Is society finally getting serious about its algorithm problems?
Keep me honest here — am I over-indexing on the Tech Gets Its Comeuppance story, or simply reflecting reality? I’m starting to wonder. But once again a review of the past few days of business news is dominated by the techlash. Yes, I could have filled this column with stories about the stock market, but truth be told, it feels appropriate that we let some air out of the Wall Street “melt up.”
I’ll admit I’m fascinated by society’s response to technology’s moment of scrutiny. It’s happening in real time, and not just in the worlds of Facebook and Google. Here are a few of the most interesting stories since last Friday:
I’ve known Roger McNamee for more than two decades, and I’ve always respected his ability to dance the fine line between being a capitalist — he co-founded two massive private equity funds and made more money than I could possibly imagine — and being a human being (he’s played more than a thousand gigs with his various jam bands over the years). But when I met Roger recently, I found him to be a man on fire — he fundamentally believes, as do I, that we’re well out over our skis when it comes to the technology we’ve built. Now McNamee and a small but powerful group of fellow travelers have launched The Center for Humane Technology, described as a coalition on a mission to explore was to “realign technology with humanity’s best interests.” That’s a very big mission, and the coalition is still in its fragile early stages. But I for one am cheering it on. MQ: “The campaign, titled The Truth About Tech, will be funded with $7 million from Common Sense and capital raised by the Center for Humane Technology. Common Sense also has $50 million in donated media and airtime from partners including Comcast and DirecTV. It will be aimed at educating students, parents and teachers about the dangers of technology, including the depression that can come from heavy use of social media.”
News in the making: This one day event on the topic in DC tomorrow.
One of my 2018 predictions was that Google was going to have a bad first half of the year. Here’s a story that by all measures could prove that prediction true. The odd thing is, there’s so much “techlash” already, this kind of reporting kind of gets lost. It shouldn’t. MQ: “YouTube is the most overlooked story of 2016,” Zeynep Tufekci, a widely respected sociologist and technology critic, tweeted back in October. “Its search and recommender algorithms are misinformation engines.” More: “Guillaume Chaslot, a 36-year-old French computer programmer with a PhD in artificial intelligence, was one of those engineers. During the three years he worked at Google, he was placed for several months with a team of YouTube engineers working on the recommendation system. The experience led him to conclude that the priorities YouTube gives its algorithms are dangerously skewed.
“YouTube is something that looks like reality, but it is distorted to make you spend more time online,” he tells me when we meet in Berkeley, California. “The recommendation algorithm is not optimising for what is truthful, or balanced, or healthy for democracy.”
Related: PBS now labeled a “state-backed media outlet” by YouTube, just like Russia Today. Oh my.
Just in case you want to understand why this matters, take a look at the use of algorithmic technology like social media and video by young kids. It’s pandemic. MQ: “For example, most adult-based services, like YouTube, use moderators to address bad content that isn’t caught by algorithms and automation, Collins says. That approach, which still leaves on bad content on the platform until a human catches it, doesn’t cut it when the target audience is kids.”
And now Facebook may be taking on YouTube directly. Will the company try to beat YouTube by creating a more human-friendly version of it? Or will it leverage the same approach — algorithms designed to capture attention regardless of impact? Hard to predict. Or…maybe not. MQ: “Facebook wants to create a system where creators can upload their shows for free, then earn a cut of the revenue from ads placed on that content — similar to how YouTube pays its online creators. Another source with knowledge of the situation said Facebook’s ultimate goal is to create a sustainable ad-supported video platform, where it won’t have to pay for the majority of content.”
I’ve just finished reading The Chickenshit Club by Pulitzer prize winning investigative journalist Jesse Eisinger. My review will come later in the week, but the book details how our Justice Department and other regulators have been captured by American business, to the point of creating a system that lightly taxes bad behavior without accountability or consequence for individuals. Here’s a classic example of that club in action. MQ: “Three sources say, though, Mulvaney, the new CFPB chief, has not ordered subpoenas against Equifax or sought sworn testimony from executives, routine steps when launching a full-scale probe. Meanwhile the CFPB has shelved plans for on-the-ground tests of how Equifax protects data, an idea backed by Cordray [the old chief].”
I’ve long believed that the savior of democracy might well be a combination of the US city with the US court system. Here’s an example of what I mean. Trouble with this is the fines are tiny compared to the revenue Facebook makes, so this might not be big enough to move the needle. To Facebook’s credit, it seems they are taking the situation seriously. MQ: “The unregulated nature of U.S. online political ads drew attention last year after Facebook said Russians using fake names bought ads on the social network to try to sway voters ahead of the 2016 presidential election. Moscow denies trying to meddle in the election. Buying online election ads requires little more than a credit card. Federal law does not currently force online ad sellers such as Facebook or Alphabet Inc’s Google and YouTube to disclose the identity of the buyers.”