Un-Like

I was fortunate to have a father who showed me how fascinating basic science was, and how we can see it and learn from it all around us in nature. As a child, I slowly realized how our advantage as a species came directly from our ability to harness science and apply it as technology. Therefore I have always been captivated by technology and this fascination led to a kind of optimism. I believed for a long time without question that technology was a net force for good in our lives.

History has a lot to teach us about the social implications of technology, however. Eli Whitney conceived the cotton gin as a way to save people the tedious work of cleaning cotton of its seeds and make production more efficient. But by making cotton more affordable, demand skyrocketed and enslaved countless more African Americans to supply the market. Heroin was synthesized as a less-addictive alternative to opium. Today it continues to take over 100 000 lives worldwide every year. Early twentieth-century physicists were upending the traditional Newtonian view of the universe, helping us understand some fundamental truths about our world, which were counterintuitive, bizarre, and wildly enlightening. A few decades later, physicists developed the atomic bomb using those insights.

I think most scientists and engineers understand that their work can often be used for good as well as ill. Atomic weapons have the potential to kill us all if we do not manage them properly. Harnessed responsibly however, nuclear energy powers our cities as well as spacecraft, allowing us to explore even beyond our own solar system. Nuclear medicine gave us the ability to treat otherwise inaccessible and inoperable tumors. Our modern understanding of subatomic physics have enabled us to finally detect gravitational waves a century after they were postulated.

Therefore I am still hopeful about the power of technology. After all, the saying goes, “Nature wants five of your seven children dead and it wants you dead by fifty. Everything better than that is brought to you by science and technology.” However the key to our prosperity is not just the genius of our technology, but our ability to take responsibility and be proper stewards of that technology. J. Robert Oppenheimer reflected on the Bhagavad Gita after the first successful test of an atomic weapon.

“I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”

Bhagavad Gita (XI,32)

He and many Manhattan Project scientists went on to advocate for nuclear arms control. They didn’t just lay their discoveries and inventions out for the world, but also considered the social and societal impact of their work.

Therefore tech companies today should not be surprised to see not only the public, but also their own employees rebel against the ill-effects of the technology that they have created.

  • Google employees resigned over the company’s participation in a program to develop artificial intelligence for the Pentagon to improve drone targeting. [1]
  • Amazon has come under fire for selling facial recognition to law enforcement agencies that is just as racially biased as humans. [2]
  • Microsoft is backing away from working for the Department of Defense due to employee pressure over its holographic technology being used to kill people. [3]

A common motto of tech start-ups is “move fast and break things.” It reflects the rapid pace that technology develops as well as the spirit of upending conventional values and establish businesses and industries. It is almost always understood to be a positive outlook, reflecting the optimism that tech has the ability not only to solve our problems but also make our lives better by upending conventional business models and institutions. However that pithy mantra makes no claims of responsibility. In fact, it implies that such “details” can be sorted out later.

  • Twitter roared to the forefront of public discourse by creating a whole new forum for open discussion. It has since become a hotbed of racism, neofascism, and misogyny. [4]
  • Uber filled a need by breaking the old model of hailing a taxi. It has moved into markets all over the world with no regard for local regulation either regarding working conditions or safety standards for passengers. [5]
  • Youtube promised to allow anyone to become a star, circumventing the traditional studio model of content distribution. It is now a haven for extremists and a dark rabbit hole of conspiracy and radicalization videos. [6]
  • Theranos promised the ability to be able instantly run a battery of tests on a single drop of a patient’s blood. It was later revealed to be a sham and the tests they performed were dubious, raising real ethical questions about patient safety. [7]

No other company more personifies the “move fast and break things” philosophy like Facebook. Facebook started as a social network of college students, growing rapidly to be a worldwide network of people connecting with friends and family to share moments from their lives while being promoted by the company as a way to “connect people.” According to their high-minded but strangely non-specific mission statement, their goal is to:

Give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together.

facebook.com [8]

Just bringing people closer together isn’t lucrative, though. Selling advertising is. So what does it look like to move fast and break advertising under the auspices of bringing the world closer together?

  • In 2007 Facebook launched a new advertising platform called Beacon that posted users’ activity on third-party sites back to their Facebook profiles without their explicit permission. [9]
  • In 2010 it was discovered that detailed user information was sent to advertisers of Facebook Apps like FarmVille and Texas Hold’em. Facebook reached an agreement with the FTC in 2011 that banned it from such practices, required it to hold regular privacy audits, and forbade “deceptive privacy practices.” [10]
  • In 2012 it started rolling out facial recognition technology without users’ explicit permission. In 2018 it was taken back to court for violating its 2011 FTC agreement. [11]
  • In 2014, Cambridge Analytica was able to use Facebook to acquire the intimate details of over 87 million users. [12]
  • In 2014, it was used as a platform for targeting and inciting mass violence against Burmese muslims and facilitating ethnic cleansing in Myanmar. [13]
  • In 2016 during the US elections, Facebook was swamped with illegitimate “companies” (often tied to Russia) buying advertising space on Facebook to sow discord and misinformation in order to sway the election. [14]
  • In spring and summer of 2017, Facebook was “publicly claiming there had been no Russian effort of any significance on Facebook,” despite an ongoing investigation into the extent of Russian involvement in the election. [15]
  • In autumn of 2017 Facebook paid conservative consultancy companies to buy advertising against people and organizations critical of Facebook such as George Soros and Apple. [16]
  • In 2018 Onavo VPN was launched by Facebook, which required access to monitor every single thing the user does on his/her device, willfully circumventing privacy protections built into smartphones. [17]
  • In 2018 Mark Zuckerberg defended racists’, and holocaust deniers’ right to spread misinformation on Facebook. [18]

For being an ostensibly modern tech company, in the decade or so of its existence, Facebook has proven itself rather old-fashioned in its desire to protect its advertising dollars at all costs, turning blind eye to any harm it might be doing or enabling. Every one of these scandals (of which there are many, many more) were driven by the desire to increase advertising and damning the consequences. It seems that bringing the world closer also means giving racists a platform, allowing the targeting of vulnerable minorities, inciting hate, supporting nation-state propaganda programs, and facilitating genocide, so long as they keep their advertisers happy.

You can not move fast and break things if those things are people’s lives.

And yet despite the full knowledge of Facebook’s sordid history and proven irresponsibility, I remain on Facebook as a victim of another phenomenon of the “move fast and break things” generation: FOMO or fear of missing out. What will I miss out on if I leave Facebook? What about all of my friends? How will I stay connected?

It seems to me that the critical question however is not to ask what I will miss out on but rather to ask what the true value of a platform like Facebook is. If I primarily fear losing contact, then there follows a number of reflective questions.

  • Are the conversations I am having really valuable to me? Or am I getting pulled into conversations that I would avoid if the setting were a dinner party instead of Facebook?
  • Is it really important to know that my friend’s third child celebrated his graduation from kindergarten? Or can my life continue without this information?
  • What does it mean to me if today is my “friendversary” with someone I met at a party and I now barely remember? Is this actually helping me know that person any better?
  • Do I need to continue “debunking” the bigoted memes people post or correcting the anti-science nonsense that I keep seeing in my newsfeed? Or are the actual benefits minimal while being exposed to the poisonous content just grinds on my soul?

The ability to “stay connected” and learn about important events in friends’ and families’ lives have been overwhelmed by content that I quite frankly don’t care about and can actually be harmful to me. Most things in my news feed move so fast and where there seem to be so many developments, are fleeting, ephemeral, and most of the time ultimately meaningless. It doesn’t appear that I’ll be missing much of anything. The fear of missing out seems largely to be an unfounded fear. And quite frankly there are so many better ways that I could spend my time. To quote professor of Computer Science and author Cal Newport:

[T]he mathematics are clear: You want to put as much of your time and effort as possible into the small number of things to give you these huge rewards. When you think about it that way, fear of missing out looks like, just mathematically speaking, a really bad strategy.

Cal Newport [19]

I am still hopeful in the promise of technology. Just because I see that there are challenges does not mean I will simply start rejecting technology. The choice between the wholesale embracing of all technology or being a neo-Luddite is a false dichotomy. It is important to be selective in what technologies you use but more importantly in how you spend your time. After all, there is no greater resource that any of us have than time. And we are never really sure how much of it we have.

I am leaving Facebook. My profile will remain for people who are still on there who want to find me. And I will continue with the occasional work-related tweet. But going forward I am going to rely on our web site to let friends know what we are up to and stay in touch via email and phone.

Until Facebook (and lots of new tech) starts to change, the hubris of the “move fast and break things” mentality looks more and more like an excuse to shirk all social responsibility.

And honestly, I have better things to do.


[1] ‘The Business of War’: Google Employees Protest Work for the Pentagon – The New York Times

[2] Amazon’s Facial Recognition Wrongly Identifies 28 Lawmakers, A.C.L.U. Says – The New York Times

[3] Microsoft CEO defends Pentagon contract following employee outcry – The Verge

[4] Has Facebook become a forum for misogyny and racism? | News | The Guardian

[5] When your Uber driver is a spy

[6] Forget Facebook, YouTube videos are quietly radicalizing large numbers of people — and the company is profiting

[7] A New Look Inside Theranos’ Dysfunctional Corporate Culture | WIRED

[8] Facebook | About

[9] RIP Facebook Beacon

[10] Facebook in Online Privacy Breach; Applications Transmitting Identifying Information – WSJ

[11] What You Don’t Know About How Facebook Uses Your Data – The New York Times

[12] How Trump Consultants Exploited the Facebook Data of Millions – The New York Times

[13] How Facebook’s Rise Fueled Chaos and Confusion in Myanmar | WIRED

[14] The 21 (and Counting) Biggest Facebook Scandals of 2018 | WIRED

[15] https://www.techrepublic.com/article/facebook-data-privacy-scandal-a-cheat-sheet/

[16] 6 Questions From The New York Times’ Facebook Bombshell | WIRED

[17] http://]https://www.wired.com/story/facebook-research-app-lessons/

[18] https://www.engadget.com/2018/07/20/mark-zuckerberg-ceo-billionaire-troll-holocaust-denial/

[19] Cal Newport on Why We’ll Look Back at Our Smartphones Like Cigarettes – GQ

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