I’ll never forget a meal I had with a senior executive at Facebook many years ago, back when I was just starting to question the motives of the burgeoning startup’s ambition. I asked whether the company would ever support publishers across the “rest of the web” – perhaps through an advertising system competitive with Google’s AdSense. The executive’s response was startling and immediate. Everything anyone ever needs to do – including publishing – can and should be done on Facebook. The rest of the Internet was a sideshow. It’s just easier if everything is on one platform, I was told. And Facebook’s goal was to be that platform.
Those words still ring in my ears as we celebrate the 30th anniversary of the web today. And they certainly should inform our perspective as we continue to digest Facebook’s latest self-involved epiphany.
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.”
This is an edited version of a series of talks I first gave in New York over the past week, outlining my work at Columbia. Many thanks to Reinvent, Pete Leyden, Cap Gemini, Columbia University, Cossette/Vision7, and the New York Times for hosting and helping me.
Every year I write predictions for the year ahead. And at the end of that year, I grade myself on how I did. I love writing this post, and thankfully you all love reading it as well. These “How I Did” posts are usually the most popular of the year, beating even the original predictions in readership and engagement.
What’s that about, anyway? Is it the spectacle of watching a guy admit he got things wrong? Cheering when I get it right? Perhaps it’s just a chance to pull back and review the year that was, all the while marveling at how much happened in twelve short months. And 2018 does not disappoint.
Here we go:
Prediction #1: Crypto/blockchain dies as a major story. Cast yourself back to late 2017 when Bitcoin was pushing $20,000 and the entire tech sector was obsessed with blockchain everything. ICOs were raising hundreds of millions of dollars, the press was hyping (or denigrating) it all, and the fools were truly rushing in. In my prediction post, I struck a more measured tone: “…there’s simply too much real-but-boring work to be done right now in the space. Does anyone remember 1994? Sure, it’s the year the Mozilla team decamped from Illinois to the Valley, but it’s not the year the Web broke out as a mainstream story. That came a few years later. 2018 is a year of hard work on the problems that have kept blockchain from becoming what most of us believe it can truly become. And that kind of work doesn’t keep the public engaged all year long.” I think I got that right. Bitcoin has crashed to earth, and those who remain in the space are deep in the real work – which I still believe to be fundamentally important to the future of not only tech, but society as well. Score: 10/10
Prediction #2: Donald Trump blows up. I don’t usually make political predictions, but by 2017, Trump was the story, bigger than politics, and bigger than tech. I wrote: “2018 is the year [Trump] goes down, and when [he] does, it will happen quickly (in terms of its inevitability) and painfully slowly (in terms of it actually resolving). This of course is a terrible thing to predict for our country, but we got ourselves into this mess, and we’ll have to get ourselves out of it. It will be the defining story of the year.” I think I also got this one right. Trump is done – nearly everyone I trust in politics agrees with that statement. I won’t recount all the reasons, but here are a few: No fewer than 17 ongoing investigations of the President and/or his organizations. A tanking stock market that has lost all faith in the President’s leadership. Nearly 40 actual indictments and several high profile guilty verdicts. A Democratic majority in the House preparing an endless barrage of subpoenas and investigations. And a Republican party finally ready to abandon its leader. Net net: Trump is toast. It’s just going to take a while for that final pat of butter. Score: 10/10
Prediction #3: Facts make a comeback. Here’s what I wrote in support of this assertion: “2018 is the year the Enlightenment makes a robust return to the national conversation. Liberals will finally figure out that it’s utterly stupid to blame the “other side” for our nation’s troubles. Several viral memes will break out throughout the year focused on a core narrative of truth and fact. The 2018 elections will prove that our public is not rotten or corrupt, but merely susceptible to the same fever dreams we’ve always been susceptible to, and the fever always breaks. A rising tide of technology-driven engagement will help drive all of this.” I’d like to claim I nailed this one, but I think the trend lines are supportive. Real journalism had a banner year, with subscriptions to high-integrity publications breaking records year on year. Most smart liberals have realized that the politics of blame is a losing game. And I was happily right about the 2018 elections, which was one of the most definitive rebukes of a sitting President in the history of our nation. As for those “viral memes” I predicted, I’m not sure how I might prove or disprove that assertion – none come to mind, but I may have missed something, given what a blur 2018 turned out to be. Alas, that “rising tide of technology-driven engagement” was a pretty useless statement. Everything these days is tech-driven…so I deserve to be dinged for that pablum. But overall? Not bad at all. Score: 7/10
Prediction #4: Tech stocks overall have a sideways year. It might be hard to give me credit for this one, given how the FANG names have tanked over the past few months, but cast your mind back to when I wrote this prediction, in late December: Tech stocks were doing nothing but going up. And where are they now? After continuing to climb for months, they’re….mostly where they started the year. Sideways. Apple started at around 170, and today is at … 156. Google started at 1048, and is now at…1037. Amazon and Netflix did better, rising double digit percentages, but plenty of other tech stocks are down significantly year on year. The tech-driven Nasdaq index started the year at around 7000, as of today, it’s down to 6600. So, some up, some down, and a whole lot of … sideways. As I wrote: “All the year-in-review stock pieces will note that tech didn’t drive the markets in the way they have over the past few years. This is because the Big Four have some troubles this coming year.” Ummm….yep, and see the next two predictions… Score: 9/10.
Prediction #6: Google/Alphabet will have a terrible first half (reputation wise), but recover after that. Well, in my original post, I predicted a #MeToo shoe dropping around Google Chairman Eric Schmidt. That didn’t happen exactly, though the whisper-ma-phone was sure running hot for the first few months of the year, and a massive sexual misconduct scandal eventually broke out later in the year. But even if I was wrong on that one point, it’s true the company had a bad first half, and for the most part, a pretty terrible year overall. In March, it had a government AI contract blow up in its face, leading to employee protests and resignations. This trend only continued throughout the year, culminating in thousands of employees walking out in protest of the company’s payouts to alleged sexual harassers. Oh, and that empty chair at Congressional hearings sure didn’t help the company’s reputation. I also predicted more EU fines: Check! A record-breaking $5 billion fine, to be exact. Further, news the company was creating a censored version of its core search engine in China also tarnished big G. But I whiffed when I mulled how the company might get its mojo back: I predicted it would consider breaking itself up and taking the parts public. That didn’t happen (as far as we know). Instead, Google CEO Sundar Pichai finally relented, showing up to endure yet another act in DC’s endless string of political carnivals. Pichai acquitted himself well enough to support my assertion that Google began to recover by year’s end. But as recoveries go, it’s a fragile one. Score: 8/10.
Prediction #7: The Duopoly falls out of favor. This was my annual prediction around the digital advertising marketplace, focused on Facebook and (again) Google. In it, I wrote: “This doesn’t mean year-on-year declines in revenue, but it does mean a falloff in year-on-year growth, and by the end of 2018, a increasingly vocal contingent of influencers inside the advertising world will speak out against the companies (they’re already speaking to me privately about it). One or two of them will publicly cut their spending and move it to other places.” This absolutely occurred. I’ve already chronicled Google’s travails in 2018, and there’s simply not enough pixels to do the same for Facebook. This New York Times piece lays out how advertisers have responded: No Morals. In the piece, and many others like it, top advertisers, including the CEO of a major agency, went on the record decrying Facebook – giving me cause for a #humblebrag, if I do say so myself. Oh, and yes, both Facebook and Google posted lower revenue growth rates year on year. Score: 10/10.
Prediction #8: Pinterest breaks out. As I wrote in my original post: “This one might prove my biggest whiff, or my biggest “nailed it.” Well, near the end of 2018, a slew of reports predicted that Pinterest is about to file for a massive IPO. As if by magic, the world woke up to Pinterest. It seems I was right – but as of yet, the IPO has not been confirmed. So…I’ll not score myself a 10 on this one, but if Pinterest does have a successful IPO early next year, I reserve the right to go back and add a couple of points. Score: 8/10.
Prediction #9: Autonomous vehicles do not become mainstream. Driverless cars have been “just around the corner” for what feels like forever. By late 2017, everyone in the business was claiming they’d breakout within a year. But that didn’t happen, regardless of the hype around the first “commercial launch” by Waymo in Phoenix a few weeks ago. I’m sorry, but a “launch” limited to 400 pre-selected and highly vetted beta ain’t mainstream – it’s not even a service in any defensible way. We’re still a long, long way off from this utopian vision. Our cities can’t even figure out what to do with electric scooters, for goodness sake. It’ll be a coon’s age before they figure out driverless cars. Score: 9/10.
Prediction #10: Business leads. I think I need to avoid these spongy predictions, because it’s super hard to prove whether or not they came true. 2018 showed us plenty of examples of business leadership along the lines of what I predicted. Here’s what I wrote: “A crucial new norm in business poised to have a breakout year is the expectation that companies take their responsibilities to all stakeholders as seriously as they take their duty to shareholders. “All stakeholders” means more than customers and employees, it means actually adding value to society beyond just their product or service. 2018 will be the year of “positive externalities” in business.” Well, I could list all the companies that pushed this movement forward. Lots of great companies did great things – Salesforce, a leader in corporate responsibility, even hired a friend of mine to be Chief Ethics Officer. Imagine if every major company empowered such a position? And a powerful Senator – Elizabeth Warren, who likely will run for the presidency in 2019 – laid out her vision for a new approach to corporate responsibility in draft legislation called the Accountable Capitalism Act. But at the end of the day, I’ve got no way to prove that 2018 was “a break out year” for “a crucial new norm in business.” I wish I did, but…I don’t. Score: 5/10.
Overall, I have to say, this was one of the most successful reviews of my predictions ever – and that’s saying something, given I’ve been doing this for more than 15 years. Nine of ten were pretty much correct, with just one being a push. That sets a high bar for my predictions for 2019…coming, I hope, in the next week or so. Until then, thanks as always for being a fellow traveler. And happy new year – may 2019 bring you and yours happiness, health, and gratitude.
Those of us fortunate enough to have lived through the birth of the web have a habit of stewing in our own nostalgia. We’ll recall some cool site from ten or more years back, then think to ourselves (or sometimes out loud on Twitter): “Well damn, things were way better back then.”
Then we shut up. After all, we’re likely out of touch, given most of us have never hung out on Twitch. But I’m seeing more and more of this kind of oldster wistfulness, what with Facebook’s current unraveling and the overall implosion of the tech-as-savior narrative in our society.
Hence the chuckle many of us had when we saw this trending piece suggesting that perhaps it was time for us to finally unhook from Facebook and – wait for it – get our own personal webpage, one we updated for any and all to peruse. You know, like a blog, only for now. I don’t know the author – the editor of the tech-site Motherboard – but it’s kind of fun to watch someone join the Old Timers Web Club in real time. Hey Facebook, get off my lawn!!!
That Golden Age
So as to not bury the lead, let me state something upfront: Of course the architecture of our current Internet is borked. It’s dumb. It’s a goddamn desert. It’s soil where seed don’t sprout. Innovation? On the web, that dog stopped hunting years ago.
And who or what’s to blame? No, no. It’s not Facebook. Facebook is merely a symptom. A convenient and easy stand in – an artifact of a larger failure of our cultural commons. Somewhere in the past decade we got something wrong, we lost our narrative – we allowed Facebook and its kin to run away with our culture.
Instead of focusing on Facebook, which is structurally borked and hurtling toward Yahoo-like irrelevance, it’s time to focus on that mistake we made, and how we might address it.
Just 10-15 years ago, things weren’t heading toward the our currently crippled version of the Internet. Back in the heady days of 2004 to 2010 – not very long ago – a riot of innovation had overtaken the technology and Internet world. We called this era “Web 2.0” – the Internet was becoming an open, distributed platform, in every meaning of the word. It was generative, it was Gates Line-compliant, and its increasingly muscular technical infrastructure promised wonder and magic and endless buckets of new. Bandwidth, responsive design, data storage, processing on demand, generously instrumented APIs; it was all coming together. Thousands of new projects and companies and ideas and hacks and services bloomed.
Sure, back then the giants were still giants – but they seemed genuinely friendly and aligned with an open, distributed philosophy. Google united the Internet, codifying (and sharing) a data structure that everyone could build upon. Amazon Web Services launched in 2006, and with the problem of storage and processing solved, tens of thousands of new services were launched in a matter of just a few years. Hell, even Facebook launched an open platform, though it quickly realized it had no business doing so. AJAX broke out, allowing for multi-state data-driven user interfaces, and just like that, the web broke out of flatland. Anyone with passable scripting skills could make interesting shit! The promise of Internet 1.0 – that open, connected, intelligence-at-the-node vision we all bought into back before any of it was really possible – by 2008 or so, that promise was damn near realized. Remember LivePlasma? Yeah, that was an amazing mashup. Too bad it’s been dormant for over a decade.
After 2010 or so, things went sideways. And then they got worse. I think in the end, our failure wasn’t that we let Facebook, Google, Apple and Amazon get too big, or too powerful. No, I think instead we failed to consider the impact of the technologies and the companies we were building. We failed to play our hand forward, we failed to realize that these nascent technologies were fragile and ungoverned and liable to be exploited by people less idealistic than we were.
Our Shadow Constitution
Our lack of consideration deliberately aided and abetted the creation of a unratified shadow Constitution for the Internet – a governance architecture built on assumptions we have accepted, but are actively ignoring. All those Terms of Service that we clicked past, the EULAs we mocked but failed to challenge, those policies have built walls around our data and how it may be used. Massive platform companies have used those walls to create impenetrable business models. Their IPO filings explain in full how the monopolization and exploitation of data were central to their success – but we bought the stock anyway.
We failed to imagine that these new companies – these Facebooks, Ubers, Amazons and Googles – might one day become exactly what they were destined to become, should we leave them ungoverned and in the thrall of unbridled capitalism. We never imagined that should they win, the vision we had of a democratic Internet would end up losing.
It’s not that, at the very start at least, that tech companies were run by evil people in any larger sense. These were smart kids, almost always male, testing the limits of adolescence in their first years after high school or college. Timing mattered most: In the mid to late oughts, with the winds of Web 2 at their back, these companies had the right ideas at the right time, with an eager nexus of opportunistic capital urging them forward.
They built extraordinary companies. But again, they built a new architecture of governance over our economy and our culture – a brutalist ecosystem that repels innovation. Not on purpose – not at first. But protected by the walls of the Internet’s newly established shadow constitution and in the thrall of a new kind of technology-fused capitalism, they certainly got good at exploiting their data-driven leverage.
So here we are, at the end of 2018, with all our darlings, the leaders not only of the tech sector, but of our entire economy, bloodied by doubt, staggering from the weight of unconsidered externalities. What comes next?
2019: The Year of Internet Policy
Whether we like it or not, Policy with a capital P is coming to the Internet world next year. Our newly emboldened Congress is scrambling to introduce multiple pieces of legislation, from an Internet Bill of Rights to a federal privacy law modeled on – shudder – the EU’s GDPR. In the past month, I’ve read draft policy papers suggesting we tax the Internet’s advertising model, that we break up Google, Facebook, and Amazon, or that we back off and just let the market “do its work.”
And that’s a good thing, to my mind – it seems we’re finally coming to terms with the power of the companies we’ve created, and we’re ready to have a national dialog about a path forward. To that end, a spot of personal news: I’ve joined the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University, and I’m working on a research project studying how data flows in US markets, with an emphasis on the major tech platforms. I’m also teaching a course on Internet business models and policy. In short, I’m leaning into this conversation, and you’ll likely be seeing a lot more writing on these topics here over the course of the next year or so.
Oh, and yeah, I’m also working on a new project, which remains in stealth for the time being. Yep, has to do with media and tech, but with a new focus: Our political dialog. More on that later in the year.
I know I’ve been a bit quiet this past month, but starting up new things requires a lot of work, and my writing has suffered as a result. But I’ve got quite a few pieces in the queue, starting with my annual roundup of how I did in my predictions for the year, and then of course my predictions for 2019. But I’ll spoil at least one of them now and just summarize the point of this post from the start: It’s time we figure out how to build a better Internet, and 2019 will be the year policymakers get deeply involved in this overdue and essential conversation.
A year and a half ago I reviewed Yuval Noah Harari’s Homo Deus, recommending it to the entire industry with this subhead: “No one in tech is talking about Homo Deus. We most certainly should be.”
Eighteen months later, Harari is finally having his technology industry moment. The author of a trio of increasingly disturbing books – Sapiens, for which made his name as a popular historian philosopher, the aforementioned Homo Deus, which introduced a dark strain of tech futurism to his work, and the recent 21 Lessons for the 21st Century – Harari has cemented his place in the Valley as tech’s favorite self-flagellant. So it’s only fitting that this weekend Harari was the subject of New York Times profile featuring this provocative title: Tech C.E.O.s Are in Love With Their Principal Doomsayer. The subhead continues: “The futurist philosopher Yuval Noah Harari thinks Silicon Valley is an engine of dystopian ruin. So why do the digital elite adore him so?”
Well, I’m not sure if I qualify as one of those elites, but I have a theory, one that wasn’t quite raised in the Times’ otherwise compelling profile. I’ve been a student of Harari’s work, and if there’s one clear message, it’s this: We’re running headlong into a world controlled by a tiny elite of superhumans, masters of new technologies that the “useless class” will never understand. “Homo sapiens is an obsolete algorithm,” Harari writes in Homo Deus. A new religion of Dataism will transcend our current obsession with ourselves, and we will “dissolve within the data torrent like a clump of earth within a gushing river.” In other words, we humans are f*cked, save for a few of the lucky ones who manage to transcend their fate and become masters of the machines. “Silicon Valley is creating a tiny ruling class,” the Times writes, paraphrasing Harari’s work, “and a teeming, furious “useless class.””
So here’s why I think the Valley loves Harari: We all believe we’ll be members of that tiny ruling class. It’s an indefensible, mathematically impossible belief, but as Harari reminds us in 21 Lessons, “never underestimate human stupidity.” Put another way, we are fooling ourselves, content to imagine we’ll somehow all earn a ticket into (or onto) whatever apocalypse-dodging exit plan Musk, Page or Bezos might dream up (they’re all obsessed with leaving the planet, after all). Believing that impossible fiction is certainly a lot easier than doing the quotidian work of actually fixing the problems which lay before us. Better to be one of the winners than to risk losing along with the rest of the useless class, no?
But we can’t all be winners in the future Harari lays out, and he seems to understand this fact. “If you make people start thinking far more deeply and seriously about these issues,” he said to the Times, “some of the things they will think about might not be what you want them to think about.”
Exactly, Professor. Now that I’ve departed the Valley, where I spent nearly three decades of my life, I’m starting to gain a bit of perspective on my own complicated relationship with the power structure of the place. I grew up with the (mostly) men who lead companies like Amazon, Google, Facebook and Apple, and early in the industry’s rise, it was heady to share the same stage with legends like Bezos, Jobs, or Page. But as the technology industry becomes the driving force of social rupture, I’m far more skeptical of its leaders’ abilities to, well, lead.
Witness this nearly idea-free interview with Google CEO Sundar Pichai, also in the Times, where the meticulously media-prepped executive opines on whether his industry has a role to play in society’s ills: “Every generation is worried about the new technology, and feels like this time it’s different. Our parents worried about Elvis Presley’s influence on kids. So, I’m always asking the question, “Why would it be any different this time?” Having said that, I do realize the change that’s happening now is much faster than ever before. My son still doesn’t have a phone.”
Pichai’s son not have a phone, but he is earning money mining Ethereum (really, you can’t make this shit up). I’m not sure the son of a centi-millionaire needs to earn money – but it certainly is useful to master the algorithms that will soon control nearly every aspect of human life. So – no, son, no addictive phone for you (even though my company makes them, and makes their operating systems, and makes the apps which ensure their addictive qualities).
But mining crypto currency? Absolutely!
Should Harari be proven right and humanity becomes irrelevant, I’m pretty sure Pichai’s son will have a first class ticket out of whatever mess is left behind. But the rest of us? We should probably focus on making sure that kid never needs to use it.
Next week Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, and Jack Dorsey, CEO of Twitter, will testify in front of Congress. They must take this opportunity to directly and vigorously defend the role that real journalism plays not only on their platforms, but also in our society at large. They must declare that truth exists, that facts matter, and that while reasonable people can and certainly should disagree about how to respond to those facts, civil society depends on rational discourse driven by an informed electorate.
Google search results for “Trump News” shows only the viewing/reporting of Fake News Media. In other words, they have it RIGGED, for me & others, so that almost all stories & news is BAD. Fake CNN is prominent. Republican/Conservative & Fair Media is shut out. Illegal? 96% of….
….results on “Trump News” are from National Left-Wing Media, very dangerous. Google & others are suppressing voices of Conservatives and hiding information and news that is good. They are controlling what we can & cannot see. This is a very serious situation-will be addressed!
Seems the president took a look at himself in Google’s infinite mirror, and he apparently didn’t like what he saw. Of course, a more cynical reading would be that his advisors reminded him that senior executives from Twitter, Facebook, and Google* are set to testify in front of Congress next week, providing a perfect “blame others and deflect narrative from myself” moment for our Bully In Chief.
Trump’s hatred for journalism is legendary, and his disdain for any truth that doesn’t flatter is well established. As numerous actual news outlets have already established, there’s simply no evidence that Google’s search algorithms do anything other than reflect the reality of Trump news, which in the world of *actual journalism* where facts and truth matter, is fundamentally negative. This is not because of bias – this is because Trump creates fundamentally negative stories. You know, like failing to honor a war hero, failing to deliver on his North Korea promises, failing to fix his self-imposed policy of imprisoning children, failing to hire advisors who can avoid guilty verdicts….and all that was just in the last week or so.
But the point of this post isn’t to go on a rant about our president. Instead, I want to make a point about the leaders of our largest technology platforms.
It’s time Jack, Sheryl, Sundar, and others take a stand against this insanity. Next week, at least two of them actually have just that chance.
I’ll lay out my biases for anyone reading who might suspect I’m an agent of the “Fake News Media.” I’m on the advisory board of NewsGuard, a startup that ranks news sites for accuracy and reliability. I’m running NewsGuard’s browser plug in right now, and every single news site that comes up for a Google News search on “Trump News” is flagged as green – or reliable.
NewsGuard is run by two highly respected members of the “real” media – one of whom is a longstanding conservative, the other a liberal.
I’m also an advisor and investor in RoBhat Labs, which recently released a plugin that identifies fake images in news articles. Beyond that, I’ve taught journalism at UC Berkeley, where I graduated with a masters after two years of study and remain on the advisory board. I’m also a member of several ad-hoc efforts to address what I’ve come to call the “Real Fake News,” most of which peddles far right wing conspiracy theories, often driven by hostile state actors like Russia. I’ve testified in front of Congress on these issues, and I’ve spent thirty years of my life in the world of journalism and media. I’m tired of watching our president defame our industry, and I’m equally tired of watching the leaders of our tech industry fail to respond to his systematic dismantling of our civil discourse (or worse, pander to it).
So Jack, Sheryl, and whoever ends up coming from Google, here’s my simple advice: Stand up to the Bully in Chief. Defend civil discourse and the role of truth telling and the free press in our society. A man who endlessly claims that the press is the enemy is a man to be called out. Heed these words:
“It is the press, above all, which wages a positively fanatical and slanderous struggle, tearing down everything which can be regarded as a support of national independence, cultural elevation, and the economic independence of the nation.”
No one would claim these are Trump’s words, the prose is far too elegant. But the sentiment is utterly Trumpian. With with apologies to Mike Godwin, those words belong to Adolf Hitler. Think about that, Jack, Sheryl, and Sundar. And speak from your values next week.
*Google tried to send its SVP of Global Affairs and General Counsel, Kent Walker, but members of Congress have said they are tired of hearing from lawyers. It’s uncertain if the company will step up and send a leader of an actual business P&L, like Jack or Sheryl.
I’ve been covering Google’s rather tortured relationship with China for more than 15 years now. The company’s off again, on again approach to the Internet’s largest “untapped” market has proven vexing, but as today’s Intercept scoop informs us, it looks like Google has yielded to its own growth imperative, and will once again stand up its search services for the Chinese market. To wit:
GOOGLE IS PLANNING to launch a censored version of its search engine in China that will blacklist websites and search terms about human rights, democracy, religion, and peaceful protest, The Intercept can reveal.
The project – code-named Dragonfly – has been underway since spring of last year, and accelerated following a December 2017 meeting between Google’s CEO Sundar Pichai and a top Chinese government official, according to internal Google documents and people familiar with the plans.
If I’m reading story correctly, it looks like Google’s China plans, which were kept secret from nearly all of the company’s employees, were leaked to The Intercept by concerned members of Google’s internal “Dragonfly” team, one of whom was quoted:
“I’m against large companies and governments collaborating in the oppression of their people, and feel like transparency around what’s being done is in the public interest,” the source said, adding that they feared “what is done in China will become a template for many other nations.”
This news raises any number of issues – for Google, certainly, but given the US/China trade war, for anyone concerned with the future of free trade and open markets. And it revives an age old question about where the line is between “respecting the rule of law in markets where we operate,” a standard tech company response to doing business on foreign soil, and “enabling authoritarian rule,” which is pretty much what Google will be doing should it actually launch the Dragonfly app.
We ultimately reached our decision by asking ourselves which course would most effectively further Google’s mission to organize the world’s information and make it universally useful and accessible. Or, put simply: how can we provide the greatest access to information to the greatest number of people?
I didn’t buy that explanation then, and I don’t buy it now. Google is going into China for one reason, and one reason alone: Profits. As Google rolled out its service in 2006, I penned something of a rant, titled “Never Poke A Dragon While It’s Eating.” In it I wrote:
The Chinese own a shitload of our debt, and are consuming a shitload of the world’s export base of oil. As they consolidate their power, do you really believe they’re also planning parades for us? I’m pretty sure they’ll be celebrating decades of US policy that looked the other way while the oligarchy used our technology (and that includes our routers, databases, and consulting services) to meticulously undermine the very values which allowed us to create companies like Google in the first place. But those are not the kind of celebrations I’m guessing we’d be invited to.
So as I puzzle through this issue, understanding how in practical terms it’s really not sensible to expect that some GYMA pact is going to change the world (as much as I might wish it would), it really, honestly, comes down to one thing: The man in the White House.
Until the person leading this country values human rights over appeasement, and decides to lead on this issue, we’re never going to make any progress.
Google pulled out of China in 2010, using a China-backed hacking incident as its main rationale (remember that?!). The man in the White House was – well let’s just say he wasn’t Bush, nor Clinton, and he wasn’t Trump. In any case, the hacking incident inconveniently reminded Google that the Chinese government has no qualms about using data derived from Google services to target its own citizens.
Has the company forgotten that fact? One wonders. Back in 2010, I praised the company for standing up to China:
In this case, Google is again taking a leadership role, and the company is forcing China’s hand. While it’s a stretch to say the two things are directly connected, the seeming fact that China’s government was behind the intrusions has led Google to decide to stop censoring its results in China. This is politics at its finest, and it’s a very clear statement to China: We’re done playing the game your way.
Seems Google’s not done after all. Which is both sad, and utterly predictable. Sad, because in today’s political environment, we need our companies to lead on moral and human rights issues. And predictable, because Android has a massive hold on China’s internet market, and Google’s lack of a strong search play there threatens not only the company’s future growth in its core market, but its ability to leverage Android across all its services, just as it has in Europe and the United States.
Google so far has not made a statement on The Intercept’s story, though I imagine smoke is billowing out of some communications war room inside the company’s Mountain View headquarters. Will the company attempt some modified version of its 2006 justifications? I certainly hope not. This time, I’d counsel, the company should just tell the truth: Google is a public company that feels compelled to grow, regardless of whether that growth comes at a price to its founding values. Period, end of story.
…companies like Yahoo and Google don’t traffic in sneakers, they traffic in the most powerful forces in human culture – expression. Knowledge. Ideas. The freedom of which we take as fundamental in this country, yet somehow, we seem to have forgotten its importance in the digital age – in China, one protesting email can land you in jail for 8 years, folks.
…Congress can call hearings, and beat up Yahoo, Google and the others for doing what everyone else is doing, but in the end, it’s not (Google’s) fault, nor, as much as I wish they’d take it on, is it even their problem. It’s our government’s problem….Since when is China policy somehow the job of private industry?
Until that government gives (the tech industry) a China policy it can align behind, well, they’ll never align, and the very foundation of our culture – free expression and privacy, will be imperiled.
God, “innovation.” First banalized by undereducated entrepreneurs in the oughts, then ground to pablum by corporate grammarians over the past decade, “innovation” – at least when applied to business – deserves an unheralded etymological death.
This will be a post about innovation. However, whenever I feel the need to peck that insipid word into my keyboard, I’m going to use some variant of the verb “to flourish” instead. Blame Nobel laureate Edmund Phelps for this: I recently read his Mass Flourishing, which outlines the decline of western capitalism, and I find its titular terminology far less annoying.
So flourishing it will be.
In his 2013 work, Phelps (who received the 2006 Nobel in economics) credits mass participation in a process of innovation (sorry, there’s that word again) as central to mass flourishing, and further argues – with plenty of economic statistics to back him up – that it’s been more than a full generation since we’ve seen mass flourishing in any society. He writes:
…prosperity on a national scale—mass flourishing—comes from broad involvement of people in the processes of innovation: the conception, development, and spread of new methods and products—indigenous innovation down to the grassroots. This dynamism may be narrowed or weakened by institutions arising from imperfect understanding or competing objectives. But institutions alone cannot create it. Broad dynamism must be fueled by the right values and not too diluted by other values.
Phelps argues the last “mass flourishing” economy was the 1960s in the United States (with a brief but doomed resurgence during the first years of the open web…but that promise went unfulfilled). And he warns that “nations unaware of how their prosperity is generated may take steps that cost them much of their dynamism.” Phelps further warns of a new kind of corporatism, a “techno nationalism” that blends state actors with corporate interests eager to collude with the state to cement market advantage (think Double Irish with a Dutch Sandwich).
These warnings were proffered largely before our current debate about the role of the tech giants now so dominant in our society. But it sets an interesting context and raises important questions. What happens, for instance, when large corporations capture the regulatory framework of a nation and lock in their current market dominance (and, in the case of Big Tech, their policies around data use?).
I began this post with Phelps to make a point: The rise of massive data monopolies in nearly every aspect of our society is not only choking off shared prosperity, it’s also blinkered our shared vision for the kind of future we could possibly inhabit, if only we architect our society to enable it. But to imagine a different kind of future, we first have to examine the present we inhabit.
The Social Architecture of Data
I use the term “architecture” intentionally, it’s been front of mind for several reasons. Perhaps the most difficult thing for any society to do is to share a vision of the future, one that a majority might agree upon. Envisioning the future of a complex living system – a city, a corporation, a nation – is challenging work, work we usually outsource to trusted institutions like government, religions, or McKinsey (half joking…).
But in the past few decades, something has changed when it comes to society’s future vision. Digital technology became synonymous with “the future,” and along the way, we outsourced that future to the most successful corporations creating digital technology. Everything of value in our society is being transformed into data, and extraordinary corporations have risen which refine that data into insight, knowledge, and ultimately economic power. Driven as they are by this core commodity of data, these companies have acted to cement their control over it.
This is not unusual economic behavior, in fact, it’s quite predictable. So predictable, in fact, that it’s developed its own structure – an architecture, if you will, of how data is managed in today’s information society. I’ve a hypothesis about this architecture – unproven at this point (as all are) – but one I strongly suspect is accurate. Here’s how it might look on a whiteboard:
We “users” deliver raw data to a service provider, like Facebook or Google, which then captures, refines, processes, and delivers that data back as services to us. The social contract we make is captured in these services’ Terms of Services – we may “own” the data, but for all intents and purposes, the power over that information rests with the platform. The user doesn’t have a lot of creative license to do much with that data he or she “owns” – it lives on the platform, and the platform controls what can be done with it.
Now, if this sounds familiar, you’re likely a student of early computing architectures. Back before the PC revolution, most data, refined or not, lived on a centralized platform known as a mainframe. Nearly all data storage and compute processing occurred on the mainframe. Applications and services were broadcast from the mainframe back to “dumb terminals,” in front of which early knowledge workers toiled. Here’s a graph of that early mainframe architecture:
This mainframe architecture had many drawbacks – a central point of failure chief among them, but perhaps its most damning characteristic was its hierarchical, top down architecture. From an user’s point of view, all the power resided at the center. This was great if you ran IT at a large corporation, but suffice to say the mainframe architecture didn’t encourage creativity or a flourishing culture.
The mainframe architecture was supplanted over time with a “client server” architecture, where processing power migrated from the center to the edge, or node. This was due in large part to the rise the networked personal computer (servers were used for storing services or databases of information too large to fit on PCs). Because they put processing power and data storage into the hands of the user, PCs became synonymous with a massive increase in productivity and creativity (Steve Jobs called them “bicycles for the mind.”) With the PC revolution power transferred from the “platform” to the user – a major architectural shift.
The rise of networked personal computers became the seedbed for the world wide web, which had its own revolutionary architecture. I won’t trace it here (many good books exist on the topic), but suffice to say the core principle of the early web’s architecture was its distributed nature. Data was packetized and distributed independent of where (or how) it might be processed. As more and more “web servers” came online, each capable of processing data as well as distributing it, the web became a tangled, hot mess of interoperable computing resources. What mattered wasn’t the pipes or the journey of the data, but the service created or experienced by the user at the point of that service delivery, which in the early days was of course a browser window (later on, those points of delivery became smartphone apps and more).
If you were to attempt to map the social architecture of data in the early web, your map would look a lot like the night sky – hundreds of millions of dots scattered in various constellations across the sky, each representing a node where data might be shared, processed, and distributed. In those early days the ethos of the web was that data should be widely shared between consenting parties so it might be “mixed and mashed” so as to create new products and services. There was no “mainframe in the sky” anymore – it seemed everyone on the web had equal and open opportunities to create and exchange value.
This is why the late 1990s through mid oughts were a heady time in the web world – nearly any idea could be tried out, and as the web evolved into a more robust set of standards, one could be forgiven for presuming that the open, distributed nature of the web would inform its essential social architecture.
But as web-based companies began to understand the true value of controlling vast amounts of data, that dream began to fade. As we grew addicted to some of the most revelatory web services – first Google search, then Amazon commerce, then Facebook’s social dopamine – those companies began to centralize their data and processing policies, to the point where we are now: Fearing these giants’ power over us, even as we love their products and services.
An Argument for Mass Flourishing
So where does that leave us if we wish to heed the concerns of Professor Phelps? Well, let’s not forget his admonition: “nations unaware of how their prosperity is generated may take steps that cost them much of their dynamism.” My hypothesis is simply this: Adopting a mainframe architecture for our most important data – our intentions (Google), our purchases (Amazon), our communications and social relationships (Facebook) – is not only insane, it’s also massively deprecative of future innovation (damn, sorry, but sometimes the word fits). In Facebook, Tear Down This Wall, I argued:
… it’s impossible for one company to fabricate reality for billions of individuals independent of the interconnected experiences and relationships that exist outside of that fabricated reality.It’s an utterly brittle product model, and it’s doomed to fail.Banning third party agents from engaging with Facebook’s platform insures that the only information that will inform Facebook will be derived from and/or controlled by Facebook itself. That kind of ecosystem will ultimately collapse on itself.No single entity can manage such complexity. It presumes a God complex.
So what might be a better architecture? I hinted at it in the same post:
Facebook should commit itself to being an open and neutral platform for the exchange of value across not only its own services, but every service in the world.
In other words, free the data, and let the user decide what do to with it. I know how utterly ridiculous this sounds, in particular to anyone reading from Facebook proper, but I am convinced that this is the only architecture for data that will allow a massively flourishing society.
Now this concept has its own terminology: Data portability. And this very concept is enshrined in the EU’s GDPR legislation, which took effect one week ago. However, there’s data portability, and then there’s flourishing data portability – and the difference between the two really matters. The GDPR applies only to data that a user *gives* to a service, not data *co-created* with that service. You also can’t gather any insights the service may have inferred about you based on the data you either gave or co-created with it. Not to mention, none of that data is exported in a machine readable fashion, essentially limiting its utility.
But imagine if that weren’t the case. Imagine instead you can download your own Facebook or Amazon “token,” a magic data coin containing not only all the useful data and insights about you, but a control panel that allows you to set and revoke permissions around that data for any context. You might pass your Amazon token to Walmart, set its permissions to “view purchase history” and ask Walmart to determine how much money it might have saved you had you purchased those items on Walmart’s service instead of Amazon. You might pass your Facebook token to Google, set the permissions to compare your social graph with others across Google’s network, and then ask Google to show you search results based on your social relationships. You might pass your Google token to a startup that already has your genome and your health history, and ask it to munge the two in case your 20-year history of searching might infer some insights into your health outcomes.
This might seem like a parlor game, but this is the kind of parlor game that could unleash an explosion of new use cases for data, new startups, new jobs, and new economic value. Tokens would (and must) have privacy, auditing, trust, value exchange, and the like built in (I tried to write this entire post without mentioned blockchain, but there, I just did it), but presuming they did, imagine what might be built if we truly set the data free, and instead of outsourcing its power and control to massive platforms, we took that power and control and, just like we did with the PC and the web, pushed it to the edge, to the node…to ourselves?
I rather like the sound of that, and I suspect Mssr. Phelps would as well. Now, how might we get there? I’ve no idea, but exploring possible paths certainly sounds like an interesting project…
Let’s start with this: Google is not a perfect company. It’s easy to cast it as an omniscient and evil villain, the leader of a millennium-spanning illuminati hellbent on world subjugation. Google the oppressor. Google the silencer of debate. Google, satanic overlord predicted by the holy text!