Political scientist Jon Askonas offers a grim but somehow strengthening look at how Silicon Valley morphed from Apple’s revolt against 1984 to an increasingly comfortable relationship with totalitarian China.
We must, he says, go back to the beginning. First, this is how Apple saw itself in 1984:
Most of Silicon Valley saw itself that way — liberating people from authoritarianism. So what happened? In an incisive essay at The New Atlantis, Askonas offers some thoughts on what’s changed:
➤ First, he says, the Valley was very much influenced by 1970s California hippie beliefs about human nature that did not long survive realities like this: Faced with deadly riots in unstable societies caused by Facebook posts, Facebook tweaked its algorithms in January 2018 to show “more posts from friends and family and updates that spark conversation,” and “less public content, including videos and other posts from publishers or businesses.” But that didn’t help much because the family and friends of persons prone to violence were often eager exponents of violence themselves.
➤ Relentlessly showing us more of the content we are assumed to want to see, based on past usage, is not, Askonas notes, a neutral decision. It pushes us further in a given direction than we might otherwise go.
YouTube’s recommendation feature has helped to radicalize users through feedback loops — not only, again, by helping clickbait conspiracy videos go viral, but also by enticing users to view more videos like the ones they’ve already looked at, thus encouraging the user merely intrigued by extremist ideas to become a true diehard. Yet this result is not a curious fluke of the preference-maximizing vision, but its inevitable fruition. As long as our desires are unsettled and malleable — as long as we are human — the engineering choices of Google and the rest must be as much acts of persuasion as of prediction.Jon Askonas, “How Tech Utopia Fostered Tyranny” at The New Atlantis (Number 57, Winter 2019, pp. 3-13.)
➤ Where, at one time, users had to search pages systematically for the material we want, today, we can rely on a “feed.” One outcome is that the number of sites we visit dwindle while the feed (now a platform) grows much more complex and personalized — and we know very little about how it is developed. Askonas argues, ““In this process, users have gone from active surfers to sheep feeding at the algorithmic trough.” Like good farmers, the social media companies protect their sheep with techniques like “shadowbanning,” “down-ranking,” and blocking or erasing users,
But here’s the most significant outcome, in his view:
➤ Social media, in its current development, is of greater use to authoritarians than to anyone else:
While the Mark Zuckerbergs and Sergey Brins of the world claim to be shocked by the “abuse” of their platforms, the softly progressive ambitions of Silicon Valley and the more expansive visions of would-be dictators exist on the same spectrum of invasiveness and manipulation. There’s a sense in which the authoritarians have a better idea of what this technology is for.
It ought to have been obvious that the new panopticon would be as liable to cut with the grain as against it, to become in the wrong hands a tool not for ameliorating but exploiting man’s natural capacity for error. Of the two sides, cheer for Dr. Jekyll, but bet on Mr. Hyde.Jon Askonas, “How Tech Utopia Fostered Tyranny” at The New Atlantis (Number 57, Winter 2019, pp. 3-13.)
That’s not what the social media moguls intended, exactly, but it was what had to happen.
Askonas identifies two related problems: Facebook hoped people would learn from each other but it turns out that we pick our friends based on what we are already interested in, thus the news feed is a “custom-built echo chamber.” As he puts it, “Amazon stocks a wider selection of books than any store in history, but suggests them to you based on your search history and previous purchases, eliminating the cultivated, mind-broadening randomness of the bookstore browse.”
Second, he notes, the social media project was built on assumptions made by “WEIRD” — Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic — people. But other people, who are just as well able to use the technology to magnify their views, may believe that the death penalty is a reasonable sentence for blasphemy (Pakistan) or that the government should put religious believers in concentration camps (China). And authoritarian governments adore the new social media. They make authoritarianism easier: “Big Brother can read tweets too”:
By pulling so much of social life into cyberspace, the information revolution has made dissent more visible, manageable, and manipulable than ever before. Hidden public anger, the ultimate bête noire of many a dictator, becomes more legible to the regime. Activating one’s own supporters, and manipulating the national conversation, become easier as well. Indeed, the information revolution has been a boon to the police state. It used to be incredibly manpower-intensive to monitor videos, accurately take and categorize images, analyze opposition magazines, track the locations of dissidents, and appropriately penalize enemies of the regime. But now, tools that were perfected for tagging your friends in beach photos, categorizing new stories, and ranking products by user reviews are the technological building blocks of efficient surveillance systems.Jon Askonas, “How Tech Utopia Fostered Tyranny” at The New Atlantis (Number 57, Winter 2019, pp. 3-13.)
Askonas believes that the Big Tech moguls care but don’t know what to do. Maybe. Or maybe they are just getting used to authoritarianism, feeling their power. They are certainly tone-deaf. Here’s an example, courtesy IBM:
Recently, IBM announced the creation of a free database of over one million racially diverse facial images to help train facial recognition algorithms and reduce bias. One wonders whether the Uighur people arrested by the Chinese government with the help of facial recognition technology are grateful that they weren’t discriminated against.Jon Askonas, “How Tech Utopia Fostered Tyranny” at The New Atlantis (Number 57, Winter 2019, pp. 3-13.)
Perhaps that is as much as IBM can afford to think about now.
You may also wish to read: If Google thinks for you, use THEIR search engine. Otherwise… Google’s monopoly affects the free exchange of ideas in the public square and our electoral process. Brave Search offers the first true alternative to Google since Bing by introducing a third English language index and protecting user privacy. (Caitlin Bassett)