The bright side of insurrection
By Mark Hurst • January 7, 2021
Usually my first column of the year is a look ahead, calling out some hopeful trends to anticipate. But this, we can already tell, is not a usual year.
The events yesterday in the Capitol building were a strange blend of alarming, shocking, outrageous, and completely unsurprising. My fellow "tech critics," as we're condescendingly called, have been standing on the deck of the Titanic for months, for years, saying: there's an iceberg. We're headed towards an iceberg. Turn the ship, there's an iceberg. We're going to hit...
Then yesterday, hearing the crunch and screaming shuddering shear through the lowest level of our shared vessel - what can I say. It was sickening, seeing an enemy flag paraded through our sacred space. And enraging. That we saw it coming and it still happened, and that it could be the start of an even bigger crisis.
A ship? An iceberg? I have to use metaphor for something this big, this multifaceted. Who can properly name an eruption of politics, and technology, and economics, and history, and racism? I mean, the event itself was terrorism, committed by domestic terrorists, encouraged by a criminal occupant of the White House and his allies. A desecration. But the causes run deep, down in dark and icy waters. Some would say our ship hit the iceberg years ago. Was it 402 years? Or 529? Or was it that one day in Eden? Depends on how you look at it.
I do know this, though: technology was a major part of the story yesterday. And while most of the coverage you'll see today is rightfully focused on the political aspects, it's dangerously incomplete to only see this as a political event. We must understand the essential role played by Silicon Valley in what happened on 1-6.
Here's something I posted yesterday night that got some attention. It's my best attempt to begin to explain what happened.
Mark Zuckerberg and the bright side of insurrection
1/ On the bright side, at least Zuck can rest easy tonight, knowing his system worked exactly as designed.
2/ Four years (and more) of enabling and amplifying Trump's lies and unhinged conspiracy theories. The dinners, the Oval Office meetings, the relationship building. And it worked.
3/ Years of supporting racist hate groups - and encouraging their growth with a finely tuned algorithm, referring members of one group to others. [source] All worked flawlessly.
4/ And then the preparations for the Big Game. Test runs with strongmen in smaller, vulnerable countries. The Philippines was a fun one, putting Duterte in power and helping him replace the independent press with Facebook. Worked great.
5/ Bolsonaro in Brazil, another test run, this one a bit bigger than the Philippines, but again: system worked flawlessly. Crowds on election day were chanting: "Face..book. Face..book." Can't buy that sort of love. (Except with Facebook you can, that's the whole point, ha) [P.S. Bolsonaro yesterday]
6/ The genocide in Myanmar. True, the United Nations named Facebook as complicit, and what a shame, Zuck must think: but again, look at the power under the hood! This thing really is disruptive, *at scale*. Amazing.
7/ All the while, no resistance to Facebook's rise. True, Elizabeth Warren briefly raised the specter of an antitrust president - an "existential threat" to Zuck, the opposite of the happy customer now in the White House. But the new administration will have plenty of Big Tech alums.
8/ And, perhaps best of all, no resistance from Facebook employees themselves. Sure, an occasional angry resignation, and some low-level complaint on the company message boards: all easily muted or banned. System is growing without resistance or dissent: a beautiful thing.
9/ Oh, as for advertisers: hundreds of them stamp their feet about the racist algorithm and pull their advertising for one single month. So adorable, Zuck thinks! As he says in a staff meeting: they'll be back. And they are. Profits keep rising. [source] System is working as designed.
10/ Finally, today, the Big Game. 1-6. Everything comes together: terrorists from the hate groups, recruited by the algorithm, chant the lies fed to them by the happy customer in the White House. And the system works just as it did in the Philippines and Brazil. Perfectly.
11/ A finishing touch: Facebook PR gets ahead of the crisis by "showing leadership." The #1 customer's account is put on pause for a few hours, heightening the drama and the pent-up demand for the customer's return the next day. PR optics look great, and engagement is guaranteed.
12/ As democracy burned in the Philippines and Brazil, so it burns in the US. [And India, as JP Vergne and Srinivas Raman point out.] And while Facebook keeps growing, and growing, and growing, no one with a platform dares to publicly question the system. The consequences, after all, work perfectly at scale.
A postscript: I should note that Facebook isn't alone. As I posted yesterday: "Today's spectacle is also brought to you by Facebook, Twitter, Google, and their Silicon Valley VC enablers. They're counting their billions today."
It's reassuring to see other people speaking out, saying exactly the same thing.
• Venture capitalist Chris Sacca: "You've got blood on your hands, @jack and Zuck. For four years you've rationalized this terror. Inciting violent treason is not a free speech exercise. If you work at those companies, it's on you too. Shut it down."
• Venture capitalist and early Facebook investor Roger McNamee: "Internet platforms - FB, Instagram, Google, YouTube, Twitter, etc. - enabled this. They amplified hate speech, disinformation, and conspiracy theories because it was profitable. They are accessories to the felonies we are seeing on our TVs ... and many others."
• AI engineer Timnit Gebru, recently fired by Google: "What happened today here, platforms like Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter have been facilitating a lot of that in countries that are not considered 'important' with unfettered misinformation, hate speech and what have you." [More on Dr. Gebru in my recent Techtonic episode.]
• Cambridge Analytica whistleblower Christopher Wylie: "These people were all radicalized on Facebook. This event was organized on Facebook. This violence is an inevitable manifestation of the conspiracy, vitriol and hate fed to people daily on Facebook."
• Pop singer Selena Gomez: "Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Google, Mark Zuckerberg, Sheryl Sandberg, Jack Dorsey, Sundar Pichai, Susan Wojcicki - you have all failed the American people today."
• Former Uber engineer Can Duruk: "It's worth noting supporters of fascism in Silicon Valley suffered zero consequences other than some mean tweets. ... I'd ask the real people with influence to ask themselves if the board seats and the cap table allocations they share with supporters of Trump has been worth it."
Outside Twitter headquarters, Jan 6, 2021 - source
Complicity is real. This is a moment for Big Tech employees to consider their next steps. As I posted: Facebook employees at director-level or above: it's time to quit. Today. Think of it this way: when you look for your next job (and you will, at some point), what's going to look better in the interview: that you quit today, or that despite everything, you stayed?
And don't tell me that you're making the change internally. As I posted:
We'll need more reporting on the symbiotic relationship between Big Tech and the terrorists. Facebook, Google, and Twitter have made SO MUCH money, feeding lies and conspiracy theories to the terrorists. For years. Today was merely a burst of output from the system.
If you work for one of those companies, and you have sufficient job mobility, you should resign. Unionization is great & especially important for less privileged workers - but if you're high up in Big Tech, get out. Don't kid yourself about reforming from within.
The truly insane thing is that Big Tech's corruption is no mystery. Among people who report on the companies, it's common knowledge - and yet the behavior continues. Especially maddening is that I wrote those last two sentences back in May 2020. And then came yesterday.
Big Tech is irredeemably corrupt. It has been for years, and it will be for years to come, until we break up the monopolies and assess civil and criminal penalties to their leadership.
And that's why yesterday's events, in addition to being shocking and outrageous, were also completely unsurprising. Big Tech, for years, has been steering us straight toward the iceberg.
Until next time,
- Mark Hurst
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