Is Silicon Valley a force for good?

For the record, and before I embark on this article, I would like it noted that I am a professional software engineer who works within the field of software development. I have done so for nearly two decades. I am a geek with a genuine passion for technology. I get enthused by technology, and wouldn’t want to be in any other field.

With that out the way, let’s get on with the article. I don’t generally write about politics, and for very good reason. Like religion, politics can be a very controversial subject. It can be polemic and can often escalate to hyperboplic arguments. I have my political views, but don’t wish to use this platform to air them. I do, however, from time to time, voice them over on my Twitter and Gab feeds. Over the last decade, I have seen many small, incremental changes from many of the tech giants that have made me question whether they provide a net positive for the world. Unless you have lived under a rock for the past few decades, you cannot have failed to realise how immersive technology is in our every day lives. We use technology for our personal lives, social lives, communications, gaming, entertainment, searching for news and information and so on.

Over the past decade, the tech giants including Google, Facebook and Twitter have come to dominate not just the technical arena, but the social, cultural and political ones as well. It is no secret that these technical corporations are liberal and left leaning in their political makeup. How can an organisation that is composed of thousands of people be said to have a single political bias? Surely with so many people working for them, you would think there would be large variation in political diversity? It would seem that this is far from the case. Despite being told that “Diversity is our strength” by those on the political left, this doesn’t apply to political diversity. Yes there may be gender, religious and racial diversity, but there is very little in the way of political diversity. And herein lies the problem.

Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey has openly admitted that there is ‘left leaning bias’ within Twitter, but then goes on to state that this doesn’t influence company policy. I think Jack is being more than a little economical with the truth if he thinks Twitter’s left leaning bias doesn’t affect company policy. If you’re a conservative, a Trump supporter, Republican, or right-of-centre in your political compass, it is fair to say that Twitter can be a very unwelcoming place. In fact, it can often be a downright hostile place. Many right leaning Twitter users have faced bans, shadow bans or been outright kicked off the platform (Alex Jones, Milo Yiannopoulos, Gavin McInnes, James Woods (the actor — although he has since been reinstated) and Jesse Kelly) to name just a few. Even President Trump is not immune from the threat of being kicked off the platform[^].

New York Times op-ed Sarah Jeong made many openly, anti-white, anti-male tweets[^] earlier this year but didn’t receive a ban or even a suspension. Some of her tweets included:

- “#cancelwhitepeople”
- “1. White men are bulls — . 2. No one cares about women. 3. You can threaten anyone on the internet except cops.”
- “Oh man. It’s sick how much joy I get from being cruel to old white men”
- Dumba — f — ing white people marking up the internet with their opinions like dogs pissing on fire hydrants.”

It should be noted that Sarah Jeong’s account is a verified, blue check-marked account. So whilst Twitter bans people from its platform for wrong-think in many other areas (particularly identity politics), it rewards people like Sarah Jeong by verifying their accounts. As long as your racism is towards white people, and your sexism is towards men, then you’re all good. In the world of Twitter, hate speech does not include white men.

Back in 2017 Google sacked one of its software engineers — James Damore — for sending out a memo that related to Google’s diversity policies. Specifically, it related to the gender differences between men and women, and why women were under-represented in the field of software engineering. To anyone who has read (and understood) the science of gender differences, it won’t come as any surprise that men have a greater interest in this field than women. Men (on average) have a greater interest in “things” (cars, computers etc) and will tend to gravitate to those professions including STEM (science-technology-engineering-mathematics). Whereas women (on average) have a greater interest in “people” and tend to gravitate to those professions such as law, medicine, social care etc. There is nothing inherently wrong with any of this. If you accept that men and women are different (and there are many who don’t accept this self-evident premise), then it stands to reason that their biological differences will lead to differences in their average proclivities and interests. Google it would seem however, don’t seem to accept this. It is this hive mind that has been referred to as Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber[^].

Other examples of Google’s bias include the fact that they recognise International Women’s Day (by displaying an appropriate image on their home page), but don’t recognise International Men’s Day. There are more virtue signalling points to be gained from recognising the former than the latter.

Google searches are notoriously biased in the search results they return. In just one specific example, when asked to define the term “nationalism”, the results between Google (politically biased) and DuckDuckGo (politically neutral) couldn’t be more stark[^]. This was just for a single term. Imagine scaling this up to the millions of search results carried out on the Google platform everyday. At this point Google stops being a search engine, and instead becomes a political tool. Giving you the results it wants you to have. To me this is terrifyinhg. Google is the most powerful internet platform on the planet (forget Twitter, Facebook, Microsoft). Google owns the internet. The fact that it is so blatantly partisan reminds me of Big Brother in 1984. I no longer use Google for my search engine. I now use DuckDuckGo.

In the US, free speech is protected under their First Amendment. This covers speech that could be defined by some as offensive. However, none of the tech giants allow free speech on their platforms. All of them have very strict policies that set out rules for what is permissable speech. These are in fact, rules for policing speech. I am an ardent advocate of free speech. I would much rather all ideas (both good and bad) were transparent, and out in the open in the marketplace of ideas. Not all ideas or ideologies are equal, and the best way to counter the bad ideas is to subject them to public criticism and ridicule. I think the US First Amendment protecting free speech is one the greatest inventions of our time. Something I would dearly love to see protected in the UK (where I live).

The problem with defining hate speech and / or offensive speech, is that hate and offence are very subjective terms. And who gets to decide what is hateful / offensive? What one person may find offensive, another person may not. To my mind at least, the best way to counter this is to let all speech be accepted (apart from speech that directly advocates violence). Then allow people to exercise their free speech to criticise and ridicule that idea or ideology. Protecting certain ideas whilst allowing criticism of others is both prejudicial and counter to free speech, not to mention utterly hypocritical. But this is exactly where all socal media platforms are right now. The worst offender for this is surely Twitter.

Enter Gab. Gab is a social media platform not too dis-similar to Twitter. It hit the headlines recently when it came to light that the Pittsburgh shooter had vented many of his extreme views on the platform before going on his shooting rampage[^] at a synogogue killing 11 people. Gab came into a lot of controversy over the events. The entire tech industry promptly rounded on Gab. The hosting providers (including Microsoft), their app was de-platformed by both Google and Apple, payment processor Paypal and the list goes on. Gab advocates free speech (and is the only social media platform that does), but it certainly does NOT advocate violence. It’s creator Andrew Torba is very clear on this. I suspect that many of the tech giants were simply looking for a reason to de-platform Gab, and the shootings played right into their hands. It is worth noting that the shooter also had accounts on Facebook and Twitter too. Having a competitor that advocated free speech (when they don’t) was always going to end in a retaliatory strike from the elites at Silicon Valley. In my opinion, the (over) reaction from the Silicon Valley tech giants was unfair, unjust and completely unfounded.

There’s a famous phrase that states “If you’re not the one paying for the service, then you’re not the customer”. And this phrase could almost be Facebook’s mission statement. What started as an ambitious social media platform with some great features and concepts, has over the years transformed into little more than a marketing tool for businesses to sell us their products and services. It’s impossible to scroll through your timeline without being bombarded with ads. Many of these ads it is worth noting come directly from your Google searches. It was reported in early 2018 that the big data company Cambridge Analytica had harvested the personal data of millions of Facebook profiles without their consent[^] and used the data for political purposes. The scandal eventually led to Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg appearing before the United States Congress to testify. However, as this was a voluntary agreement on his part, many simply dismissed the hearing as a dog and pony trick which was never going to trigger any criminal proceedings. Are social media giants held to different standards than everyone else? I wonder what the outcome would have been had the scandal involved a tobacco company for example. It’s easy to see how hitting on a tobacco company could generate much kudos and back patting.

In a recent survey it was found that a majority of Americans don’t think social networks are good for the world[^]

the number of people who think social media is a net positive for society is down to 40 percent.

This is not entirely unexpected. Many people are beginning to now see how much power these tech giants wield, and how much influence they hold. Not just politically, but socially and culturally. They dominate our landscape and every part of our lives. I recognise and appreciate the technical advances made by the tech giants, but I have genuine concerns that they are now over stepping their boundaries of responsibility. We are slowly and inexorablly sleep walking into a dystopian, Orwellian world where we are under constant surveillance. Where our personal data renders us to mere commodity. Where we are told what to think and what to say. Where the social, cultural and political norms are dictated to us. Free thought and free expression are being eroded by the tech industry. They promulgate their own political narratives, and destroy all those they disagree with. They don’t take kindly to any form of competition, and will beat into submission anyone that dares to create a competitive technology. Is this really where we want to be? Technology naturally has a part to play in shaping our social and cultural fabric, but that should not include dictating it by force. We are giving far too much power and influence to the Silicon Valley elites. It is high time we put ourselves back in charge.