"Those who designed our digital world are aghast at what they created," argues a new article in New York Magazine
titled "The Internet Apologizes".
Today, the most dire warnings are coming from the heart of Silicon Valley itself. The man who oversaw the creation of the original iPhone believes the device he helped build is too addictive. The inventor of the World Wide Web fears his creation is being "weaponized." Even Sean Parker, Facebook's first president, has blasted social media as a dangerous form of psychological manipulation. "God only knows what it's doing to our children's brains," he lamented recently...
The internet's original sin, as these programmers and investors and CEOs make clear, was its business model. To keep the internet free -- while becoming richer, faster, than anyone in history -- the technological elite needed something to attract billions of users to the ads they were selling. And that something, it turns out, was outrage. As Jaron Lanier, a pioneer in virtual reality, points out, anger is the emotion most effective at driving "engagement" -- which also makes it, in a market for attention, the most profitable one. By creating a self-perpetuating loop of shock and recrimination, social media further polarized what had already seemed, during the Obama years, an impossibly and irredeemably polarized country... What we're left with are increasingly divided populations of resentful users, now joined in their collective outrage by Silicon Valley visionaries no longer in control of the platforms they built.
Lanier adds that "despite all the warnings, we just walked right into it and created mass behavior-modification regimes out of our digital networks." Sean Parker, the first president of Facebook, is even quoted as saying that a social-validation feedback loop is "exactly the kind of thing that a hacker like myself would come up with, because you're exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology. The inventors, creators -- it's me, it's Mark [Zuckerberg], it's Kevin Systrom on Instagram, it's all of these people -- understood this consciously. And we did it anyway."
The article includes quotes from Richard Stallman, arguing that data privacy isn't the problem. "The problem is that these companies are collecting data about you, period. We shouldn't let them do that. The data that is collected will be abused..." He later adds that "We need a law that requires every system to be designed in a way that achieves its basic goal with the least possible collection of data... No company is so important that its existence justifies setting up a police state."
The article proposes hypothetical solutions. "Could a subscription model reorient the internet's incentives, valuing user experience over ad-driven outrage? Could smart regulations provide greater data security? Or should we break up these new monopolies entirely in the hope that fostering more competition would give consumers more options?" Some argue that the Communications Decency Act of 1996 shields internet companies from all consequences for bad actors -- de-incentivizing the need to address them -- and Marc Benioff, CEO of Salesforce, thinks the solution is new legislation. "The government is going to have to be involved. You do it exactly the same way you regulated the cigarette industry. Technology has addictive qualities that we have to address, and product designers are working to make those products more addictive. We need to rein that back."