Dear Vice President Biden,
At the moment when a pandemic, economic contraction and anti-racism protests have led to national self-reflection, you have the opportunity to lead us to a better America that is closer to the nation’s ideals than ever before. I am one of millions of Americans looking for new approaches to government and leadership. We count on you to reject the old ways that have brought us to this point.
One of the policy areas that requires a new approach is technology. New technologies such as facial recognition and artificial intelligence have been plagued by racist and gender prejudice, with particular damage in areas such as law enforcement, job cuts and mortgage applications. Internet platforms like Facebook, YouTube, Instagram and Twitter have intensified hate speech, disinformation and conspiracy theories and undermined our politics, our pandemic and the security of our citizens. More than 1
Imagine my disappointment last week when The New York Times reported that President Obama had proposed working with two members of the Silicon Valley establishment, former Google CEO Eric Schmidt and LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman. I know both men well. They are brilliant and very successful. Your money and expertise may be valuable to your campaign, but I hope you won’t contact them for guidelines. They were architects of the culture and values that caused the problems described above.
I hope you take the words of Albert Einstein to heart, who said: “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking that we used in the creation.” This is particularly true of technology.
Silicon Valley has been a growth engine in our economy and has influenced our culture since 1956, when a Department of Justice approval decree created the computer industry and made the transistor available to anyone who wanted to use it. In the 1960s and 1970s, the optimism of the space program was infectious. PCs strengthened us in the 80s and 90s, then the internet connected us. In the early hours of the morning, Google, Facebook and LinkedIn changed our lives for the better. However, these companies had different cultural values than their predecessors. While Steve Jobs spoke of his products as “bicycles for the mind”, Mark Zuckerberg said he wanted to “act quickly and break things” and he built a company to do just that. Reid Hoffman advocated flash scaling, where speed took precedence over efficiency and scaling took precedence over values. The success of Zuckerberg and Hoffman led to a generation of imitators whose focus is on building their own prosperity and power for customers, suppliers and employees at high costs. Eric Schmidt told us that data protection shouldn’t matter to us. When he said that “Google is a belief system,” he was serious.
Unlike 20 years ago, today’s Silicon Valley culture is elitist and authoritarian. The founder’s cult has made Silicon Valley blind to the needs of society. The tech industry has become a figurehead for income inequality, toxic masculinity and white privileges. In George Floyd’s era, Silicon Valley executives are the last to provide technology policy advice. Instead, their businesses and their community should be targets for reform.
The problems with the largest Silicon Valley companies, particularly the Internet platforms, are not uncommon or unintended. They are systemic and deliberate. Hate speech, disinformation and conspiracy theories are the meticulously developed lubricants that maximize sales for Facebook, YouTube, Instagram and Twitter. The decline of journalism has occurred because Google and Facebook have found a way to fit between media companies and their audience and then suck out advertising dollars. The explosion and influence of extremist groups on Facebook are no accident. They are the result of conscious decisions. Facebook’s internal research showed that 64 percent of Facebook group registrations that focus on extremist issues are based on their own recommendations. Instead of changing the guidelines, management did nothing. The convenience of Amazon Prime, Uber, and Postmates (now a Uber subsidiary) results in part from exploitative labor practices. The shortcomings of new products like face recognition and AI are not inevitable. They result from a culture that sends products as early as possible, regardless of the impact on the people who use them or are affected by them. These examples only scratch the surface.