Technology, Humanity, and the Existential Test

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Can we govern ourselves? Will we?

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If you pull far enough back from the day to day debate over technology’s impact on society – far enough that Facebook’s destabilization of democracy, Amazon’s conquering of capitalism, and Google’s domination of our data flows start to blend into one broader, more cohesive picture – what does that picture communicate about the state of humanity today? 

Technology forces us to recalculate what it means to be human – what is essentially us, and whether technology represents us, or some emerging otherness which alienates or even terrifies us.  We have clothed ourselves in newly discovered data, we have yoked ourselves to new algorithmic harnesses, and we are waking to the human costs of this new practice. Who are we becoming?

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Why Facebook Calls It An Arms Race

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DorseySandbergSenate

It’s the business model, folks. If we’re going to “fix” anything, we have to start there.

“We weren’t expecting any of this when we created Twitter over 12 years ago, and we acknowledge the real world negative consequences of what happened and we take the full responsibility to fix it.”

That’s the most important line from Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey’s testimony yesterday – and in many ways it’s also the most frustrating. But I agree with Ben Thompson, who this morning points out (sub required) that Dorsey’s philosophy on how to “fix it” was strikingly different from that of Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg (or Google, which failed to send a C-level executive to the hearings). To quote Dorsey (emphasis mine): “Today we’re committing to the people and this committee to do that work and do it openly. We’re here to contribute to a healthy public square, not compete to have the only one. We know that’s the only way our business thrives and helps us all defend against these new threats.”

Ben points out that during yesterday’s hearings, Dorsey was willing to tie the problems of public discourse on Twitter directly to the company’s core business model, that of advertising. Sandberg? She ducked the issue and failed to make the link.

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Memo To Tech Leaders: It’s Time to Stand Up To The Bully In Chief.

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Trump Fake news?Next week Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, and Jack Dorsey, CEO of Twitter, will testify in front of Congress. They must take this opportunity to directly and vigorously defend the role that real journalism plays not only on their platforms, but also in our society at large. They must declare that truth exists, that facts matter, and that while reasonable people can and certainly should disagree about how to respond to those facts, civil society depends on rational discourse driven by an informed electorate.

Why am I on about this? I do my very best to ignore our current president’s daily doses of Twitriol, but I couldn’t whistle past today’s rant about how tech platforms are pushing an anti-Trump agenda.

Note to Self: Remember to Answer the Senators’ Followup Questions.

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Following my Senate testimony last month, several Senators reached out with additional questions and clarification requests. As I understand it this is pretty standard. Given I published my testimony here earlier, I asked if I could do the same for my written followup. The committee agreed, the questions and my answers are below.

Questions for the Record from Sen. Cortez Masto (D. Nevada)

Facebook Audits

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The Dawn of Digital Switzerlands

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Photo by Derek Thomson on Unsplash

The tech behemoths’ role in nation-states is evolving

The biggest US tech companies now have powers which challenge the primacy of governments in many domains. In many cases they also have capabilities not available to nation states. We touched on these issues, and the notion of “corporate foreign policy” in one of the previous issues of my weekly newsletter Exponential View.

Last year, Microsoft’s Brad Smith argued that — at least in the realm of cybersecurity — “the global tech sector needs to operate as a neutral Digital Switzerland. We will assist and protect customers everywhere.”

Now in the Pennsylvania Law Review, Kristen Eichensehr looks at the issue of Digital Switzerlands in greater depth, 66 pages of it to be precise. We’ve summarized parts of it here. One key distinction between large corporations and nation states is that they lack territory, control of state-violence, and have very different governance mechanisms to nation-states. But that is as true for many supranational bodies as well.

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Two Thirds of the U.S. Population Wrongly Believe Facebook Sells Their Data

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Photo by Thought Catalog on Unsplash

How does this impact their Facebook habits?

A month ago, I suggested that the Facebook Golum will never give up on its data ring — that perfect, shiny, gigantic stream of information about two billion people globally.

Where my Golum comparison goes awry, however, is in the realisation that the real battle of the ring depends on understanding what it is. Facebook users, most of us, do not know the ring.

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How GDPR Kills The Innovation Economy

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Dept. Of Predictable Externalities

It wasn’t supposed to turn out this way.

The seven key principles of GDPR (image)

(Cross posted from Searchblog)

It’s somehow fitting that today, May 25th, marks my return to writing here on Searchblog, after a long absence driven in large part by the launch of NewCo Shift as a publication on Medium more than two years ago. Since then Medium has deprecated its support for publications (and abandoned its original advertising model), and I’ve soured even more than usual on “platforms,” whether they be well intentioned (as I believe Medium is) or indifferent toward and fundamentally bad for publishing (as I believe Facebook to be).

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Facebook’s Gollum Will Never Give Up Its Data Ring

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Precious!

Does Facebook sell your data? An informal poll of my informed Twitter followers suggested that about 70% of us believe that.

Facebook does not sell your data. It protects your data like Gollum holding the ring. Selling your data would not be nearly as profitable as leasing access to you, via advertising— over and over again.

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One Year Later: What Have We Learned About Russia, Facebook and Our Elections?

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NewCo Shift Forum 2018

John Heilemann, Renee DiResta, Laura Rosenberger and Roger McNamee discuss the future of democracy in an era of unrestrained social media.


One year after the Shift Forum convened one of the very first conversations around the role of Russia in disrupting the US electoral process in 2016, moderator John Heilemann once again convenes a panel of experts to plumb what we know about the story. What was revealed is both fascinating and deeply disturbing.

John Heilemann: All right, guys. We have the third in our series of political policy-related panels this morning. This is the one that I have been most looking forward to, because I think it gets to one of the issues that everybody in this room has been thinking about. Everyone in the country’s been thinking about, and the one that no one in the country was thinking about.

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Advertisers to Democracy: ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

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Its most significant business crisis to date fails to tarnish Facebook’s earnings. Perhaps it’s time to admit something about ourselves we don’t want to face.


Facebook earnings just came out, and as it has nearly every quarter, the company crushed it. Many (including myself) were expecting at least some measurable effect on the company’s performance from the Cambridge Analytica train wreck, but the company seemed instead to pick up steam, booking a 63 percent increase in earnings year on year and beating Wall St. estimates by an astounding 34 cents a share. “Up yours, haters!” may not have been overtly stated on the earnings call, but I am quite certain there was plenty of that sentiment going around One Hacker Way today. In America — particularly Trump’s America, nothing washes away sins like unmitigated success. Oh, and money — lots and lots of money.

Facebook stock is already trading more than five percent up in after hours, and will likely pop on the open, as the investing public hastens to ride it back up to its pre-Cambridge Analytica highs. And why not? It’s Facebook’s time, after all. The company has taken its licks, apologized, and promised to do better. Zuck went to Washington, and new features seems to roll out almost daily — each promising one more “fix” for whatever was originally broken about the service.

It’s not Facebook’s fault that capitalism works the way it does. The bare truth is simply this: Facebook works for advertisers, which is another way of saying it works for business. And as long as it keeps doing that, business people aren’t going to stop using it. Period, end of sentence. The executives at Facebook know this, and as much as they’ve claimed they’re willing to impinge their business to “fix” their service, there’s simply no way they’ll actually going to roll out any changes that significantly change how their advertising model works. Regulation could “fix” it for them, but after Congress’ laughable performance earlier this month, that’s highly unlikely.

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