Even those who designed our digital world are aghast at what they created. A breakdown of what went wrong — from the architects who built it.
By Noah Kulwin
Something has gone wrong with the internet. Even Mark Zuckerberg knows it. Testifying before Congress, the Facebook CEO ticked off a list of everything his platform has screwed up, from fake news and foreign meddling in the 2016 election to hate speech and data privacy. “We didn’t take a broad enough view of our responsibility,” he confessed. Then he added the words that everyone was waiting for: “I’m sorry.”
There have always been outsiders who criticized the tech industry — even if their concerns have been drowned out by the oohs and aahs of consumers, investors, and journalists. But 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.
To understand what went wrong — how the Silicon Valley dream of building a networked utopia turned into a globalized strip-mall casino overrun by pop-up ads and cyberbullies and Vladimir Putin — we spoke to more than a dozen architects of our digital present. If the tech industry likes to assume the trappings of a religion, complete with a quasi-messianic story of progress, the Church of Tech is now giving rise to a new sect of apostates, feverishly confessing their own sins. And 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.
The advertising model of the internet was different from anything that came before. Whatever you might say about broadcast advertising, it drew you into a kind of community, even if it was a community of consumers. The culture of the social-media era, by contrast, doesn’t draw you anywhere. It meets you exactly where you are, with your preferences and prejudices — at least as best as an algorithm can intuit them. “Microtargeting” is nothing more than a fancy term for social atomization — a business logic that promises community while promoting its opposite.
Why, over the past year, has Silicon Valley begun to regret the foundational elements of its own success? The obvious answer is November 8, 2016. For all that he represented a contravention of its lofty ideals, Donald Trump was elected, in no small part, by the internet itself. Twitter served as his unprecedented direct-mail-style megaphone, Google helped pro-Trump forces target users most susceptible to crass Islamophobia, the digital clubhouses of Reddit and 4chan served as breeding grounds for the alt-right, and Facebook became the weapon of choice for Russian trolls and data-scrapers like Cambridge Analytica. Instead of producing a techno-utopia, the internet suddenly seemed as much a threat to its creator class as it had previously been their herald.
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. The unregulated, quasi-autonomous, imperial scale of the big tech companies multiplies any rational fears about them — and also makes it harder to figure out an effective remedy. 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?
Silicon Valley, it turns out, won’t save the world. But those who built the internet have provided us with a clear and disturbing account of why everything went so wrong — how the technology they created has been used to undermine the very aspects of a free society that made that technology possible in the first place. —Max Read and David Wallace-Wells
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