rants

Technopoly Not Technology Is The Problem

What is responsible for the problems we’re having with Big Tech?

In the late 1990s, the end of the century was shaping up to look like the End of History, a capitalist utopia. The Internet was still the “information superhighway” and it was going to make us all smarter and our lives more convenient. The revanchist Russia and wealthy but authoritarian China we contend with today were unthinkable. Wealth and stability derived from liberal democracy and fueled by free-flowing information was going to triumph everywhere.

But somewhere between the attacks of September 11th and the election of Donald Trump things got all mixed up. For the convenience of online shopping and instant connection with our loved ones we seem to be paying a high price in anxiety and mass, institution-wide incompetence. Smartphones have even been blamed for the 25% increase in the suicide rate in the United States since 1999, a rate which has doubled for teens in the last ten years. Nobody seems to know how we got here, but we’re all pretty worked up about it.

That’s why, when I picked up a copy of the latest issue of Harper’s with the cover story “The Dark Hole of Social Media, How the Internet Subverts Democracy,” I thought I was going to read a satisfying hit piece about Facebook and Mark Zuckerberg. The company he and Cheryl Sandberg run has been blamed for allowing the distribution of propaganda by foreign powers, launching its own antisemitic attacks against George Soros, and of wantonly sharing private customer data to seize market share.

I was looking forward to a few thousand words of Schadenfreude, as the headline promised. Instead, I got something better but tougher to stomach. I got an argument stating that the problem with technology isn’t the algorithms or the screens that regulate our lives. It isn’t the corruption or greed of the people who manage the algorithms or sell the screens. It isn’t even the people who manipulate technology to win market share or elections. The problem is our belief that we can turn over our most vital decisions to non-human systems.

In the words of Fred Turner, the Stanford communications professor who wrote the Harper’s piece, “The new authoritarianism represented by [white nationalist Richard] Spencer and Trump is not only a product of who owns today’s media. It’s also a product of the political vision that helped drive the creation of social media in the first place–a vision that distrusts public ownership and the political process while celebrating engineering as an alternative form of governance.”

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In the new age of nuclear threat, social media is a horror

Today, Trump will likely announce his intention to de-certify the Iran Nuclear Deal, which, since 2015, has successfully pulled Iran back from the brink of developing nuclear weapons. This is close to the top story on traditional American news outlets, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal. The same goes for international English-speaking publications like The Economist and The Guardian.

Trending on twitter today? Outlandish clothing worn last night by famous people at The Met Gala in New York City.

With the threat of nuclear weapons on the Korean peninsula and more world-killing devices in the arsenals of the U.S. and Russia, this type of distraction is—without exaggeration—life threatening.

The moments of the Cold War when the world came close to incineration, both the Cuban Missile Crisis and lesser known incidents like the Andropov Affair of 1983, were managed by people in power whose disciplined, focused attention was wielded skillfully, at just the right moments in time. A few uttered words, a few well-placed phone calls, and in each case the world was saved. Had their attention been less focused, we might all be dead by now. With just minutes to decide whether to launch a strike, the kind of mental focus most of us have trouble mustering in the age of social media is, for a few, a life or death commodity.

Is it inconceivable that Trump’s thumb could wander from the button on his smart phone to the Button in the nuclear briefcase? Are we one “covfefe” away from the end of civilization?

It is true that when Nixon drank in the evenings, his national security advisor asked the staff to run any decisions to launch a nuclear strike by him first. And it is true that Reagan’s dementia may well have set in long before he left office. But these men governed a country which was eloquently and forcefully debating how to comprehend and exercise the full responsibility of possessing nuclear weapons. Public figures like Carl Sagan and Lewis Thomas discussed nuclear weapons in print and on television with a gravitas and sense of responsibility that nobody has time for anymore.

Silicon Valley, which has designed the organs of our current public debate, is not big on either gravitas or responsibility. Mark Zuckerberg, whose media platform played a huge role in the election of the man who controls our nuclear weapons, failed even to show up the first time he was summoned by Congress.

Without much choice, we live in a world of horrors and entertainments which flick past us with an ephemeral slightness that, in the pre-digital era, would have been characterized only by an overheard remark or a bug to be swatted out of our peripheral vision. In matters of life and death, we have only the “recent, careless thoughts” of distant, distracted human beings to rely on, if such worries even occur to us.

Meanwhile, the shock of the people whose courage and attention were just enough to get us through the first decades of life on earth with nuclear weapons, are relegated to the front pages of newspapers and published books where, like the senators on the Capitoline Hill after the fall of the Roman Republic, they speak for nobody.