As has been my practice for nearly two decades, I penned a post full of prognostications at the end of last year. As 2021 subsequently rolled by, I stashed away news items that might prove (or disprove) those predictions – knowing that this week, I’d take a look at how I did. How’d things turn out? Let’s roll the tape…
My first prediction: Disinformation becomes the most important story of the year. At the time I wrote those words, Trump’s Big Lie was only two months old, and January 6th was just another day on the calendar. A year later, that Big Lie has spawned countless others, culminating in one of the most damaging shifts in our nation’s politics since the Civil War. The Republican party is now fully captured by bullshit, and countless numbers of local, state, and national politicians are busy undermining democracy thanks to the Big Lie’s power. A significant percentage of the US population has become unmoored from truth – and an equally significant group of us have simply thrown our hands up about it. Trust is at an all time low. This Barton Gellman piece in The Atlantic served as a wake up call late in the year – and its conclusions are terrifying: “We face a serious risk that American democracy as we know it will come to an end in 2024,” Gellman quotes an observer stating. “But urgent action is not happening.” I’m not happy about getting this one right, but as far as I’m concerned, this is still the most important story of the year – and the most terrifying.
Google’s (and now Alphabet’s) CEO opines in the FT (sub required) on why AI needs to be regulated, joining the chorus of tech leaders who have taken the apparent high road when it comes to regulation, even as governments around the world have shown next to no ability to actually regulate anything (well, I guess the Chinese have certainly regulated tech…in a not so great way). Astute readers will note that an op-ed in a paywalled publication, on a holiday no less, is not exactly placed to go viral. However, look a bit deeper, and you’ll realize that the Financial Times is very well read by Wall St., number one, and number two, it ain’t a holiday in Europe, where the most powerful people on the planet are gathering for Davos this week. Indeed.
While most of the op-ed is pretty weak sauce, a predictable call for governments to “work together” to “harness this technology for good,” I found this quote the most interesting: “Companies such as ours cannot just build promising new technology and let market forces decide how it will be used.” I wish Google, Facebook, Amazon and Apple had that point of view before they built the AI-driven system we now all live with known as surveillance capitalism.
Social conversations about difficult and complex topics have arcs – they tend to start scattered, with many threads and potential paths, then resolve over time toward consensus. This consensus differs based on groups within society – Fox News aficionados will cluster one way, NPR devotees another. Regardless of the group, such consensus then becomes presumption – and once a group of people presume, they fail to explore potentially difficult or presumably impossible alternative solutions.
The last 24 hours have not been kind to Facebook’s already bruised image. Above are four headlines, all of which clogged my inbox as I cleared email after a day full of meetings.
Let’s review: Any number of Facebook’s core customers – advertisers – are feeling duped and cheated (and have felt this way for years). A respected reporter who was told by Facebook executives that the company would not use data collected by its new Portal product, is now accusing the company of misrepresenting the truth (others would call that lying, but the word lost its meaning this year). The executive formerly in charge of Facebook’s security is…on an apology tour, convinced the place he worked for has damaged our society (and he’s got a lotofcompany).
The past week or so has seen a surge in commentary on the role of corporations in society, a theme familiar to readers of this site. While it might be convenient to peg the trend to Senator Elizabeth Warren’s newly minted Accountable Capitalism Act (more on that in a second), I think it’s more likely that – finally – our collective will is turning to our most logical and obvious instrument of social change, namely, the instrument of business.
We humans like to organize ourselves into social units. They range from the informal (pickup basketball games) to the elaborately structured (Senate hearings). Our ability to harness collective will is unsurpassed in the animal kingdom, it’s one of our key evolutionary adaptations, driving the success of our species across the globe.
As I’ve arguedelsewhere, one of our most sophisticated social structures is the corporation, which has co-evolved with our various systems of government over the past half millennium or so. The very first corporations were in fact formed (or chartered) by governments – the Dutch East India Company is the most common example of this. In the past century, however, corporations have largely sought to shake the yoke of government regulation – and nowhere have corporations won more freedoms than in the United States, where firms are now considered legal persons with an unrestrained right to “free speech” (IE, the ability to fund political positions).
A couple of weeks ago my wife and I were heading across the San Rafael bridge to downtown Oakland for a show at the Fox Theatre. As all Bay area drivers know, there’s a historically awful stretch of Interstate 80 along that route – a permanent traffic sh*t show. I considered taking San Pablo road, a major thoroughfare which parallels the freeway. But my wife fired up Waze instead, and we proceeded to follow an intricate set of instructions which took us onto frontage roads, side streets, and counter-intuitive detours. Despite our shared unease (unfamiliar streets through some blighted neighborhoods), we trusted the Waze algorithms – and we weren’t alone. In fact, a continuous stream of automobiles snaked along the very same improbable route – and inside the cars ahead and behind me, I saw glowing blue screens delivering similar instructions to the drivers within.
The week was dominated by Google related stories, but the top dialog had to do with the Internet itself. I’m sensing something of a shift in society’s beliefs about the Internet’s central role in our humanity. Five years ago, no one wanted to talk about Internet access as a basic human right. In 2012, the UN called it exactly that. With access consolidating into what looks like a natural monopoly, might regulation as a utility be far behind?
Real Time (Medium) Another, denser version of previous essays asking whether it isn’t time to call the Internet a basic utility. “..the immaterial organisation of the internet has now become the most dominant force on this side of the planet...” Unfortunately, this piece is too dense. Try this one instead: The Internet Is Fucked (TechCrunch) in which the author enjoins: “Go ahead, say it out loud. The internet is a utility.There, you’ve just skipped past a quarter century of regulatory corruption and lawsuits that still rage to this day and arrived directly at the obvious conclusion.” Of course, that created a rejoinder: More? – “The Internet is an incredibly useful tool in modern society, but it isn’t essential to the basic functioning of society. Utilities are.” My take: The Internet is a basic need now for the info-organism we are all becoming. So I’m leaning toward the utility camp, I’m afraid. There’s a new book on the subject, should you be interested.
The Monuments of Tech (NYTimes.com) A meditation, with far too photos, on the meaning of the campuses built by Google, Twitter, Apple, Facebook. Have you read The Circle yet? Read The Circle. Then read this.
This week, we were thinking about data post-language, reading the tea leaves of algorithms, and wondering how to protect the first principles of the web. As always, if you want to keep up with what we’re reading/thinking about on a weekly basis, the best way is to subscribe to the “else” feed, either as an email newsletter or through RSS. And tweet us links!
We’re Leaving — The Bygone BureauI like this take on the discussion of the “post-verbal” in Her as suggesting a time when data supplants language. It was a very brief moment in the movie, but I think it’s at the crux of how we will relate to our machines going forward.
Early last month I wrote a piece entitled Do Not Track Is An Opportunity, Not a Threat. In it I covered Microsoft’s controversial decision to incorporate a presumptive “opt out of tracking” flag in the next release of its browser, which many in the ad industry see as a major blow to the future of our business.
In the piece, I argued that Microsoft’s move may well force independent publishers (you know, like Searchblog, as well as larger sites like CNN or the New York Times) to engage in a years-overdue dialog with their readers about the value exchange between publisher, reader, and marketer. I laid out a scenario and proposed some language to kick that dialog off, but I gave short shrift to a problematic and critical framing concept. In this post, I hope to lay that concept out and offer, by way of example, a way forward. (Caveat: I am not an expert in policy or tech. I’ll probably get some things wrong, and hope readers will correct me if and when I do.)
The “concept” has to do with the idea of a first-party relationship – a difficult to define phrase that, for purposes of this post, means the direct relationship a publisher or a service has with its consumer. This matters, a lot, because in the FTC’s recently released privacy framework, “first-party marketing” has been excluded from proposed future regulation around digital privacy and the use of data. However, “third-party” marketing, the framework suggests, will be subject to regulation that could require “consumer choice.”