and often privileged lives who believe the Valley to be the center of the Universe. They are kept in a bubble, working ridiculously long hours, not encouraged to question perceived truths or to build groundbreaking technology that will fundamentally change the world and solve intractable problems like global warming, world hunger or disease pandemics. No, they are there to to build a better widget for the ad-brokers.

The ‘ageist’ youth culture of Silicon Valley facilitates a failure to fret about the consequence of its actions. Not only do young people have a short time horizon from which to benefit from experience but they aren’t as deep-thinking or self-reflective as their older counterparts. That is simply a function of age. But they actually believe that their inexperience and lack of awareness is a benefit and the primary driver of their success. “Boss Baby” in chief and founder of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg, even said so a few years back at a Stanford University event. He told the crowd that young people are just smarter (than their thirty plus colleagues). Ah, the arrogance of youth! How charming it is when you don’t know what you don’t know. So, yes, these are the architects of our modern age. They have a profound impact on our society and culture, yet are unburdened by experience and unhindered by history.

Another benefit of this unknowing, short-termism is that Silicon Valley unwittingly cannabalizes the hand that feeds it. It relies heavily upon public research, funded by government grants and universities, as well as social welfare programs provided by the taxpayer to help the people that can’t help themselves. They use these to kickstart their own laboratories and benefit their workplaces without feeling any obligation to give back to society in return. Ultimately, it is us, the tax payer, that picks up the tab for all of these ‘free services’. These companies get to double-dip, once from their advertising customers and once from our public benefit providers.

Some might say that this is just how capitalism works, there are winners and losers. Someone makes a profit when someone else is exploited. If so, then Silicon Valley has architected a very clever business model of smoke and mirrors wherein consumers (the ones being exploited) believe themselves to be the customers (the ones getting the benefits) without having to pay the bill because the tab is picked up by someone else (the advertisers) in the short-term and by the rest of us (taxpayers) in the long term. This makes the real cost to society harder to calculate.

This is a movie I’ve seen before. I am always amazed by the many Uber drivers I meet who are happy that they have a new and flexible way to make money, nevermind that they are forced to juggle multiple jobs without security, pay for their own healthcare, insurance premiums, asset maintenance and all the rest. In this scenario Uber paints itself as a friend of the flex-worker as opposed to being a parasite of the Gig Economy. Aren’t they contributing to the problem rather than solving it?

Somewhere along the line, we have all been trained to accept for this as a good thing, that we should welcome all the instability, polarization and insecurity that technology has given us as the price for innovation. But are we really getting the innovation that we think we are? Remember, the technologists are really just building better ad-brokering services for the attention deficit economy. They aren’t contributing solutions to the real problems looming on the horizon. And to fuel their operation, they hire the most wide-eyed and innocent, the least politically ‘woke’ people that they can find. Actually, let me rephrase that. Older and more cunning people - the grey haired bankers and VC’s - lure the best and brightest to occupy Wall Street from the inside and helm the Silicon Valley startups in order to craft algorithms that monetize the low-hanging fruit while contributing to economic and social chaos.

In many ways, Zuckerberg is the poster child for the naivete that infects Silicon Valley. It is a place run by idiot savants that are incredibly smart and capable in their narrow fields of interest but equally oblivous to everything else, especially to the ethical and moral dilemmas that they foment. And the grey-haired manipulators who value money over conscience and youth over experience are too clever by half. Like modern day Frankensteins, they have created monsters that they do not fully understand nor really know how to control.