When Silicon Valley turns on itself

In case you haven’t seen it, this Paul Lewis article in the Guardian has attracted a lot of attention.  The theme of “‘Our minds can be hijacked’: the tech insiders who fear a smartphone dystopia” concerns some Silicon Valley technologists who are now worried about negative impacts from what they’ve helped to create.

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 Social media platforms maintained by the tech giants (Facebook, to a lesser extent Twitter) accessed through mobile devices (Apple, Google Android) come in for criticism.

It’s a curious piece.  For people who haven’t been following this topic it is, I think, a useful primer.  “‘Our minds can be hijacked'” touches on continuous partial attention, addictive design, dopamine, advertising-based business models, etc.  There’s even the classic nod to Huxley over Orwell (wasn’t this Neil Postman’s insight?).  We can share this article with people to start discussions.  It might be good in classes.

But if we look a little deeper, things get more interesting.  What Lewis is describing is not a popular revolt against Silicon Valley, or a campaign to reform it conducted by outsiders and critics.  Instead the article outlines a clash entirely within the tech world, a struggle limited solely to wealthy and sometimes powerful Valley actors.  The story isn’t about unfolding unrest, but a much smaller tale, about an incipient civil war within the elite.

The article is at its heart a portrait gallery, character studies of certain digital “designers, engineers and product managers”.

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 These portraits are studded with clear signs of privilege.  Lewis observes that “many of these younger technologists are… sending their children to elite Silicon Valley schools where iPhones, iPads and even laptops are banned”, and the term “elite” reverberates from the article in ways it wouldn’t from a US publication.

Early on, there’s a fascinating little detail:

Justin Rosenstein… [a]  34-year-old tech executive … purchased a new iPhone and instructed his assistant to set up a parental-control feature to prevent him from downloading any apps.

He couldn’t manage that little software setting on his own, but needed an assistant to do it for him.  Quite an arrangement for a supremely skilled member of the digital elite.

Better yet, consider this odd passage:

[Tristan] Harris is the student who went rogue; a whistleblower of sorts, he is lifting the curtain on the vast powers accumulated by technology companies and the ways they are using that influence. “A handful of people, working at a handful of technology companies, through their choices will steer what a billion people are thinking today,” he said at a recent TED talk in Vancouver.

So Harris has gone “rogue” so much that… he has a TED talk?  Short of appearing at Davos, this is the opposite of rogue.  It is instead simultaneously mainstream and elitist.  Naturally Harris has the cultural capital to be “meeting lawmakers.”

Similarly, we read about “Roger McNamee, a venture capitalist who benefited from [i.e., had grown very rich through] hugely profitable investments in Google and Facebook”.

McNamee, 61, is more than an arms-length money man. Once an adviser to Mark Zuckerberg, 10 years ago McNamee introduced the Facebook CEO to his friend, Sheryl Sandberg, then a Google executive who had overseen the company’s advertising efforts…

These are the rebels.  Generally, all of those insiders are men.  And a clear majority if not the totality are white, as far as I can tell.

For example.

In short, “‘Our minds can be hijacked'” is a story of insiders, a small world conflict.  That explains why it doesn’t cite any academic critics or the popular writers who have written and advised us on this, from Cathy O’Neil to Howard Rheingold.*  That’s why the subject appears in nearly clinical isolation – for example, there’s no reference at all to computer gaming, a vast business, and which is surely central to any digital attention and economics discussion.  Similarly, Lewis never mentions other ad-driven businesses, even when they overlap with and participate in the digital world, such as television.  Those connections, fascinating and illuminating at they can be, are not the point of this particular account.

Bearing this in mind, we can now better understand a key claim of the article’s conclusion, that increased government regulation is likely.

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  This is an important point.  The American Congress is already clearly, deeply beholden to the very wealthy and connected, as scholarship and, well, reality have amply demonstrated.  A movement within that sphere of privilege has a better chance of succeeding that one driven by popular dismay or, worse, academic analysis.  Looking ahead to the short- and medium-term future of technology, we should keep an eye on this insider development.  Remember the phrase “meeting lawmakers.”

The location of this development helps explain one particular contour or limitation of its politics.  The technology giants invoked – Facebook, Apple, Google – are spectacular creations of the market economy.  One could number them among the greatest titans of neoliberalism, if one allowed that vexed term.  Perhaps because the Guardian is a British enterprise at heart, even when turning its attention to America, it can actually raise the possibility of radical left wing politics in this discussion:

“’It is not inherently evil to bring people back to your product,’ [Chris Marcellino, former Apple iPhone engineer] says. ‘It’s capitalism.’ That, perhaps, is the problem.”

Perhaps capitalism itself is the problem?  What a powerful claim in 2017!

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That politics, alas, drops from the rest of the article.  Again, the piece is about politics within the elite, not about possible critiques or movements against its existence and justification.

Perhaps beyond that privileged social stratum, down among the hoi polloi, we’ll see left-wing anticapitalism and popular loathing of the big tech giants intersect.  We’ve had hints of this before.  They could be signs of a new politics – and one very different from the kind that requires wealthy and powerful people to profitably mull their mistakes.

*There is one exception, an “ex-Google strategist” who’s now “on the cusp of completing a PhD at Oxford University exploring the ethics of persuasive design.”  I don’t know if this Williams will have the ability to exert influence from whichever perch he goes on to occupy, post-doctorate.  But we do get a sense of his politics when he dismisses Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn as candidates empowered by “emotional” dynamics, rather than, say, left political conviction.  I guess the problem isn’t capitalism after all, eh?

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8 Responses to When Silicon Valley turns on itself

  1. To be fair, in the first example it is likely that the exec didn’t lack the skills to set up the program but that, if he did so, he would be choosing the password, thus kind of defeating the purpose.

    Also, while being chosen for a TED talk is surely a sign of privilege, it doesn’t rule out that the person is taking a position in defiance of the majority consensus of any number of groups he is part of.

    Other than that, I agree with your take. The prospect of increased regulation fills me with foreboding, honestly, even as the more important part of the story—the toll of distraction, etc—is just as terrifying.

  2. This is a real problem. The immediate & visible ramifications
    are everywhere: Distracted Driving. As a cyclist I have to
    restrict my cycling to low traffic times (around 10-11am) and
    even then, approximately 80% of the drivers I see have a
    phone in their hand, or worse, aren’t even looking at the road.

    More people are killed from distracted driving each year than
    from domestic terrorism. The smart phone epidemic is rarely
    addressed because it is by enlarge still socially acceptable.

    The smart phone is nothing more than a hand held Skinner Box.

    • There are already rules in most locales about phone use while driving and texting while driving is certainly becoming less of an issue than it was. Interestingly enough it’s usually older drivers that need to be scolded not to text and drive. That reminds me heavily of the move to get drinking and driving decreased and how that was more successful with kids first before the grownups that were plenty used to “one more for the road” Seat belt use also was a thing that took longer to catch on with older folks who were plenty used to driving without them.

      I’d say that this is temporary and we are still in an adjustment phase. Even now there are numerous ways to detach from the “now now now!” nature of phone/internet attractions but we will need time to internalize that turning off doesn’t mean missing out.

      (Brb, gotta listen to “Vienna”.)

      • We have the same rules in place. People choose to ignore them.
        Using a phone while driving is only a secondary offense, and only
        if the driver has already been pulled over for another infraction.

        I was almost hit my a distracted driver who was using Snapchat,
        his excuse was it was his sons first day of school. So in his mind
        it was important to be filming his son in the backseat whilst driving
        his vehicle in a school zone. Common sense is in short supply.

  3. I find the whole concept a big nothing. Anguish over being exactly as designed despite the plentiful alternatives strikes me as more of a First World Problem ™ that renders these poor tortured souls into Very Serious Thinkers rather than glorified marketing gurus.

    I’d like to see Fairness Doctrine back to ensure a better balance of real versus fake news but there are certainly ways to unplug and doubtless more and more people will take advantage of those as the whole thing settles.

    Dave Chappelle was an outlier when he had phones taken and sealed to be impossible to access during his shows but I can easily see that concept spread, ensuring less distraction. Hell, I can see getting those bags for personal use, setting up things that cannot be opened before x time or unless y person unlocks it.

    No worries; the kids are alright.

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