Is Big Tech a "species failure"?

By NATHAN KINCH

I’ve challenged the notion of technological instrumentalism before. The idea that tech is neutral feels short sighted. It lacks nuance. It leads to ethical decision-making that is sub optimal. It enables post hoc rationalisation of practices that are socially acceptable at best.

The fact the institutions around the world are seen to be failing at ethics isn’t surprising to me. They should be optimising for what is socially preferable. they need to set a higher bar. I’ve covered this before, so let’s move on.

Earlier today I read a blog from Scott Galloway. For those of you familiar with his work, you’ll know he doesn’t shy away from candid commentary. Whether it’s right is a different story.

What stuck out to me most about his post, even though I’d probably challenge much of what Scott says for various reasons, was the final statement.

Facebook Inc. is a species failure

Scott Galloway

This is a big statement. And although I agree with aspects of it, it again fails to tackle the nuance that’s so relevant to this discussion.

Facebook is a symptom. The ‘systems’ we rely upon as a species have enabled Facebook to flourish. They enabled Facebook to turn a $5bn fine into a surge of shareholder value (yes, after being fined an astronomical amount of money by most standards, Facebook’s stock price went up). They’ve enables inept leadership action to go largely unchecked.

So, what’s the point?

We’re focused on the wrong things. Breaking up Facebook or Google or Amazon can be likened to a tactic. The problem is, it’s at the expense of strategy. 

We need a strategy for our species. 

We need to ask different questions. We need to define different, more empowering and more collective goals. We need commercials gains to be realised as a result of valuable and meaningful outcomes. Commercial growth at the expense of all else can’t continue.

Okay, I’ve got a little rat out of the way. Now’s the time to convertse. Let’s talk this through. Let’s dive into the weeds and traverse the nuance. 

I’m ready.

Responses

  1. I’d like there to be more open discussion and debate surrounding persuasive technology. It’s pretty amazing just how few people know about persuasive tech and habit-forming techniques. And the majority of the minority of those who do know don’t seem to be too bothered for one reason or another.

    1. @m3me mentioned Warm Data to me yesterday which I just had a quick look into. Such a fascinating idea. If I’m understanding correctly, Warm Data is like the sociology of things. Maybe that’s a poor analogy to define Warm Data, but perhaps it’s a concept that fits with this article?

      1. #WarmData is an interesting lens to be looking at this @benjasanta. It highlights how much complexity there is in most things. Without looking at the full scope of all the connections in a complex system whatever interventions are designed always fall short. Leading in most cases to negative feedback loops and unintended negative consequences. This relates to what Nassim Taleb calls “interventionistas” in some part. Knowledge cannot be separated from the “know-how” – knowing what, using buzzwords and surface/high level articulation is mainly all tawk. Done by (sometimes unknowingly) charlatans, the wilfully ignorant or just the arrogant. Low dimensional and static thought. Thinking in actions. As opposed to deep practitioners and people that do their best to see things as dynamic, interrelational and complex. Though this is hard. Who has the Ability (think BJ Fogg here) to engage in this learning, reflection, doing, unlearning and being? Many the privileged. People like us.

        How it relates to this article? Maybe in the sense that many of the interventions being sought fall short. They do not look at the deeply complex nature of why a company like FB has came to exist in it’s current form.

        I’d also challenge the grand narrative of “strategy for our species” that @Nate referenced. Yes we need less division and goals and interactions that lead to more widespread wellbeing. But our diversity and the complexity of our many individual stories, cultural and otherwise mean we cannot come together as a species. Not without a grand unifying narrative. So a species level strategy is impossible without a critical mass of billions of people. The reality is that this is a narrative battle of sorts. We as privileged “westeners” can postulate and muse. Create strategies and give it our best to follow through with execution. Like N. Taleb says survival comes before science. Unfortunately the ones who define the most influential strategies (and narrative) are the ones that have the power and influence to make the rules, control the money, food, water, energy supply chains. They attend things like WEF in Davos and have many people bought into the narratives they create to follow through. It is epistemological, philosophical and political. So grand strategies for our whole species? Yes, but nothing will be linear and straight forward. Narratives will be in tension, dynamic and evolving. This does not mean we give up. It just means being humble and mindful of not knowing. Acting in best alignment to our own self-awareness, values and principles. “Know thy self”. Critical mass may come through lots of tiny steps. It will compound. But this is an intergenerational journey. Unless of course we have something like “arrival of an interdimensional/intergalactic species” type collective revelation. Wow… this just opened up a can-o-worms 🙂

        1. Great response, @m3me !
          I’m a couple of chapters into ‘Big Data’ at the moment. I’m constantly reminded of warm data as I read on. Seems like there are so many opportunities to use both warm and big data to solve a lot of problems. Yet these massive datasets are in the hands of those powerful/influential people you mention. And there are examples of how these datasets can be used for good (Flu Trends) and I don’t think I need to give examples of how it can be used for less human goals…
          Interesting that you mention narrative too. This idea pops up in the work and conversations of Yuval Harrari a fair bit. And it’s so true. People are fragmented by the stories that they believe in (politics, economics, religion, identity etc). One grand narrative would get everyone closer to the same page I would think.
          I have also begun to pay attention to the dynamics of the left and the right after reading ‘Don’t Think of an Elephant’. Lakoff says something like the left struggle because they are disorganised compared to the right. Which was a remarkable insight for me. I have been paying attention to how many different narratives there are on the left compared to the right. Interesting stuff!
          Also I’d like to challenge yet another point! There’s no doubt that the powerful/influential have a massive impact on our collective narrative (i.e., buy more!). Yet I think that the filter bubble makes us our own worst enemy. I think that there is a profound loop of control from above and individual demand. We take what we’re given because we demand more of what we’re given. I hope this idea makes sense.

    2. > I’d like there to be more open discussion and debate surrounding persuasive technology.
      While I agree that would be worthwhile, it will not have the effect it needs to have. With the absolute flood of media news addressing the many malpractices of Facebook, most people are already aware that something really fishy on that platform. They are aware of e.g. Privacy issues. But for the most part: People. Just. Don’t. Care.
      As for privacy, so too this will be the case for persuasive tech. The awareness efforts are not useless, of course, but the shift in mindset they trigger is too slow compared to the landgrab that Big Tech is making in terms of dominating our society. Like all the big stuff, this is a “wicked problem”, and needs many different approaches at the same time to solve them.