Tech Angels and Devils
October 19, 2017
For our podcast topic this week, we discuss the changing public perceptions of tech giants — Google, Facebook, Apple and Amazon — and their power in and over our lives. Once seen as the facilitators of a potential techno-utopia, they’re now seen as … threats? Technology is no longer seen as neutral; It is, after all, created by people. And, the user is less and less seen as being in control; rather, we are being controlled. For instance, recently, Facebook’s tools have been used to undermine the US democratic process. But, where are we headed next? Join us as we discuss.
Tech Giants, Once Seen as Saviors, Are Now Viewed as Threats
Once seen as maybe techno-saviors, they’re now seen as maybe threats. Recently, of course Facebook has run into all kinds of trouble because their tools had been used to undermine the US democratic process. As a larger part of this discussion, the question of whether the techno utopia we seek is really there or if it’s really just another way for large companies to get their fingers into our collective financial pie.
Let’s start off with sort of a angel-devil analysis of each of our favorite tech giants. Maybe we’ll start with Google. On the angel side, of course, we have this wonderful search capability and their mission to catalog all of the world’s information, pretty stout algorithm for doing so, and all kinds of free tools for collaborating with your creative partners on everything from writing to slides to what have you. Not to mention, their ventures into emerging technologies and genomics. They’ve got this wonderful portfolio, and frankly, there’s all kinds of reasons that I use Google on sort of a regular day to day basis. There’s the angel side of Google. Dirk, you want to do the devil side or should I dig into that too?
Additionally, you have all of this information, whether it’s genomic data or sensor data or what have you that’s slowly being collected by Alphabet, you know, sort of Google larger company there, and we are not sure what exactly they’re going to do with it. Ostensibly, it’s for research and other things, but you know, people are people, so you have to imagine that profit motive is also going to be a driving factor, which may turn out to be good things or may not turn out to be so good. There’s my angel-devil analysis of Google.
For Facebook, I would say sort of their biggest sin of late … start with the devil side … is that they’re monetizing just about everybody’s kinds of traffic. If you want to buy ads that are racist or are going to drive some sort of hate speech, go to Facebook and you can do that sort of thing. That’s been well documented in the news, not to mention the fake news problem, which if you’re getting all of your social media from Facebook and your news is being filtered through Facebook, then it’s very likely that you’re going to end up with some news that isn’t really news at all.
On the plus side, I suppose it’s nice to see a photo from someone you knew in high school once that you used to talk to occasionally. I try to avoid Facebook as much as possible. You know, occasionally you’re looking at a photo or something like that, seeing a person’s update, but I try to stay away because it feels like a time suck to be voyeuristically looking into other people’s lives. I know that doesn’t sound like the angel side of it, but that’s actually the side that people go there for, to keep in touch with their social network and I could sort of care less.
Next on our, and our last company to take through the angel v devil outline here, Amazon. I’ve sort of struggled with my impressions of Amazon because I understand as an organization, they’re very savage, I think, is one word for it. It strikes me that they’ve gotten an awful lot of rough internal competition to provide for their customers the experience that they do. There was actually a New York Times piece on … sort of exposé on how backstabbing and culturally tough Amazon is, even amongst tech companies. I just know from talking to folks who have worked at Amazon that there is some truth there in that piece.
So those are two things, internal machinations and the variable pricing that you just have to keep a sharp eye on lest you spend way more than you intended on products. The reason that we’ve gone through this dissection of angels and devils in our favorite tech companies is …
There’s this confluence of things and then combining it with this interesting moral discussion around technology and whether this is all good for us or not. I think we’re starting to ask more and more of those questions in light of the presidential election, but also in light of things where we realize that there are algorithms making decisions for us now, and that’s been an important point on our show. Whether it’s algorithms, software, even our hardware, all made by people. People are universally flawed, so we have this technology and we’re beginning to see some of the flaws in it and the flaws in the companies that make that. Dirk, you have a skeptical inquiry around a lot of these things. What’s your take on this change of mood around our biggest tech companies here?
There’s been a natural arc where as these companies were rising, people are generally feeling really good them. They’re making our lives better, we’re happy because they’re new, we identify with them, they become part of our identity in a certain way. Then as they grow and become really powerful, that shifts, because now there’s mix of fear and envy and just discomfort. To use an analogy that’s maybe a little more everyday. I mean think about here in the Boston area, the New England Patriots. When the New England Patriots first surprisingly won the Superbowl, everybody in America loved them. As they were successful over a number of years, people still liked them. They were sort of forcing themselves to become part of the narrative of football history in a neat way. So yeah, three Superbowls in four years, fantastic, people love them.
But as they keep winning and keep winning and keep winning, it turns. You have the couple of scandals, it turns more. Now, the joke is nobody outside of Boston likes … not only likes the Patriots, they all want the Patriots, they all want the Patriots to lose more than any other team. It’s a product of how we psychologically interact with and juxtapose ourselves with other things. These tech companies, the GAFA companies, they’re at their New England Patriots moment of … they have so much success, they’re so big, they’re doing a lot of stupid things now, things that make us question where they’re going in the future that we’re turning on them pretty quickly, pretty quickly. Even just five years ago, I think the mood and the tone was very, very different.
That sort of perception, like psychology, that’s part of it. Another part of it look, I mean these are corporations. They exist to make profits. The tools that they are creating, the services that they offer, the products, these are things that in some utopia that we’re not going to reach anytime soon here, could be leveraged for incredible good for the human condition. It could really uplevel the quality of our lives in various and sundry ways. Both us in the culture who can presently afford the stuff, but also the people who currently can’t. I mean it could be rising tides globally in amazing ways.
However, these corporations exist to make money. Their goal is to make money, and now that they have beaten their competitors out of markets, their behavior is going to become more and more dysfunctional because it can be, because they don’t need to compete and compete in better, cleaner, more desirable ways to succeed. Now they’re going to optimize, they’re going to squeeze what they can out, and the people who are going to suffer ostensibly are their lower level employees and consumers, and the societies and countries that house them.
Those are just two quick ones off the top of my head, but yeah, I’m very skeptical, both from a perception standpoint and my own sort of human weaknesses and frailties, but also from an intellectual perspective of … these companies don’t have very good places to go. We don’t have, as humans, a shared sense of the way the world should be. We all have different conceptions what is morality, what is right, what is wrong, what is truth. Even within a small subcommunity here in the United States, let alone the whole United States, let alone the whole world, we have totally fractured ideas of what is the way that things should be. It becomes impossible to drive towards some better reality because we don’t have the same sense of what that better reality is.
There’s an anthropologist in the 20th century named Clare Graves who did research around the whole world, longitudinal research, and what he discovered was that there is a predictable evolutionary progress and path that happens at social, societal civilization level even, let’s say, as well as just from the macro all the way down to the micro, of the journey of a single individual human. In these different levels, not everyone continues moving up the levels to get to the higher, more evolved, more healthful levels. But, if we are evolving and progressing, it is in these very predictable ways. Regardless of where we’re from, regardless of if it’s 20th century or 1st century, regardless of ethnics … anything, anything. He found these patterns that were consistent across all of human history, within his ability to study it, at least.
The problem is, we’re all in totally different places. To use some of the language that’s built on top of Graves’ theories, the people who are the real staunch conservatives who are against things like gay marriage, who are going to keep their guns because the goddamned Constitution says they can have their guns. Those people, in Graves’ conception are in a lower evolutionary point than people who are more socially progressive. Even the people now who are super social progressives are not operating in an optimal way. There operating in ways … there’s a writer Ken Wilbur who calls it the green ceiling, that liberals keep hitting their head on the green ceiling. They’re not able to get up to the real levels of enlightenment and evolution.
The point I’m making here in ways that might be a little bit abstract for the purpose of this radio show is that we are so disjointed as people across our countries, across our cultures, and just across where we are on the evolutionary spectrum of how we function as beings, that getting beyond the hard scrabble … these companies are going to make a profit, they’re going to optimize, they’re going to squeeze, they’re going to fuck is in the end … there’s just no path to get beyond that right now. The stories there, I can tell the story, I could write the path, but going from theory to reality and implementation, we’re nowhere on that journey. These giant tech companies have become these enormous weapons out there that are going to do damage hither and yon, and they’re going to be protected by countries that want to profit from them, they’re going to be protected by their board of directors and their shareholders who want to continue to maximize those profits into the future, and around we go.
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