Across the Great Divide

We shouldn’t be surprised by the social and political problems caused by technology. All sides are actively contributing to the problems — and all sides need to stop pretending otherwise

There is a new fad in political commentary. Wherever you look in the comment pages of traditional media, there are hand-wringing op-eds about the future of the planet. The catch is that it’s no longer the physical planet that’s pricking the bleeding hearts of the intelligentsia, but the digital world that’s so quickly been built around us.

The rise of the term ‘Big Tech’ — describing Facebook, Google and Twitter as the principal sources of information we ‘consume’, but also often applied to Amazon and sometimes Microsoft — should be making dozens of hastily hired public policy employees at these companies quake in their flip flops. When the word ‘Big’ is capitalised in political writing, it usually refers to an industry that’s perceived as dangerous or harmful, losing the trust of voters, and about to get a severe shellacking.

“App-ly some poison yet doth hang on them”

A glance at my own social media channels will reveal that I regularly warn on this topic. I’ve been known to tell friends that I find the rise of seemingly omniscient surveillance technology more terrifying than the election of Donald Trump as president. I’m personally delighted to see politicians and commentators finally waking up to the obvious threats posed by unaccountable, unproven, and unimaginably powerful technology.

But the intensity of this new wave of concern feels confected.

It feels memetic in the same way that viral arguments on Twitter suddenly break out; a teenager with a few hundred followers gabbles some objectionable brain-shard, and gets dogpiled into infinity. And each time I see a new op-ed appear, usually trotting out the same simplistic explanation for why these tech companies are the way they are (“it’s because they’re white men!”, “it’s because they didn’t study enough social science!”, or far more infuriatingly and painfully, “it’s because they’re autistic!”), I can’t help thinking that nothing is that simple.

I’ve had the chance to spend time with a lot of people who are deep in the Big Tech community this year. They are extremely intelligent people who are passionate about learning: they love the intricacies of the universe, and want to find more about its rich details. It’s often ignored, I think, that working software engineers consider themselves computer scientists — with just as much emphasis on the latter word as on the former.

Moreover, at the more innovative, blue-sky end of what goes on in tech companies, the work itself is (to this layperson) pretty much indistinguishable from that of a university. The people engaged in researching the next development in artificial intelligence (a phrase that they usually eschew in favour of ‘machine learning’) would have been academics in another age, and often used to be in this one. Now, they operate within corporations — often simply because they have the biggest computers.

My experience of this community has not been that it is ‘libertarian’.

Most software engineers I know personally believe in a global society that is full of opportunity and compassion. They are not unmoved by suffering. Many — perhaps most — of them do what they do because they genuinely believe it will change humanity, nature, and the universe in very positive ways. (This is borne out by detailed research into the stances of Silicon Valley’s elite level entrepreneurs, by the way.)

So, it isn’t that these people are ‘anti-government’. They can work quite well with political figures or organisations when they believe genuine progress can be achieved. It’s that they’re anti-politics: they’re turned off by the rhetoric, which is long on opinion and short on data. They can’t abide policy-based evidence-making. And now, they’re faced with condemnation from people who don’t appear to have a solid understanding of what they build, or how it works.

Don’t get me wrong. There are plenty of examples of tin-eared behaviour by Big Tech. Sending anonymous drones to the Congressional hearings, rather than taking responsibility, was a sign that Zuckerberg, Pinchai and Dorsey have still not grasped quite how bad the situation is for them. Meanwhile, Facebook in particular has made a succession of blunders, from ‘Jew haters’, to VR in Puerto Rico, to asking you for nudes, to silencing entire countries’ independent media overnight.

The tech companies have a lot of work to do. This has to go beyond sappy PR efforts like Facebook’s appropriation of fact-checkers. They ought to be doing some serious self-assessment and self-regulation, and although there has been a little movement, it’s generally been reactive, slow and ineffective. It often feels like one step forward and two steps back. They are taking an enormous risk by dragging their feet.

Big Tech has work to do. But so do politicians and the media.

Pointing fingers and apportioning blame is the easy way out. It solves nothing, and adds to the (largely accurate) impression of politics described above that many in the tech community share. Unfortunately, it’s become the dominant way to respond to problems we identify — and the bigger the problem, the more likely we are to respond with rage rather than reason.

The better response is humility. It is not as if politicians in the countries where Big Tech is most dominant — the USA and the UK being the most obvious — have a strong record on anticipating or understanding the implications of technological progress. They’ve tended to follow the public on this, and most voters still quite like Big Tech; after all, they make products that people rely upon, and they often make them dreamily easy — even fun, or joyful — to use.

I’ve seen few attempts by politicians in either country to take seriously the possibility that the best course of action is to research the problem, think about solutions, and engage with all the relevant communities who might have a role to play in implementing them. Each time some senior member of Congress comes out swinging, it is likely to alienate the people we most need to persuade.

The same goes for the media. One gets the sense that tech-orientated journalists are really enjoying sticking the boot into the so-called ‘platforms’ that denied they were media companies while siphoning away the primary source of income for traditional media companies. But it is not as if the publishers had no opportunity to alter their business models as the internet established itself as humanity’s dominant system for information delivery.

I’ve recently proposed better ways around the problems created by Facebook and Google as media platforms. But the point here is a simple one:

It’s time for all sides to stop pretending they haven’t made a contribution to the current mess.

It’s time for all sides to start asking productive questions, providing useful data, and building lasting solutions.