The famous quote from Lord Acton—“Absolute power corrupts absolutely”—is a good guide to compiling a list of the companies that are likely to need policing. The list is pretty short—Amazon, Facebook, Google (including YouTube), Twitter, and Uber (perhaps). And the effect on humankind (especially children) is pretty severe. Amazon is now so large and powerful that it is in danger of being prosecuted under the antitrust laws.
Fortunately, a handful of Silicon Valley notables have become activist vigilantes. And they are aiming at kids to use their smartphones for healthy purposes rather than wasting time on useless social apps.
We admit to being generally anti- to social networks. In our view they are an unnecessary sugar coating of basic functionality already provided in a range of websites. Our views were included when we originally uploaded our TechnologyBloopers website in August 2014, which included our critical analysis of Facebook’s “Terms of Service”.
Among the tech giants Facebook has recently has become the poster child for taking the notion of “if something is not forbidden by law, then it is allowed”, replacing Google (which did things like copying millions of pages of books in the name of making knowledge available, but violating the copyrights of the authors). This behavior earned a “command performance” for Mark Zuckerberg with congress as the audience.
This club is pretty exclusive today, with American members including mainly Alphabet/Google, Amazon, Apple, Facebook, IBM, Intel, Microsoft, and Netflix. They are so big that to grow significantly they have to look for other big markets (like cloud computing or self-driving cars or Hollywood-type movies) to enter, and most of those big markets are already occupied by other club members or non-member already-large specialists. What are the bloopers here? A classical one would be monopoly/oligopoly pricing and/or restraint of trade. But perhaps more important might be the opportunities lost by a failure to allocate capital to creating useful NEW-AND-DIFFERENT products and services.
Despite our repeated reminders that the multiple woes—especially housing prices, traffic gridlock, and long commutes—of tech companies’ building large staffs in the San Francisco/San Jose area, nearly all of these mainly-software organizations continue to ignore the logic of setting up new operations in other cities in the U.S. And these other cities would love to have them locate their operations in their respective cities. This phenomenon, coupled with the September 13 opening of the vaunted Cornell Tech in New York City, is so noticeable that Bloomberg Businessweek went to considerable effort to prepare a pictogram for its September 11 issue that includes about 300 metro areas (but they do not appear to be the 300 most populous cities in the U.S.) is so detailed that they couldn’t include it in their online version and an article apparently so basic that they couldn’t include it in their print version. On the horizontal (“good stuff”)axis it combined nine positive ways: rates of college education, science and engineering majors, top universities, headquarters of big tech companies, venture capital investment, share of jobs in computer-systems design and related services, broadband subscription rates, independent coffee shops (huh??),and commutes by bike/public transportation/on foot. On the vertical (“bad stuff”) axis it combined three negative ways: high home prices, lots of income inequality, and long drive times. It weighted these 12 ways equally (what else could they do?) and plotted a scattergram with city names as labels. In the upper lefthand corner (high on both good stuff and bad stuff) is the San Francisco/San Jose area (Silicon Valley), which is in the biggest “quadrant” (the quadrants are quite unequal in area) called “Both the good and the bad of Silicon Valley”. The upper righthand quadrant is “Unequal and expensive, but not techie”, the lower lefthand quadrant is “Tech without the downsides”, and the lower righthand quadrant is “ Least like the Bay Area”. The authors highlighted Boston (not surprisingly, due to its many good universities and Route 128 tech companies), Boulder, Co (high percent of households with broadband access), and Ithaca, NY (low housing cost). Ithaca??!! Well, it’s home of Cornell University which, together with partner Israel’s Technion, created Cornell Tech, and it’s the most techie of the Ivy League. (It’s also our home town, with nice summers, but awful winters … especially compared with Silicon Valley.)
Facebook and a handful of other social media are so entrenched that few people think about life before them. But the Web was conceived 15 years before Facebooks’s founding in 2004. Facebook put a pretty face on the Web, and billions of people have flocked to it. And Google Search, YouTube, and a handful of other giants –fueled by tons of advertising revenues—exercise a lot of control over what people can see and do, so much so that there is growing sentiment about breaking up these monopolistic organizations. And delivering fake news or vicious propaganda from the likes of ISIS (ironically ISIS can even get PAID by YouTube while it disseminates its messages of hatred) adds further pressure for this breakup.
Why are we at Technology Bloopers going back centuries to use Greek and Latin to admonish Millennials to be careful how they use social networks? Just as physicians swear that they will “First do no harm”, the likes of Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram, and Reddit are so powerful that they should also have such an oath … or risk legislation to prevent their doing harm. There are numerous examples of the harm they have already done. Most recently, the fake news posted by malevolent individuals and organizations had some impact on the U.S. presidential race, possibly to the extent that Hillary Clinton was unfairly defeated by Donald Trump. The importance of some of the harm being done is likely to result in legislation to limit their behavior, so these giant companies should police themselves before the government does so.
People are social animals, so the social networks can provide a ton of experiences that they crave. People like fatty foods and sugary drinks, but over-indulging can make them obese due to their lack of nourishing foods and drink. The same goes for social networks, which can distract them with amusing but mindless fare but deprive them of the solid information and communication they need to be productive. The web already provides effective ways to communicate with your friends, business associates, and other people organizations. Information is used to inform, educate, and entertain, but it appears that social networks overdo the entertain role and short the inform and educate roles.
All of the above goes double (or more) for teenagers, who usually have a lot of time and highly value being popular. Additionally, they haven’t yet developed a full set of values that allows them to distinguish good from bad, and avoid the bad. They might profit from a couple of pieces of homespun advice. Remember that much “Web Wisdom” is worth only what you pay for it. And “Believe nothing that you hear and only half of what you see”.
“The Lord Giveth and the Lord Taketh Away” is a truly flexible and useful concept. We can replace “Lord” by such notions as “Technology” or “Internet” or “Mobile Devices” or a whole host of other products and services. And those products and services can be used to teach us, to inform us, to entertain us, etc. How valuable they are depends on the objectives of the individual or group in question. We’d guess that a large fraction of the folks who read the New York Times either work pretty hard or respect others who do work pretty hard. On the other hand those who spend a lot of time looking at or posting to Tumblr probably are at the other end of the spectrum, as Tumblr itself serves up such suggestions as “5 ways to waste the rest of the day” (by the way, you can find lots of OTHER folks using that phrase when you surf) and counsels its members that “work can wait”, presumably while you read or write posts on Tumblr.
To put this in perspective we took a look at how Americans spent their day in 2014, thanks to some detailed data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Of the 24.00 hours in a day, we spend 10.75 hours taking care of basic needs (sleeping, other personal care, and eating and drinking), 3.59 hours working or doing work-related activities, a meager 0.42 hours being educated (a low average because the majority of Americans are not enrolled in educational institutions), a whopping 5.30 hours on leisure and sports (which includes 2.82 hours watching television), and a modest 0.14 hours communicating (telephone, email, and snailmail).
But even the most casual observer would likely object to the low communicating figure from the BLS because everywhere you look people are peering into their smartphones. One study found that smartphone users spend two hours each day using those devices. And what are they doing with those phones? It depends on whose statistics you believe, but it is interesting to note that it’s not all entertainment. And it is even more interesting to realize that a smartphone enables its user to seamlessly shift between work-related and personal activities, so they aren’t all just wasting the rest of the day a la Tumblr. Whew, the American economy may not be in danger!
But though most people can recover from having their credit card data compromised (or perhaps weren’t personally affected by it), they might not recover so well from having their marriage destroyed, so perhaps the most poignant of recent hacks was the one of the Ashley Madison extramarital affair website. Most recently Ashley Madison users filed class action lawsuits in Canada and the US, which will almost certainly destroy the company and at a minimum disgrace its parent company Avid Life Media Ironically, the hackers had originally not tried to destroy the whole thing but to force more ethical behavior on it, and when the company stonewalled the hackers carried out their threat of disclosure. Another example of hubris … which has at a minimum forced the CEO of Avid Life Media to resign.
The U.S. Supreme Court has just overturned the conviction of a man who posted on Facebook (in rap music form!) a set of threats to his estranged wife, law enforcement agencies, and local elementary schools, as described in The Wall Street Journal. This legal system reversal was justified on the basis that the earlier jury had not considered the man’s state of mind when he made these posts. Huh? Is this a journalistic or a legal error? Common sense would strongly suggest that his state of mind was murderous. Whether he would actually follow through and commit the heinous acts is the question, and it appeared that the earlier jury thought he would … though his couching his threats in rap music might suggest some softer attitude (unless it was gangsta rap). (And likely the longer he had been abused by the divorce courts, politically-motivated judges, and the like, the more likely he would have expressed himself in strong terms.)
This event seems to be one of an increasingly frequent series that takes the notion of freedom of speech to an extreme. And it underlines the ease with which anyone, sane or crazy, serious or just kidding, etc. can express their views to giant audiences via social networks such as Facebook. Facebook seems to have escaped unscathed this time, but if enough such events continue to occur, they may not escape over the longer term. And while the issues are not identical, hasn’t Google been forced to “forget” large quantities of search results in Europe? Pressure for reforms can only get more intense.
Social networks collect enormous amounts of data about people’s intentions and actions, but they have come into being so quickly that there hasn’t been time for much wisdom to have been gleaned from this data. The large majority of both the staffs of the social network companies and their users have little or no experience with the practical challenges of collecting and interpreting data. A just-published study by Derek Ruths of McGill University and Jürgen Pfeffer of Carnegie Mellon University in Science Daily warns of some of the pitfalls. Foremost among them is not dealing with the biases due to the composition of the sample. Technology Bloopers’ Statistics and Surveys webpage states at the outset “Be sure your sample is representative.” Different social networks attract different sorts of people, in terms of age, gender, ethnicity, etc. Findings based on data from one almost certainly do not represent the U.S. population as a whole. One flagrant example, which occurred decades before most of the people designing or using today’s social networks were born, was the mistaken prediction that Dewey would beat Truman in the 1948 U.S. presidential race; this was caused by a failure to sample voters properly. There are certainly a number of similar errors that have already been made by failures to understand the underlying samples from social networks’ being used for decision-making.