Blog contributor and technology veteran Rachel Parker clarifies her view on the perils of our current discourse around big tech
In early 2018, I was watching former Facebook board member and its CEO’s mentor, Roger McNamee leverage Bill Maher’s considerable platform as the first featured guest on that night’s Real Time. Seated next to the host of the venerable HBO infotainment mainstay, McNamee warned about the perils not just of social media, but of big tech in general.
Was his proclamation about the ad duopoly of Facebook and Google threatening the very existence of journalism itself? No. Was it about the burgeoning power that Amazon held over nearly everything from Main Street retail, to online traffic, and also healthcare? No.
Was it about the lack of regulation that up to that point had allowed Google and Apple to own a duopoly on the app market? No. Was it about how a lack of cooperation between the Tier 1 ISPs and the U.S. government was leading to information deserts in rural America where high speed broadband had yet to proliferate?
Did he clarify that our march to embrace this often under-defined concept of “open source” had led us to embrace massive platforms that - as Recode’s co-founder and tech’s most prolific and informed critic Kara Swisher has stated time and time again - has given us everything for free in exchange for all of our personal information and secrets? No.
Like all lurking monsters of public policy, nothing throws off the scent like a perceived monster to frighten the public and gobble up their attention...while the true horror show unfolds in the background.
McNamee had a rapt audience in Maher. The latter has been prattling on for years about social media, talking down to his audience like we are all overgrown children who are unable to put down our digital screens for five minutes to give our attention to more worthy media (presumably, him). The problem is that well-intentioned pundits like Maher don’t understand technology or the machinations behind it, which makes him a prime audience for someone like McNamee, a kajillionaire veteran of the Valley, who warned in that interview (among other things) that “brain hacking” was getting people “addicted” to their cell phones.
There are two problems with his theory. One, it’s bullshit. Is it a term that the “move fast and break things” crowd uses liberally (as if it were actual, you know, science)? Sure. The problem is the lack of science behind it and the distracting path that the very paranoia behind it caused in the earliest days of skepticism about surveillance capitalism. That argument: The fundamental problem with social media platforms is that they are literally addictive.
My big beef with this discussion is that it started and ended like many of the critiques of big tech have played out over the years. It began with fear mongering (which I’ll concur has some absolutely valid concerns, especially as it relates to screen time and bullying among others) and ended with us all nodding collectively in agreement and yet...nothing has changed.
There are surely problems with our constant use of cell phones but addiction is hardly one of them. (If you can stomach a rich, smug, white guy talking about the Frankenstein monster that he helped knowingly create prattle on during one of the most treacly and disingenuous apology tours I’ve ever personally witnessed from a Silicon Valley billionaire like him, you can do so here). I’m sure that this interview made silver-haired would-be social critics like Maher and McNamee feel better about pointing their long wands at “the kids” who are being led down the garden path by monsters like Zuckerberg et al. I’m also sure it helped sell copies of the book that McNamee was pimping at the time.
What it didn’t do was educate an increasingly ignorant public about what the real dangers of very, very large companies are, and how simple (and still as of this writing non-existent) anti-monopolistic legislation would undermine precisely how a company like Facebook can thrive with impunity.
Again, I’m not arguing the logic that so-called “filter bubbles” are problematic. The advertising algorithms that all online platforms use prolifically are a massive problem when it comes to the dissemination of fascist imagery, fake science, and buzzwords posing as baseless theories. Does our usage of social media, as McNamee states in this interview with the Guardian, where he openly criticized Silicon Valley from the vaulted position of an insider who was an ally and colleague of Facebook co-founder (O.G so-called brain hacktivist himself, Tristan Harris), lead to “addictions” which make us vulnerable to manipulation?
Would that it were that simple, or curable, or, you know, medicinal. Social media, and its echo-chamber looping that it creates is less than ideal. Arguably, they’re terrible and probably led to the insurrection of January 6th. Russian troll bots who utilize Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter’s penchant for anonymity surely were and are something that requires assessment. Lying, though, and misinformation is not a byproduct of addiction. (We’ll dig into that in a minute.)
The kernel of truth that I appreciate from his Guardian article is that McNamee at least hints at the incurable nature of the big tech problem that plagues us and will continue to plague us until they either police themselves or Congress steps in: Their monopolistic behavior.
“[Facebook and Google] were very much in the business of manipulating attention in order to get you to spend more time on [their services]. And that is a very dangerous business model for society. It’s bad for the mental health of the people who use it. It’s terrible for democracy. It’s completely destroyed any sense of privacy, and it’s undermined entrepreneurship in the United States, because these companies essentially pick off one industry at a time and disrupt it in a way that destroys the old without replacing it with something of equal value.”
Listen, I can’t disagree with a word of that. I understand why men like him are respected when “the call is coming from inside the house” so to speak. We absolutely need more tech insiders to speak out against the massive platforms they’ve created that he correctly points out disrupt entire industries without consequence.
The entire technology industry as we know it today has long behaved without thought or even inquiry into the consequences of their platforms or billions in revenues. Morality, to them, is sort of an “old hat” term that they leave to the billions of their denizens using their considerable infrastructure to work out for ourselves. Facebook is a terrible, awful company. YouTube (a free, open-source CDN essentially for the masses) is a stupid, stupid, stupid business model. (If you broke out such a business from its wealthy and profitable parent, the very cost of the video it streams in a day would make it untenable as a company.) I’ve seen those arguments, or versions of them, many times, but I think it’s rare that they get filtered to the public in the right way.
When it comes to the tech giants, this conversation (and ones like it) that center on the social media platforms ignore the real giants in the room: Amazon and Google. Our latest obsession with how we moderate popular social media platforms, which is the primary motivation of wanna be populists like Missouri Senator Josh Hawely, we need to address the problems of the valley itself.
Is addiction and brain hacking the problem? As if, and once again, no. The problem, if it could be so succinctly boiled down into one word is this: Amazon.
Censorship is Not a Problem, Period, The End
Journalists like Glenn Greenwald and Matt Taibbi have recently been obsessed with the sloppy and half-handed job that online companies (they mean largely Facebook and Twitter) are doing at moderating their platforms. The argument that Greenwald et al are consistently making is that as Twitter is the new public square, censoring speech on Twitter (or Facebook or YouTube) is tantamount to censoring speech period. (I am sympathetic that being a professional journalist, particularly on the left, arguably mandates a Twitter presence. I personally haven’t been active on Twitter for close to 10 years. Also: I hate it. It’s a sewer of misogyny, fake profiles, and hate speech.) That may be an interesting intellectual argument to slice for two men (who let’s be clear, I admire, respect and read) who are representing a sort of moralistic intellectual audience of speech advocates who still have never, for five minutes, worked in the tech industry.
That’s where my experience veers significantly from them. Greenwald started his profession as a lawyer, and Taibbi has been a journalist most of his life and career. Where I, on the other hand, finally accepted at the tender age of 30 that maybe a career in independent film wasn’t going to work out, landed a job at a “dot com” in 1999. I, like them, was a writer. Unlike them, I was a writer who was about to embark on what is now a 20 year career working for tech start-ups.
My resume is actually pretty boring, but it’s the kind of bread and butter CV that usually turns heads when someone who knows and understands the tech space reads it. I spent six fun and informative years as a marketing director for a service that shotgunned press releases into newsrooms.
From there, I consulted for maybe a half a dozen companies with varying degrees of success. Most of them never took off. One of them was sold (as was the distribution service). Buried in there were two stints at would-be online video solutions: One, a set top box that pivoted into nowhere and another that positioned itself as a 21-st century broadband video delivery system.
I was hired for the former based on my experience and connections from the latter. The whole thing crumbled in a Fyre Festival-like story of a bullshitter who swindled a few million bucks from a friend of mine, which is very much par for the course in that world. So, what started out as a would-be adjunct to content delivery networks (this was in 2008, so just prior to Netflix’s ascension into streaming services) and technology partner to the studios, devolved into insolvency and the usual smoke and mirrors.
That ignominious (as a colleague put it) demise did not happen before I had the opportunity to get elbow deep in the real mechnations of the internet: the backbone providers or the Tier 1 ISPs. I’d been working in and around technology for nearly 10 years at that point, so I knew enough to be able to sit in a room and sound smart. I also knew enough to ask questions when bluffing would make me look like an idiot.
“I spent a lot of time with powerful engineers and lawyers” isn’t very sexy, but that’s what it was and that’s where I was for just over a year. It taught me a lot, and that kind of knowledge only deepens over time.
The Public Isn’t Getting the Right Message From, Well, Anywhere
What I’ve noticed is that the consumer media largely doesn’t understand how the internet works. (For the record, that became evident when, while working at the would-be video thing, the Net Neutrality debate was in full swing.) There’s nothing that can replace the knowledge that comes with talking to network engineers and peering managers for the world’s largest ISPs—the very companies who make connectivity possible—when you have a New York Times story in front of you.
Engineers, no matter where or who they work for, are the most apolitical people on earth. They don’t care about bias or party affiliation or any of that. What they do care about is bullshit and nonsense. Sitting next to people like that at long conference tables and listening to them talk about what the media was getting wrong, was clarifying.
I’ve followed many writers over the years, and easily took for granted the knowledge and instincts that my career afforded me. My husband knows he can pause a story on any podcast or platform and sit me down in front of it and say “Is this a reasonable argument” and trust that I’ll confirm whether or not it is, particularly if it discusses the business of cloud computing, online advertising, and the increasing power of Amazon.
I’ve been reading about technology in and around engineers who build things for the Internet for over two decades and I still don’t think there’s a single source of information that’s easily digestible for the average consumer...that also happens to be accurate. The newspapers mostly follow the political angles. The financial press are slaves to earnings reports. Technology publications are infatuated with newness and the personalities in the industry.
Lately, the discourse around social media and tech is so bad, that I spent a few hours recently digging around for at least something that framed the latest battle (this one over a sliver of a law called “Section 230”) and came up with the same basic result. No one in DC has the slightest idea of what they’re talking about, the tech press is still largely having conversations with its own insiders, and that’s leaving well-meaning consumers and actual voters in an information vacuum.
What the Hell is Section 230?
Section 230 is all of what remains of a law that was passed in 1996 (the Communications Decency Act) by a bunch of conservative lawmakers whose primary interest was limiting the dissemination of porn on the Internet. Two senators (a republican and Ron Wyden from Oregon, who is still in his seat) attached a provision to the law that would protect foundling ISPs who were still in their infancy as consumer service providers would not be treated like publishers or TV networks.
Publishers or networks, after all, produce their own content and are therefore more connected to it. The section basically insists that ISPs are different, in that they don’t author or produce the information that sits on their networks. Rather, they just provide the infrastructure for it to exist in the first place. The argument goes something like this: if a newspaper publishes something libelous, you can’t sue the trucking company that delivered it to the newsstand (or something like that). In 1996, there was good logic that if you made those tiny, brand-new companies liable for what their users said on the hundreds (if not thousands) of chat rooms cropping up by way of their data lines, then the whole baby internet comes crashing down, and along with it, the potential for a ton of First Amendment problems.
When the ACLU sued to have the courts overturn the legislation, it worked. The Supreme Court almost always supports the rights of speech. The ONE part of the law to survive was section 230.
The argument that we should now revisit it and that somehow creating a liability loophole for Facebook will amend the problems of both monopolies and hate speech is misjudged (Democrats!) or downright cynical (Josh Hawley).
The pros/cons for amending it or getting rid of it are a lot of things, but mostly, they’re pointless. The highest court in the U.S. has already literally spoken on the matter. Touch one hair on the figurative head of 230? The ACLU and organizations like the Electronic Freedom Foundation are going to bombard the courts with complaints. It becomes a political football and no one touches it.
That’s my fear. Just like the “social media is addictive” movement didn’t stop Facebook from nearl