the ugly side of tech

While the news is awash in various Facebook mis-steps (Cambridge Analytica being the most recent driver), the latest “smoking gun” is a memo written by Facebook VP Andrew Bosworth in 2016 talking about the ends justifying the means. While most of the press is clickbaiting with this “horrible memo” etc, a piece on The Atlantic is much more measured and takes the longer picture. A picture I’ve been talking about for some time.

Facebook’s stated goal is connecting people. Bosworth’s memo argues one of my main talking points about everything having a yin/yang relationship – if you get good, you’ll get bad as well. This is particularly true with technology. The capability is agnostic – it is the application that can be judged good or evil. And often that judgement will be different depending on which side of technology you are on at a given moment. From the article:

New technologies are inescapably fraught. The invention of the printing press helped to touch off decades of brutal sectarian war among Christians. Early innovators of flight were appalled when their inventions were used to drop bombs on civilians. Radio broadcasts were integral to Nazi success in taking over pre-World War II Europe. The Drudge Report needlessly raises the blood pressure of aging Boomers daily.

In this case, the challenge is around “growth tactics” employed by Facebook, including contact and phone/text scraping. In his memo Bosworth argues that anyone working at Facebook essentially owns the dirty side of growth, as that is what enables them to build “great applications” and “connect people.” So in other words, his memo is somewhat holding up a light showing the dirty underbelly of social media companies, but apparently the end justifies the means.

Most press are hammering Bosworth over the memo. The Atlantic piece is much more even-handed, but doesn’t take that overarching rationalization properly to task – at least IMHO. For those of us who have been around social media since before it was called social media (yes, Virginia, Typepad still exists, Geocities not so much), the business model and tactics of Facebook are no surprise. But we’re now playing on a scale we’ve never seen before. Yes, the printing press took an oral tradition and made it durable and portable. But that analog technology didn’t scale over time and space the way that digital does. This is why I always come back to my main tenet – digital is different, and we have to come up with new models and ways to understand the applications and implications of things done on a global and millisecond scale.

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