Our system is clogged by something bigger than a boat
By Mark Hurst • April 1, 2021
Did you ever hear the story about the canary? It's a good one, goes like this: The miners are hard at work in the depths of the coal mine, hacking away at the rock walls, when one of them notices that the canary has died. Bad news. It means, of course, that odorless and deadly gas is rising to dangerous levels.
Now you might expect that the miners all start running to escape the mine shaft, but in this story there's a kind of sci-fi twist: the canary, due to global market demand, has been DNA-modified to a grotesque size. The canary is freakishly big. Its thick feathers, muscular chest, and general bulk barely fit inside its birdcage. And, as I said, the canary is now dead.
Here's the funny part of the story: the miners just can't... pull... the... canary... out of that birdcage! How in the world did that bird get STUCK in there in the first place? And why was the birdcage designed so small? The miners are pulling and pulling, annoyed that they had to stop working to deal with this. Then, finally, with a sickly thwwwwump, the dead canary squidges out of the cage at last.
"Problem solved!" the miners cry. Then they pick up their tools and return to work, chipping away again at the walls of the mine.
And the lesson of the story is: Gosh, that was one big canary, wasn't it?
At least that's the lesson we're supposed to take from the recent incident in the Suez Canal. A giant container ship gets stuck sideways, disrupting the flow of goods worldwide, and we say: Look at that big boat! If only they can un-stick it from the sandbank, everything will go back to normal.
But that's wishful thinking. The real lesson, just as with the canary, is that the issue isn't the bird, or the boat, but what it points to. A container ship the size of the Empire State Building, far bigger than what the canal was designed for, is a warning. The fact that one stuck boat can disrupt a sizable fraction of all human commerce... is a warning. The fact that more and more money and power are consolidating into fewer and fewer companies... is a warning. We're the miners in this story, and we have to decide what to do when the canary drops dead.
A better diagnosis
Tim Maughan is the author of Infinite Detail, a novel about a fatal internet outage and the collapse of the global supply chain. (We spoke on Techtonic in 2019: here's the interview.) Maughan perfectly expresses our quandary in Moving the Big Boat Did Not Magically Fix the Global Economy, diagnosing the impossible complexity of our tech-run economy:
The global economy is a gigantic sprawling mess, its interlocking mechanisms and networks so complex that its whole has become impossible for human intelligence to comprehend. As such, it frequently appears to defy logic and common sense, especially in times of crisis, as a select elite with few morals but a lot of capital find ways to profit off global misfortune.
Now that the boat is unstuck, Maughan writes, it's hard to imagine going "back to normal" - whatever that means:
Normal in this instance means supply chains that are so complex that they need algorithmically controlled networks to manage them as they exploit cheap labor in one half of the world just to provide savings to the other half, and even then, fail to deliver lifesaving equipment during a global crisis. It means an internet where nobody trusts anyone, because a handful of companies that have grown too big to even understand themselves have worked out that the best way to turn a profit is by exploiting everyone's fears and differences to fuel advertising technology that might not even work. And it means a global economy that has long escaped the control of elected governments and has become a confusing free-for-all where another handful of companies hoard the planet's wealth by profiting off people losing their jobs and the constant burning of fossil fuels.
Maughan accurately diagnoses our current moment. The stuck boat, like the dead canary, is pointing to a complicated set of interlocking challenges. (See also: Gordian Knot, wicked problems, and hyperobjects.) The clog in the system, in other words, is a lot bigger than a boat. I had much the same reaction a few days ago when I spotted a giant clog in Silicon Valley, in the form of three Big Tech CEOs.
Congress the un-clogger
On this week's Techtonic I played footage from last week's Congressional testimony by Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg, Google's Sundar Pichai, and Twitter's Jack Dorsey. (You can jump to the point when I play clips from the hearings or download the show as a podcast.)
You might remember that I mentioned the hearings last week, in Yes, handcuffs will fit Big Tech CEOs. I wrote that the CEOs were "getting ready to turn on their camera and dance around the truth." After I sent the column, I turned on the hearings, and - wow. These three gentlemen did not disappoint.
Zuckerberg (jump to clip) stated in his opening remarks:
Some people say that the problem is that social networks are polarizing us, but that's not at all clear from the evidence or research. Polarization was rising in America long before social networks were even invented. And it's falling or stable in many other countries where social networks are popular. Others claim that algorithms feed us content that makes us angry because it's good for business, but that's not accurate, either. I believe that the division we see today is primarily the result of a political and media environment that drives Americans apart.
Dance, Zuck, dance! What a spectacle, to see Zuck deny the years of scholarship and journalism (and more), the leaks of damning internal documents, the genocide, the current and former employees speaking out, an early investor calling for criminal charges, and - for Pete's sake - a national advertiser boycott called Stop Hate For Profit. Zuck denies all of it. Instead he points the finger at the "media environment," as if Facebook has nothing to do with the media.
Zuck is clogging our system. His algorithmic amplification is clogging our system. We don't need another canary to raise the alarm. I'm done with canaries. What I'd like to see instead is a brand new jailbird.
But the clog is even bigger than Zuck. Sundar Pichai and Jack Dorsey also make obscene amounts of money from algorithmic amplification. They also profited from setting the stage for January 6. Google's video-recommendation algorithm on YouTube, for example, has been exhaustively studied and shown to promote radicalization and conspiracy theories. We've known this for years. I wrote about it in 2019 - with a column title I can't list here due to overeager email filters - but what's changed in two years? Based on what we saw on January 6, nothing. Listen to this exchange between Sundar Pichai and New Jersey representative Frank Pallone - it's about a minute long - and tell me if you think Pichai is ready to answer questions about his business model.
Pichai is clogging our system. YouTube's business model is clogging our system. And though it's a much smaller company, Jack Dorsey's Twitter operates from the same playbook. In the aftermath of January 6, caused in part by the algorithmic amplification running Twitter's default feed, did Dorsey own up to his role? Did he admit, as suggested in a laser display at Twitter HQ, that he was complicit? Of course not. He excitedly told us about his "passion for Bitcoin." Dorsey, too, is clogging our system.
What should have happened earlier this year is that each of the CEOs should have resigned in disgust on January 7. "I see how my failure to wean the company off of surveillance-based algorithmic amplification has led to riot, to insurrection, to actual death on Capitol grounds. I deeply apologize. After my resignation, which takes effect immediately, I will take some time off in my favorite mansion's hot tub to reflect on how my next project could add to my insane wealth without burning down democracy." Something like that would have done wonders for our system. Instead, we get "passion for Bitcoin."
Still, the hearings showed a glimmer of hope. Congresspeople from both parties are beginning to ask the right questions about the Big Tech business model. The clog isn't going to be easy to clear, and we certainly can't solve it with more of what we've tried so far. We're not gonna need a bigger boat. Instead, as I watched the hearings, my thought was: We're gonna need a bigger vote.
Until next time,
- Mark Hurst
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