Are you just gonna turn over your city to Cisco or IBM?

Interview with Jacob Silverman

Over the past weeks we’ve been publishing interviews and sharing insights from people working in tech, with expertise in fields like retail, UX, Internet of Things, and community building. This time we decided to do something contrarian. We’re talking with tech critic Jacob Silverman about the dangers of technology.

You might have encountered Jacob’s writing in The New York Times, Washington Post, and The Guardian. He’s also the author of Terms of Service: Social Media and the Price of Constant Connection. His work revolves around analyzing how the explosive growth of the tech industry is influencing our lives. And since this influence is visible every aspect imaginable, we’ve had a lengthy conversation that touched upon privacy, concentration of power, and smart cities. Enjoy!

Jacob Silverman

Wojtek Borowicz: I remember a few years ago when for the first time Google Now displayed information about shipment of an order I made online. First I was like what the hell why does Google my tracking number. Then I realized it’s actually useful. Where should we draw the line between privacy and utility?

Jacob Silverman: The line is different for different people. We often talk about the notion of creepiness. What’s creepy is defined personally. And just like in the scenario you described, at first you might find something creepy and then decide it’s useful. On the individual level, people just have to make this decision for themselves.

We should definitely be open to new ways of engaging with products and services but there is also a real issue of consent and people feeling they don’t really have a choice. We’re all entangled in this world of digital services and gadgets to the point where even giving up a smartphone feels like missing out. There needs to be ways for people to still use these services and retain control over how their information is used and what’s being collected: like what information about your life will Google Now use. There’s a real problem with education and people’s understanding what privacy means. It’s a conversation we need to have.

But even if people are better educated about privacy, aren’t you afraid tech companies will exploit their power to push the boundaries anyway?

Definitely. That’s why I’m in favor of regulation. I’m not a policy expert but I think we need some kind of algorithmic transparency or at least a way for supervising authorities to audit algorithms, whether it’s Google Search or Amazon suggesting items to you.

We know that companies are going to favor their own services and they might filter out information that’s not in their interest. There have been studies about women and people of color on job sites and we know they are often shown lower paying jobs in search results. That doesn’t mean that someone programmed an algorithm to be sexist, but you can have discriminatory outcomes from system created with good intentions. Whether it’s regulators or industry groups, someone needs to be able to investigate these things. We need complaint systems, we need supervisory bodies, we need experts digging under the hood to find out if a company is potentially manipulating customers.

So you suggest creating a body like FDA but for algorithms?

It’s something that a body that already exists could do, like the FCC or FTC. I know that US government is hiring some technologists for regulatory positions but I think we need a lot more people who marry technological understanding with political understanding. Right now, for example in the debate over encryption, senators don’t know what they’re talking about and don’t understand how the technology works. And that’s where I stand on the side of tech companies: we need to protect encryption, to make it easy to use and legal. Tech companies certainly don’t want to be regulated but what they want even less is to be regulated by government officials who don’t understand technology.

Government is certainly up to the task. We already regulate many other aspects of commerce and daily life, often to the benefit of people. We regulate cable TV, net neutrality, any sort of communications, so there are systems already in place for dealing with this. But you need to hire the right people and establish the right processes.

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Do you think it’s even possible to change people’s mindset at this point? You yourself observed that Apple has become people’s champion during their face-off with FBI over encryption. Googles and Facebooks of the world are where you land a dream job. Tech companies are the rockstars of our age.

We should treat tech as any other industry that has a lot of power: critique it, ask tough questions, sometimes make political decisions that go against their bottom line. That’s just part of engaging with a very influential industry and trying to shape it for the better.

Regarding their influence: recently there was controversy over Facebook allegedly suppressing conservative content. Do you think this dystopian view of social media as Silicon Valley’s mind control machine may come true?

As dramatic as it sounds, the capability is there. We already see ways in which these companies, especially Facebook, Google, and anyone who’s in the business of filtering information, can be very influential. That doesn’t mean they’re always gonna act in a malevolent or harmful way but there can be harmful outcomes. There’s also a flipside. Look at Facebook during the last election in the US. They ran a promotion for users encouraging them to vote and the outcome was positive: there was a real uptick in turnout among the people who saw that message. That’s generally positive but can be easily abused. Because what if Facebook wants to promote a certain politician? They could easily encourage people in a district to vote for him.

We may not have seen those really dystopian outcomes yet, but anytime there is potential to influence what a lot of people see or how they feel, we have to be very careful and demand transparency.

All in all, which of the tech behemoths of today makes you the most concerned?

Google and Facebook seem to embody the notion that they can do no wrong and they’re just improving the world whatever they do. I like when companies and executives are interested in improving lives of other people but we often hear this rhetoric from tech companies and we don’t really get any more specificity than ‘changing the world’. What are they actually doing, besides connecting people or something like that?

Don’t be evil sounds nice, but it’s pretty vague.

Right. And if you look broadly, although we have tech companies doing amazing things, we still have a form of oligarchy with just a few dominant companies. That’s harmful in a lot of ways, mostly because of the concentration of power. And there’s too much money coming to those companies. Facebook and Google take in 85% of all online advertising dollars. That’s just a tremendous amount of power and influence.

I don’t mind big tech companies. But companies like Facebook, Google, and even Amazon which now provides cloud computing for the CIA, have a lot of interest and connections to other big businesses and the government and may not be in the position to really serve the people they’re claiming to serve.

Recently you made the case against every object becoming ‘smart’ and connected. Actually, I’ve heard similar sentiment even from technologists working in Internet of Things. So why do you think companies push so hard for that?

There are couple of reasons. A lot of companies are still trying to figure out what’s profitable and the model of Silicon Valley is to try a lot of things and be prepared for some of them to fail. So they’re still figuring out what kind of connected gadgets customers want. Other motive is purely monetary. When an object is dumb and not connected to the internet, what usually happens is that it’s sold to the customer, the customer takes it home and that’s it. What’s different about the Internet of Things is that the company can potentially access that customer, collect useful data, or contact the customer with future offers and upgrades. What used to be a static relationship between a customer and a producer can now be something more dynamic.

Couple of weeks ago I interviewed Alicia Asin, CEO of an IoT company Libelium. She says that benefits of connected world far outweigh the privacy risks and that smart cities can make our society more democratic and rational. I imagine that’s not something you’d agree with.

I don’t. This notion that new digital technologies will somehow encourage democracy or boost freedom is very common but not necessarily true in practice. Social media has given a lot of people voice but it wasn’t quite the democratic savior, for example for the Arab Spring. And even though people now have ways to express themselves in a lot of ways that weren’t available before, they’re also being observed by governments and advertising networks.

Companies are promising cities and governments savings through the Internet of Things. But we have to ask: what are the policies? Are you just gonna turn over your city to Cisco or IBM and let them run the infrastructure? We shouldn’t just give over control and privatize certain public services simply in the name of saving money, because you’re potentially giving away access to a lot of sensitive data about people. And companies might have a civic-minded mission, but it’s not the same as a government that’s supposed to serve people.

Do you use any smart devices yourself? An Apple Watch? Maybe Fitbit?

I have a smartphone and I use a computer that I’m pretty dependent on. Can’t really think of any others. I’m not on Facebook anymore, but I’m still on Twitter, it’s a very useful information-gathering tool. I identify as a tech critic and I often criticize what tech companies do, but I’m also a bit of hypocrite myself. I don’t claim to be a purist.

Connecting people

So what do you suggest we do now? Should we just close our Facebook and Twitter and Snapchat accounts? Retire Apple Watches and Smart TVs?

I don’t expect people to do that. Each individual has to make a choice about what they’re comfortable with. Personal choice and education is key. You can be a consumer of Apple products, but still object to some of their practices or lobby congressmen about Apple’s working conditions.

The problems around concentration of money and power and privacy is only going to be solved by the political process, regulation, and more competitive economy. Right now it’s a winner-takes-all system. People like Peter Thiel talk a lot about how startups should try to become monopolies. But if the only possible outcome for a startup is to either become a monopoly or get bought out, that’s a problem. Silicon Valley and the industry would be a lot healthier if you had more space for mid-sized companies or for companies that just don’t have to scale above everything. In the venture capital model, the scale becomes everything so it would be very beneficial for everyone to create other incentives.

Since you already brought Peter Thiel up, I cannot help myself. What’s your take on the Thiel vs Gawker situation?

I take the side of the media and journalists that are disturbed by this. It’s a hard situation because Gawker is far from the model citizen but these are exactly the kinds of cases when the defendant is unsympathetic that you need to stick to your principles. Sometimes Gawker have crossed lines, offended people, and done things they had to apologize for but they do a lot of great things and serious reporting.

What’s scary about the Peter Thiel situation is that a billionaire can fund lawsuits in secrecy. Some of them may have basis, some definitely don’t, but they drain the resources of a company. And it doesn’t just have to be Gawker. The rich have a lot of power and any individual or company can be driven into bankruptcy by having to respond to lawsuits or court filings.

Final question. Does the progress tech industry contributed to outweigh the issues of concentration of power? Isn’t progress a good thing?

What kind of progress are we really looking for? Being connected can be very nice but if it just means I hear from my boss or that companies are gonna advertise to me more, or that I will have less control over my daily life, that’s not so good. And I think we’re headed that way.

A lot of people in Silicon Valley have gotten really rich and become very successful. Their businesses improved the quality of life for some people. But in San Francisco and Bay Area income inequality is off the charts.We have an elite class of innovators and engineers but they’re disconnected from the millions of people they serve and sell to. These people live very different lives than they do and may have very different needs. On a subway here in New York there’s an ad for TaskRabbit that says We do chores. You live. It shows people doing yoga and having a good time while other people are running their errands. That’s really troubling and a very good illustration of where we’re at now.

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