If the latest tech revelations have proven anything, it’s that the endless cycle of jaw-dropping headlines and concomitant corporate apologetics has changed exactly nothing.
Over and over, the pattern repeats. A journalist, researcher, or concerned citizen finds some appalling externality associated with one of our largest technology platforms. Representatives from the indicted company wring their hands, take down the offending content and/or de-platform the offending accounts, all the while assuring us “we actively police violations of our terms of service and are always looking to improve our service.”
Let’s look at this past week’s YouTube debacle as an exemplar.
Day one, a former YouTuber posts a video and commentary on Reddit laying out how YouTube’s recommendation algorithms have enabled pedophiliacs to thrive on the platform.
Day two, a handful of advertisers declare their shock, pulling ads from the platform.
Day three, YouTube issues a statement: …”we have clear policies prohibiting this on YouTube….We enforce these policies aggressively, reporting it to the relevant authorities, removing it from our platform and terminating accounts. We continue to invest heavily in technology, teams and partnerships with charities to tackle this issue.” The company also deletes hundreds of accounts and tens of millions of pedophilic comments.
Advertisers shrug, wait for the controversy to die out, then renew their buys. According to industry publication Digiday, most advertisers simply ignored the issue altogether. “YouTube is such a brand-unsafe environment. But it works. They give you the views, they give you the conversions,” is how an advertising agency executive responded to the story.
That simple phrase explains the root problem with all our tech platforms, whether it’s Uber hollowing out our public infrastructure, Facebook hollowing out our civic discourse, Instagram hollowing out our children’s self esteem and civility, Amazon hollowing out our commercial marketplaces, or Airbnb (yes, sorry, same business, better branding) hollowing out our cities’ economic and cultural diversity. These platforms *work* for their intended constituents – whether they be advertisers, consumers, or shareholders (especially shareholders). They are radically efficient artificial business intelligences doing exactly what they’ve been programmed to do. They work.
These are our most celebrated economic successes, paragons of a forty-year march of neoliberal economic theory in lock step with automated, data-driven technologies. They are uniquely American – prizing the convenience, liberty, and agency of the individual (and the shareholder) above all else.
And we are finally realizing they – and by extension we – are destroying our social fabric.
After years of growing dissent, a burgeoning coalition of academics, policymakers, journalists and yes, even a few techno-capitalists have come to realize that it’s time to change our definition of what “working” really means.
It won’t be easy. We Americans prize convenience and winning over pretty much everything else. Amazon, Google, Facebook, Uber – these companies are massively convenient winners – at least by the definitions that have framed the American political economy these past four decades. Forcing this change will test our society’s ability to work together toward a common good. But if our industry doesn’t change fundamentally, I’m increasingly convinced it will fail – slowly first, then all at once. More on that in the next post.