The Laziness of Time Well Spent

First draft for The Silicon Valley Convention agenda

Another Monday, Another Naive Weekly - Curated stories on Technology and Internet Culture.

Originally I’d planned to follow up on last week’s newsletter by celebrating the people of the Internet. They say plumbers run the world, but who runs the Internet?

I wanted to write the post to diverge focus from the obsession with the lone genius founder and celebrate the millions of silent workers making the bits and bytes work, day after day. It would also allow me to plug Martin’s newly announced conference exploring maintenance, hosted in Beirut.

My plans were changed when I got around to read Roger McNamee’s front page story in Time about Facebook. Roger’s tale of Zuckerberg the villain triggered me.

Roger is an early investor in Facebook. For many years he was a trusted advisor to Mark. In late 2016 he started to warn Mark about certain posts he saw in Facebook groups. To Roger’s surprise his mentee did not listen this time, allowing for the posts to continue and spread during the presidential election of 2016. The posts were those of Russian bots, fabricated to swing the election in favour of Donald Trump.

For the sake of moving the discussion to somewhere useful let’s not dwell with the convenience of Roger’s story. It sounds like an airport bestseller. Instead, let’s continue our conversation from last week and talk more about Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook.

In our awakening to the influence technology has on our lives and societies we’ve found our villain. Born May 14, 1984 Mark-The-Lizard has created a monster causing our democracies to crumble, our reporters to starve and our kids to be lonely.

In our eagerness to promote the story of Mark-The-Super-Villain, we seem to forget that the world is improving in almost all categories that matter, from child mortality to people living in democracies. We also seem to forget the wars, scandals and challenges humanity faced prior to May 14, 1984.

Occasionally we broaden our perspectives and recruit a few extra scapegoats. Silicon Valley’s Eleven would feature Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, Travis Kalanick, Peter Thiel and probably a handful of other accomplices on the mission to destroy world order.

In elementary school my Danish teacher once told me that whenever I pointed fingers, there was four fingers pointing back at me. Any blame-game we would initiate about Facebook should include not only the founders, but also the employees, the members of the board, the shareholders, the regulators and the users.

With two billion monthly active Facebook users, we have quite the bunch to blame. So maybe we should stop looking for scapegoats and start looking for causes? And maybe we should even start with a better understanding of the problem before we try to figure a way solve it, let alone find anyone to blame.

Roger McNamee is not alone when comparing social media to smoking. Like smoking, he and others argue that social media should be strongly regulated and smokers should be taxed for the externalities they cause - namely hospital bills.

But where smoking is proven to cause cancer, the influence of technology and social media on our lives and societies are still debated by researchers. For example, a recent study containing data of 350,000 teens in the US and the UK did not find any significant link between screen time and mental illness.

And whenever I hear someone scream fake news or post-truth, it is hard not to think of the hundreds of years people around the globe have been living according to rules dictated by Gods and folklore.

Maybe it is time to accept that the Internet is not a utopian cyberspace. It has inherited all of the problems and challenges that we as a society have in the real world: racism, sexism, elitism, division of race, class, age, and power dynamics.

I was once told by a feminist friend, that change is happening whenever you see an angry old white man. To me the Internet and social media is perhaps the greatest equaliser invented since the printing press. Anyone from anywhere can connect to the Internet, share their opinions, gather a community and make a change.

In the early 20th century humans started to see the challenges of the rise of cities, from pollution to crime. In Chicago this gave birth to urban sociology, the study of life and human interaction in cities. What later became known as the the Chicago School, showed how human behaviour was shaped by social structures and the physical environment, rather than genetic and personal characteristics

Instead of talking about smoking. Instead of villainizing lone genius founders. Instead of selling books. Let’s start a proper conversation on how human behaviour is shaped by the digital world we are lucky to be living in.

The Silicon Valley Convention

In many ways our digital infrastructure mirrors our physical infrastructure. Once you start to notice the similarities, it is hard not to see them. Cities become platforms. Houses become user profiles. Doors become friend requests.

In criminology they talk about the broken window theory. It states that any visible sign of crime is likely to encourage further crime. Like trash on the streets fosters more trash. Like hateful, unmoderated forum posts fosters more hateful forum posts.

It is not in our interest that we don’t fix societies broken windows, whether physical or digital. To figure out how, we could arguably look to Chicago again. In 1944 the aviation industry was yet to kickoff. The adoption was held back by a large number of plane crashes and a growing public mistrust.

Therefore representatives from around the globe came together at the Chicago Convention, to outline the rules and safety for air travel. It was a significant cooperative accomplishment that radically increased the safety of flying.

I think it is time for The Silicon Valley Convention. It is time to collaborate and share knowledge on how our behaviour online is shaped by digital infrastructure and mechanisms. Time not to find scapegoats, but to actually improve our lives.

At Silicon Convention I hope they’ll discuss:

  • Algorithmic suggestions
    Late 2017 James Bridle published one of the better Medium posts written. It showed the odd, dark side of kids content on Youtube. Early last year Zeynep Tufekci followed up with a story in Nytimes about how Youtube’s up-next algorithm quickly escalated the content shown to viewers, by exposing us to more and more radical opinions. Therefore it should come to no surprise when Buzzfeed News last week showed that Youtube’s algorithmic suggestion is still a rabbit hole.

    I often appreciate the algorithmic suggestions. I’d not want other people to use my Spotify account, it would destroy my Discover Weekly. I’d not want other people to use my Youtube account, it would destroy my front page. So at the convention it would be nice with some proper rules and guidelines on how to use algorithms to suggest content.

  • Notifications and alerts
    The price of reaching someone has decreased to almost zero. It used to have a real price when we posted a letter or made a phone call. The radical price reduction has allowed for scamming to become a business, if you are not already familiar with it, try to watch James Veitch Ted talk where he starts to engage with spammers. It has also allowed for the toxic culture of asking for quick feedback.

    At the convention I’d love for the participants to discuss the economics of the notification. When is it okay to alert someone? Should it cost something to alert someone? What are the defaults for alerting anyone?

  • Trackers and data
    In his Time article Roger McNamee suggests that the digital platforms should pay the users money for using their data. It follows the logic of the broken advertising business model, as Doc Searl has written extensively about.

    I don’t think paying users is the right step. It would only create a rotten incentive system, where users would earn more by providing more data about themselves and spend more time on the platforms. And ultimately, we would only earn around 5-30USD per year depending on where we live.

    If data is the new oil, then don’t make it proprietary. Unlike oil, there is little scarcity about data. You can copy it. You can share. You can make it public. Maybe the convention could discuss if and how it would be possible to enforce platforms to anonymize and make any data they gather publicly available for institutions, companies and individuals to use?

What else should be on the agenda for The Silicon Valley Convention? And who should be invited to sign the convention?

Naive Weekly

Hi, I’m Kristoffer and I’m one of the founders of co-matter. You just read Naive Weekly - Curated stories on Technology and Internet Culture.

Thanks to Geza & Antal for sharing love after last week’s newsletter. Writing this newsletter is more fun when you respond, so please continue that.