Think the giants of Silicon Valley have your best interests at heart? Think again

John Naughton
Facebook’s launch of video chat device Portal ‘suggests an interesting level of corporate sociopathy’. Photograph: AP

In one of the sharpest critiques of machine learning that I’ve come across, Harvard computer scientist James Mickens attributes many of the current disasters of the tech industry to what he calls the doctrine of “technological manifest destiny”.

The core tenets of this quasi-religious belief system are:

1. Technology is value-neutral and therefore will automatically lead to good outcomes for everyone.

2. Thus, new kinds of technology should be deployed as quickly as possible, even if we lack a general idea of how the technology works or what the societal impact will be.

3. History is generally uninteresting because the past has nothing to teach us.

These three delusions provide an illuminating lens through which to view the recent past of the tech industry. On Tenet No 1, for example, it’s not that long ago that the founder of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg, treated us to a 5,700-word epistle for his millions of disciples, in which he solemnly argued that the world would be a better place if only we were all on Facebook. “For the past decade,” he burbled, “Facebook has focused on connecting friends and families. With that foundation, our next focus will be developing the social infrastructure for community – for supporting us, for keeping us safe, for informing us, for civic engagement and for inclusion of all”. And the publication date of this homily? 16 February 2017.

Then there’s Tenet No 2: that new tech should be deployed as quickly as possible, because not to do so would amount to a kind of theft (keeping all this great stuff from the rest of humanity). The novelist Dave Eggers nailed this beautifully in his novel The Circle, when the hapless heroine is led to exclaim that “privacy is theft” in a conversation about how selfish it is not to reveal all on social media.

Only two weeks ago, in one of those you-couldn’t-make-it-up moments, Facebook launched a set of video chat devices for your home, complete with cameras that track your movements. For a company enmeshed in privacy scandals to do this suggests an interesting level of corporate sociopathy, but really it comes from adherence to the second tenet of the manifest destiny doctrine.

As far as Tenet No 3 is concerned, it stems partly from the fact that most of the boy geniuses (and they are mostly boys) who founded Facebook, Google and Twitter are, at best, half-educated nerds. But indifference to history is also functional for them because it enables them conveniently to forget that even the recent history of the tech industry is littered with disasters – think Windows 8 and Vista, Google Glass, Google+, Facebook Beacon, Microsoft’s Tay chatbot, Cambridge Analytica, Russian tweet-trolls and so on.

And, looking forward, the current Gadarene stampede into the “internet of things” is redolent of a mindset that Professor Mickens satirises as: “Let’s forget all the lessons from traditional network security and hope for the best.”

The polite term for the delusions that grip the lords of Silicon Valley (and their fans elsewhere) is technological determinism: the belief that technology is what really drives history and that they are on the right side of that history. It may also explain why they have manifested such blithe indifference to the malign effects that their machines are having on society. After all, if technology is the remorseless bulldozer that flattens everything in its path, then why waste time and energy fretting about it or imagining that it might be controlled?

Determinism, in that sense, removes human agency from the picture. The role assigned to people is essentially that of passive or active consumers of whatever wonders the tech industry chooses to lay before them. It also removes politics from the frame, because politics is about how societies make collective choices and determinism holds that there are no choices to be made. One of the infuriating tragedies of our time is how so many of our ruling elites seem to have swallowed this snake oil and how long it has then taken them to wake up to what’s going on.

“Technology can be sublime,” wrote the historian Jill Lepore in 2008, “but machines aren’t something that happen to us; they’re something we make. That is, they’re less like meteors that come crashing into our planet… than like toddlers: sure, they crash into you a lot and change your life, but they didn’t come out of nowhere and, if you set your mind to it, you can teach them manners before they get to be bigger than you.” Yep. And isn’t it time we got started on that task?

What I’m reading

Crying shame
Here’s the true cost of computer insecurity. A Department of Health and Social Care report reveals the WannaCry ransomware attack cost the NHS about £92m.

Brains trust (fund)
A new study from MIT reveals that kids from wealthy homes in the United States are much more likely to be inventors. Now I wonder why that might be? Also, very few of them are black.

You get the picture
Think Instagram is a cosy, safe place? An investigation by the Atlantic into harassment on the platform will cause you to think again.