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Facebook Gets Rich Off What We Tell Our Friends

Social media pioneer David Gelernter also has a proposal for sharing the wealth more fairly
David Gelernter Doc Searles Wikimedia Commons

Yale University computer science prof David Gelernter, “a leading figure in the third generation of artificial intelligence” (Edge.org). social networks pioneer, and Unabomber survivor, discusses his idea in a podcast at The Federalist Radio Hour:

Gelernter, who also invented the first social network, joins Ben Domenech on The Federalist Radio Hour to discuss his concern with the amount of power Facebook holds thanks to the data handed over to the social media giant by its users…

“I don’t think Facebook is destructive and the analogy to tobacco is ridiculous, but certainly we could be getting more, in a positive sense, than we are out of this software,” Gelernter said.

The Federalist Staff, “Computer Scientist David Gelernter Wants To Revolutionize Social Media” at The Federalist

From the podcast:

David Gelernter: People should not be in the position of having their data taken — it’s not exactly a theft, but — in an underhanded way or by subterfuge, people log onto Facebook and feel that any transaction with Facebook is between them and the software and friends, the software being an anonymous source that doesn’t do anything, make money, or do anything nasty. But, needless to say, and as everybody knows who thinks about it, Facebook is in a position to make huge amounts of money by taking these enormous caches of data and selling them.

And every company that advertises, every company that sells a product, every company that provides a service, wants to know—you know, who lives in this country, who lives where I live, what is their income and what are they buying, and stuff like that. Facebook knows an awful lot of that. Their knowledge is often current, it’s often extensive, it’s often deep and wide, so of course, they’re in a position to clean up. And it seems to us that the huge sums that Facebook is in a position to control and the power that comes with that position, being a font of users’ contributions. … But why is it so valuable? Because we have all given it our information. It just seems to us that if this information makes Facebook such a huge amount of money, why don’t we make some of the money… we, meaning the users?

Ben Domenech Is this basically saying that you want to focus on creating this architecture that lives under the software that people experience, an architecture built on the blockchain that can allow people to have their data protected, to potentially make gains from it and to allow other apps and developments to take place that are built on top of that underlying architecture?

David Gelernter: Right, exactly. … But the top level is of great interest to us also. I think that social nets have enormous potential that is unrealized. Naturally, we take the easiest, lowest-resistance route when a company is new, when an industry is new, getting off the ground. The first really big seller on the internet was pornography, of course… We can’t expect early efforts to show us the right way. When it’s socially valuable, when it’s personally valuable for users, it takes some time. It takes some thinking. It’s a huge field. It’s a genuine new thing.

Indeed. In short, we somehow ended up in a global social media world and must now decide where exactly we are and whether the current living arrangements work for most of us.

Gelernter’s proposal to give users more ownership of their data sounds similar to Brendan Eich’s concept of Basic Attention Tokens (BATs), which means the user gets paid for seeing the ads because the user is contributing profitable data. It meshes as well with concerns about the commercial traffic in patients’ medical data, which the patient does not currently own, some of which may be vulnerable to de-anonymization.”

In the past, Gelernter has said things like “The extent to which human beings are willing to be duped by computers is already very large.” (“My Problem with AI,” BigThink, December 13, 2013) and “The emotional subtext of human communication is crucial to human thought. It isn’t a footnote. Too many computer scientists don’t understand this.” (“Digerati,” The Edge). That illustrates a down-to-earth approach to AI not seen among, say, transhumanists like Ray Kurzweil.

He is very much an original thinker. He even achieved notoriety recently for saying that he doubts Darwinian evolution, citing the Cambrian explosion of life forms, which Darwin himself saw as a serious objection to his view of evolution (and the mystery has only deepened since then).

If Gelernter feels confident in taking on Darwin’s defenders, he is well placed to confront the moguls of Facebook—and perhaps the trolls of Twitter, if need be.

Further reading: You think you have nothing to hide? Then why are Big Tech moguls making billions from what you and others tell them? (Russ White)


Your phone knows everything now. And it is selling your secrets

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Facebook Gets Rich Off What We Tell Our Friends