Tech innovators refuse to taste their medicine

By Rong Xiaoqing Source:Global Times Published: 2017/12/21 21:08:39

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

In his acclaimed novel The Circle, the author Dave Eggers tells the story of a high-tech company called the Circle which was founded by a genius named Ty, and run by "Three Wise Men" including Ty. The company, which is a dominant name in its industry, has been trying to achieve a massive goal - to increase the transparency of the world by having everyone's activities tracked and webcast publicly. The theory, it says, is that by doing so, vices like crimes and lies could not be hidden.

Of course, as you may suspect, the reality isn't that simple. Ty realizes the company's dream, when fulfilled, may bring the world disasters rather than making it a better place. He has been secretly working to dismantle the company. Toward the end, Ty confides in Mae, a new employee he tried to recruit to help him "break the circle," that it is horrific to see your own invention going out of control.

"So many of the things I invested in I honestly did for fun..." said the frustrated genius. "I mean, it was like setting up a guillotine in the public square. You don't expect a thousand people to line up to put their heads in it."

I read the book in 2013 when it was first published. Ty's words were haunting. But at the time there was no tech genius like Ty in reality who had publicly cast doubt on his brainchild. All of them seemed to be sincerely and enthusiastically following the Circle's dogma and believed that connecting strangers via the Internet is a solution to many problems.

But after that things started changing.

Chamath Palihapitiya, former vice-president for user growth at Facebook who is now a venture capitalist, said in a speech at Stanford University in November that the social media platform he helped develop is "eroding the core foundations of how people behave by and between each other" by spreading misinformation and programming people's minds without them knowing it.

"The short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops that we have created are destroying the way society works," he said before confessing that he "doesn't use that shit" and his kids are "not allowed to use that shit."

Palihapitiya is not alone.

Sean Parker, founding president of Facebook who is now the chair of the Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy, said at an early November event in Philadelphia that the development of Facebook was guided by the question: "How do we consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible?"

"It literally changes your relationship with society, with each other. It probably interferes with productivity in weird ways. God only knows what it's doing to our children's brains," he said.

It's not only Facebook. A New York Times story in 2014 found that many high-tech gurus limited their children's access to the Internet. Steve Jobs, for one, said his children hadn't used iPads. "We limit how much technology our kids use at home," the late godfather of high-tech said. And Chris Anderson, chief executive of 3D Robotics, who applies similar restrictions to his children, said "that's because we have seen the dangers of technology firsthand. I have seen it in myself. I don't want to see that happen to my kids."

In the book, Ty asks Mae, or rather, the readers: "Don't you think if someone like me, someone who invented most of this shit, is scared, you should be scared, too?"

But what scares me more is not how the tech geniuses fear their own inventions, but seeing how helpless they are.

Facebook responded to Palihapitiya's comment by claiming the company has grown into a different one since he left in 2011. "We've done a lot of work and research with outside experts and academics to understand the effects of our service on well-being, and we are using it to inform our product Mark Zuckerberg said on the last earnings call - we are willing to reduce our profitability to make sure the right investments are made," the company said in a statement.

Which may be true. After all, Zuckerberg is a father with two young children now, and before his second child was born in the summer, he and his wife Priscilla Chan wrote an open letter to her and encouraged her to "take time to smell all the flowers and put all the leaves you want in your bucket." But Facebook's newly announced Messenger Kids, an app that allows children under 13 to message one another, suggests there is little hope that he will become a Ty in the real world.

Other efforts initiated by the tech industry to cure people's addiction to the virtual world don't seem to work well either. For example, Pokémon Go, the cellphone game developed by Niantic that was once acclaimed for encouraging people to interact with the real world, turns out to have possibly been doing the opposite. Recent research by Purdue University estimates the game brought between $2 billion to $7.3 billion traffic-related damage to the US in the first five months after its 2016 launch because players were staring at the phones rather than where they were going.

In the book, Ty fails to tame the monster he creates. The reality may be mimicking fiction now.

The author is a New York-based journalist.


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