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The Dark Side of Techno-Utopianism (newyorker.com)
105 points by IfOnlyYouKnew 20 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 98 comments

To blame all the $#!+ that's going on Facebook et al is really either missing the point or willful misdirection.

I'd argue that fear not Facebook brings out the worse in people - fear about income or place in society.

In my view, the real cause of the recent rise tribalism is rising social inequality and corrupt politics doing nothing about it.

You could argue then why hasn't democracy acted?

I'd argue that it's paid for content - whether it's ads or partisan coverage, lobbyists, paid shills, or astroturfed pressure groups all managed by professional manipulators ( ad people ) - that's the problem, not the medium ( Facebook or TV/radio or whatever).

Why haven't politicians acted decisively on climate change? I don't think it's the Internets fault.

> rising social inequality and corrupt politics doing nothing about it.

People keep saying inequality but I'm still searching for a convincing argument as to why my neighbour's life getting better should make me unhappy. I really don't see it.

The problem is more likely to be that employee productivity has been completely delinked from compensation. That means that a lot of economic measurements showing good times are irrelevant. Eg, to a typical worker productivity growth prior to ~1971 meant better living conditions. Productivity growth after 1971 means nothing. Recipe for political disaster, because now the workforce has no particular incentive to make things better. Technological improvements just mean layoffs or expenses reeducating.

I can easily see why I should be unhappy about that. If I go from being responsible for 1% of a companies output to 2%, why isn't there a mechanism for me to get more money? I dream for a world where workers automatically own a significant share of the company.

> You could argue then why hasn't democracy acted?

Everyone agrees on symptoms, there is plausible deniability about the problems because there is just enough disagreement on the root cause.

We are seeing the first generation where large numbers of children are worse off than their parents. ie there isn't a sense of general progress.

Parents are working, but children can't find a well paying job or put down a deposit for a house. The trend in life expectancy is even reversing.

The concept of justice and fairness comes in to play as well - it's not just about whether people feel they have enough, it's about whether they feel they are getting a fair share.

If you went to work and got paid the living wage ( just enough to get by ) and somebody else doing the same job got paid more - most people would feel it was unfair and be unhappy.

Yes, excellent points. On top of that, people are clearly (as a group) less well off than their parents, with hardly any pensions, not enough money from a single income (think about how elizabeth warren's mom supported the family and a house with just a min. wage job in the 50s).

It's only people who are in special job categories today (like say programmers) who have so much opportunity. And nothing lasts forever.

> I'm still searching for a convincing argument as to why my neighbour's life getting better should make me unhappy.

It's psychology, not logic; there need not be a convincing argument why it should be so.

It's easy to see that people care more about relative wealth than absolute wealth. We have more wealth now than ancient people could have imagined, our basic needs are easily satisfied, but we still work and compete for the power and status that comes from relative wealth.

'It doesn't need to be a logical reason' is a glib starting point that should only be arrived at after very carefully ruling out all the other options. What if there is a logical reason for people to feel economically threatened? There are a lot of arguments out there for things that could be good reasons.

It is known [0] that people are terrible at estimating what the actual rate of inequality is. If they aren't using data to come up with their opinions, why would this psychological effect trigger now in the late 2010s instead of some other time?

Feeling bad about gaps between your wealth and your peers is a real effect, but it doesn't scale up to societal levels because people by and large can't detect changes in inequality at that scale. They have no idea what the actual wealth distribution is. I don't actually know it, and I suspect if you wanted to actually say what it was you'd have to go look up the Gini coefficient or something. Psychological effects don't trigger at a large scale when people need to look up statistics to realise that they should be triggered. That isn't how psychology usually works.

It seems much more likely something is happening locally in people's own lives or amongst their small social circle.

[0] https://thesocietypages.org/socimages/2010/09/28/actual-vs-e...

There surely are many logical reasons for people to feel economically threatened, but that doesn't mean people aren't also angry about inequality.

> people by and large can't detect changes in inequality at that scale. They have no idea what the actual wealth distribution is

Everyone knows how wealthy Mark Zuckerberg and Jeff Bezos are. They may not know the entire wealth distribution but they can detect the presence of the new robber barons.

> why would this psychological effect trigger now in the late 2010s instead of some other time?

It didn't just trigger in the late 2010s. It's been a major force since at least 2008.

It's been researched and you are (generally) happier as a rich guy in a poor neighborhood than an even richer guy in a very rich neighboring.

Of course, you could be an exception. Most likely though, you are richer than what you consider your closer peers (especially considering that we're on HN).

PS. Sorry for not posting references. It should be fairly easy to look up for the interested though.

> I'd argue that it's paid for content - whether it's ads or partisan coverage, lobbyists, paid shills, or astroturfed pressure groups all managed by professional manipulators...

I think it's that, and the average people who don't realize what they're digesting and who think it's organic. Perhaps I'm being nostalgic, but I don't remember another time when so many average people had over-inflated notions regarding the power and reach of their thoughts.

Not that they didn't have strong opinions, but I don't remember anyone outside of nutjobs believing that those opinions should, by default, carry so much weight. Now your average, middle aged Facebook addict thinks that they're on a mission from God.

The internet increase the power of small groups of actors. In adversarial conflicts this leads to increasingly expensive arms races. So there you go. The same internet that gives us the understanding of what is happening is the same internet that gives small groups of people the ability to run hundreds of newsrooms as a fraction of the staff.

See also the tyranny of small minority. Some of the social shifts we're seeing wouldn't happen without the Internet, as people wouldn't be able to coordinate and amplify their views and preferences that much.

This article compares the internet with the invention of the printing press and lays out the pros and cons before coming down solidly on the con side. However, we generally agree that the printing press was very good for society in the long run and the author fails to address the question as to why it's different this time around.

The longer version is the author noting that the printing press, with publishers, ultimately had curators that hand picked which content to publish. Social media tends to the opposite extreme. That is the context of the author's "con" position, and why it is different this time around.

Of course, the techno-utopian view would probably hold that some new version of curation can/will arise to address the issue, so that's one possible counter argument to the author's pessimism. In fact we seem to be in the early stages with platforms trying (albeit very, very, very imperfectly) to filter out false, misleading, or harmful content.

It's true, would-be intermediaries often mourn the loss of their status. They rarely consider that they might not win it back in the future they wish for.

A cynical view would be that this author wants a pulpit from which to preach The Truth unchallenged, and resents the diversity of viewpoints that come from the internet.

> diversity of viewpoints that come from the internet

I subscribe the idea that the internet produces diverse echo chambers, but not necessarily a plurality of opinions engaged in healthy debate.

Maybe I'm an idealist, but I think the biggest issue with today's media stems from the revocation of the Fairness Doctrine with no adequate replacement (media-ownership rules, increased public broadcasting, etc.)

I subscrbe to the idea that the Fairness Doctrine era media ecosystem produced a diversity of voices, not necessarily opinions engaged in healthy debate.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but I'm not sure it is the business of government to be deciding what is or isn't healthy debate or trying to encourage it. It's far too easy to decide that healthy is things that agree with you, and unhealthy is everything else. This is routine in a number of places in the world that I would rather not live in.

This is quite aside from the practical questions of how a person might square the constitutional questions around the Fairness Doctrine with the internet. The considerations that allowed it to apply to radio and TV don't work in an internet context.

Call me an idealist, but I don't see why we need to structure things around deciding for the public what speech they are and aren't allowed to be exposed to. We're mostly talking about adults generally capable of making their own decisions, aren't we?

> Not to put too fine a point on it, but I'm not sure it is the business of government to be deciding what is or isn't healthy debate or trying to encourage it.

I think it's the business of government to encourage debate, as that's really the same as encouraging education. The government wasn't providing agendas on what ought to be discussed when the Fairness Doctrine was in place, just forcing people to debate a little more

The core of the Fairness Doctrine was that the FCC's opinions of what "honest, equitable, and balanced" meant were legally binding. Whether or not that could ever be anything other than forcing people to debate a little more depends, in my opinion, a great deal on a person's faith in the immunity to corrupting influence of executive bodies with political oversight.

I'm less cynical interpreting the author's motives. I think the author was just in a "get of my lawn" mode of thinking, not without some cause though unless/until the internet forms the immune systems needed to fend off the worse excesses of extremism and propaganda.

What we need is curators to hand-pick for us what content to read. Much of social media is extremely bad at this, their "feeds" are one-size-fits-all so automated engagement-promoting algorithms can't do any better than just target the lowest-common-denominator. Even YouTube has had this problem for a long time, although it's supposed to be better now.

exactly. You have public education, the press, and friends. This is what you are shaped by. Now we have a new global consciousness that can also shape you, and exists somewhat within those old borders, but also redefines them. People should take their duty as members of voting society more seriously, incentivising us to dig deeper than our surface tribes starts with a simple "read this not that" type link blog. Horse before the cart means you need a horse before you can pull a cart.

We absolutely need a "you should read this, not because youll enjoy it, but because its good for you and us."

Drudge report meets http://aldaily.com and http://redef.com

This is one of the big ideas in Neal Stephenson's recent book, "Fall, or Dodge in Hell", which is a kind of loose sequel to "Reamde". He really foresees the future, to my eyes, across all his works. In his world they call our internet "the miasma", and it's full of people trying to push opinion in different ways with obvious bullshit. Yet lots of people believe it, just like today! Rich people in the west hire 'editors' in 3rd world countries (or in the us if you are really rich) to filter the internet for them. Not to show them a false view or hide them from reality (at least for the main characters), but to prevent them from coming across say pictures of dead babies or seeing too much lying and agitprop. I love these very very long books.

Curation is a weasel word for control, honestly. II think we are seeing a rush limbaugh effect; people are shocked that AM radio allowed limbaugh and hannity to thrive and blame the platform; same with social media and Trump. I didn't see any "social media is bad" in the obama era, despite it flourishing then too-i noticed a lot of this "curation" is being driven by the bogeyman of the alt-right, as if openness allows them to flourish.

It's not a weasel word. We except curation in online venues already. HN is an excellent example, with two varieties of curation to help keep posts & discussions on topic and flame wars at a minimum. (swap curation for moderators or whatever term you're comfortable with)

There is a central mechanism where HN in the form of dang or whoever making decisions, and there is community-sourced curation in the form of upvotes, downvotes, and flags. None of this amounts to the sort of authoritarian or censorship you seem to imply.

It seems to me a bit narrow-minded to say that techno-utopianism stands or falls based on the effect of social media. There might be a bit more to the effects (for better or worse) of technology than that.


> What ever will we do?"

What you do is post snarky comments that don't advance the conversation and instead promotes unproductive conflict. Clearly you don't think lack of curation or moderators or whatever is a problem. But it's easy to state an opinion without justifying it. Harder to make a contribution that shares a different viewpoint in a way that improves the overall quality of dialog.

Well, really, we do have curators of sorts - we call them moderators. We don’t always agree with their curation, either.

“in the long run” is kind of the key phrase, you’re using it to stuff a lot of moral complexity into the closet. The printing press may have been good for society in the long run, but in the short run it caused a century of sectarian warfare that killed tens of millions of people. If the Internet is analogous (and I’m not saying it definitely is, but I don’t think it can be clearly ruled out either), you don’t think people living now should have a say in whether they just get to be collateral damage on the road to a Utopian future? That was exactly the sort of thinking behind some of the ghastly failures of 20th-century authoritarianism.

>The printing press may have been good for society in the long run, but in the short run it caused a century of sectarian warfare that killed tens of millions of people.

Compared to the peaceful millennia that preceded it?

Only a century?

And some of the tropes Mr Trump appeals to are rooted in Sectarinisiam - don't forget the KKK started as anti Catholic.

The article's point is that it really isn't different this time around, isn't it?

Should Caxton overrule the translator and restore the original text? Or should he let the censorship stand, implying that, even if such insults were acceptable in ancient Athens or medieval Cairo, they were now beyond the pale? After many sentences of ornate hand-wringing, he tried to have it both ways. [...] As soon as he made his decision, he attempted to rationalize it. In the rest of the epilogue, he seemed to imply that he wasn’t a gatekeeper after all—that, although he was clearly a publisher, his printing press should be treated more like a platform. He was merely serving his customers, he suggested: they deserved to hear all perspectives and make up their own minds.

Later, it goes on to describe how the printing press allowed Martin Luther to "shake Saint Peter's throne," but also to produce and distribute "the first work of modern anti-Semitism and a giant step forward on the road to the Holocaust." (I'm quoting the passages the article quotes, from historians Elizabeth Eisenstein and Paul Johnson respectively.)

The article isn't suggesting that the Internet is all the dark side here -- it's suggesting that the "techno-utopians" seriously underestimated the potential for their inventions to be misused, and that that really isn't different from what happened with the printing press. The difference now is the scale, speed and reach. But as the note at the end of the article reads, the print headline for this piece was "The More Things Change."

Of course the printing press was one of the forces that caused the reformation and all the wars that where caused by that.

Instead of arguing about whether or not we can put the genie back in the bottle, why don't we figure out how we can do better than we opened one last time, e.g. how can we avoid the mistakes that followed the adoption of the printing press?

A bit similar to Ted Chiang (Arrival)’s The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling.


The internet was definitely a mistake.

OK, I'll bite. Why?

well... do you generally subscribe to consequentialism?

potential story that gets told by future historians: we were doing pretty well as a civilization, harnessing powerful technologies, spreading western-style democracy and freedom around the world, and figuring out how to make a better, more fair and just world. then, we invented the internet. within a generation, we had become pettily obsessed with image and fake internet points. massive amounts of disinformation from powerful self-interested sources stifled debate on the important issues of the day. climate change went unchecked, even while far-right nationalists rose to prominence around the world by harnessing the worst forces of racism and bigotry which had been successfully repressed by the mainstream media that collapsed after the internet became widely adopted.

not saying this is what i believe, but i definitely think this is a viable narrative and may become dominant, especially if things continue to go downhill from a fake-news, polarization, and "society-of-the-spectacle" perspective. the kids living in the rubble left over after right- and left-wingers go to war over some really convincing fake video might really wish the internet hadn't been invented.

actually, imagining this kind of stuff is exactly what the original article is asking of us, the community building the technology. like, at least admit the possibility that it's not all daisies and sunshine and things might turn out -- less than optimal.

> at least admit the possibility that it's not all daisies and sunshine and things might turn out -- less than optimal.

I tend to be more optimistic about the future and technological progress on the whole, but if we are headed toward a great filter or massive reset, then modern technology might be judged as a negative development by the survivors. We really don't know what the long-term effect of civilization is yet. We're still in the experimental stage.

> we generally agree that the printing press was very good for society

But are we right about that? To answer questions like that we have to make up counterfactuals, which are hard and hand wavey. Maybe we would never get the Reformation, and so the Catholic Church would still be burning heretics (a different spin on the modern day burning man), but as the article points out, maybe we also wouldn't have the haulocast...

I personally agree with historians like Yuval Noah harrari that it's been all downhill since agriculture

I wouldn’t call the printing press “good” in the long run at all (it’s just a hell of a claim to make about most technology). I think we have been forced to adapt around technology that refuses to cease existing once it’s discovered. That adaptation is often very violent. To be trite, your iphone is the perfect symbol of the violence of capitalism: you will never perceive the blood, sweat, and exploitation that leads to your device, ie commodity fetishism. Violence, cultural conflict, class conflict, and technological progress are all inextricably linked. Reducing technology to “good” or “bad” isn’t a conversation that goes anywhere.

All these articles are saying the same few things in different words now. I am a little burnt out on this topic at this point. I've felt this and said this for almost a decade now.

Technology amplifies our nature. It is a neutral force. Being mindful and having empathy are not just good habits but foundational to being healthy and happy in the 21st century.

Yeah, this is one tired trope. I'm especially bored of the "Facebook causes the rise of nationalism/fascism" rhetoric - I think it's pretty convenient to scapegoat the Zuck (who is an asshole, oblivious, naive, etc.) with something so complex and fueled by so many factors outside of the internet. "Russians made us do it because Facebook" is such a wonderful cop out because it means we can't really do anything to fix it, and it's totally not our fault. And we're addicted to such messages - that the terrorists hate our freedom, that poor people are just jealous losers, that scientists are moralizing assholes for telling us not to eat steak every day - and we even prefer these messages because they let us be the victim of the cruel outside world, rather than understanding how our own complacency, ignorance, or greed has worsened situations.

None of these articles place as much emphasis on the selling-off of our regulatory systems, the dismantling of election law, the homogenization of American thought in the televisual era, or the truly rampant epidemics of complacency, addiction, hedonism, and consumerism as possible catalysts behind a nation rapidly declining into total social schism.

> Yeah, this is one tired trope.

this sentiment is illustrative of the world that the internet has created. on the internet, you never have to deal with something that bores you -- you can always open a new tab and do something else.

in the real world, unfortunately, the same old annoying stuff keeps coming up, and you have to keep dealing with it. like... i'm going to have to brush my teeth twice a day for the rest of my life, there will never come a time when i can just stop watching what i eat, and i'm going to have to keep dealing with the consequences of social media, including talking about it's effects, making choices about it, and convincing my friends and anyone who will listen to make choices about it, no matter how old and annoying it may have become.

one thing that gives me energy on stuff like this (by stimulating my brain) is to use my imagination. what i mean is, it seems like we've talked this subject to death, but nothing's really changed so far. maybe a slight shift in public opinion, maybe people don't assume technology must be good quite so readily as before. but try to imagine what the world could look like.

reality has this oppressive weight that restricts your thinking. "this is how the world is, so this is how it must be; in fact, this is good simply for existing. anyone who questions it doesn't get it.". it's much harder to imagine a counterfactual better world. for instance, what if instead of clumping into like-minded herds that re-enforce each other's ideas even when wrong, people on the internet connected with others who are really unlike them most of the time (maybe through something like airbnb)? or, what if there was a group/agency charged with maintaining factual accuracy on the internet (this idea comes from a novel called infomacracy). or, what if you could get people to connected better in real life (like the bash' in "too like the lightning"). imagining different worlds gives you a lens through which to critique the current one, and also gives you something to work towards.

> this sentiment is illustrative of the world that the internet has created. on the internet, you never have to deal with something that bores you -- you can always open a new tab and do something else.

Don't get me wrong, it's not that this is flat-out untrue, it's just that the repeated cashing-in on an old and reductionistic theories of current events is becoming increasingly transparent. It's akin to thinkers like J.B. Peterson criticizing postmodernism 10-15 years after the movement ended, and solely by repeating the arguments that ended it. It might be true or consistent or whatever, but the point is that it focuses the dialogue on a too-narrow set of theories about the world.

Even your own statement, "Internet bad, makes people incapable of dealing with boredom" is a trope that, regardless of its truth value, doesn't address deeper issues with human communication and entertainment. People essentially said the same things about TV's 40-50 years ago: "you don't have to be bored, just change the channel!"

I think one of the subtle problems here is all the pay walls on the more reputable news sites. Yes I know they need to make money but by closing themselves off to people unwilling to pay for their material, that increases the chance that sites like Twitter and Facebook become their only source of news. Nothing good comes from that. That's not blaming Facebook by the way.

What other solution do they have? Social media decimated their business model. Remember all the layoffs over the last decade?

IMO they need to come together and build the equivalent of Netflix for this content. I'm happy to pay $10 a month to eliminate all paywalls. I'm not happy with individual subscriptions to every newspaper and newsletter in existence. And yes I know disabling JavaScript gets around a lot of these paywalls. I'd like to just pay one fee though rather than a cheat.

They are in a bind. Paywalls limit their exposure. But relying on ads instead destroys their reputability. Ad-driven business model is literally why fake news exists and propagates, and why even the "reputable" outlets keep publishing clickbait and lying headlines.

This is very true. How do you think this problem could be fixed?

I don't know. The best idea I can think of today is to get rid of advertising-based business model (possibly through regulation) and have all news sites paywalled - but, and here's the trick - make money spent on news stories tax deductible, or even 100% reimbursable.

This preserves the market dynamics and keeps the government from controlling the press, while still effectively making the press government-funded, as it should be, because access to timely and accurate news is a public good.

Exactly. Facebook is a convenient scapegoat because people can't simultaneously hold in their head the two concepts "My grandfather is loving and kind and good to his family" and "My grandfather hates Mexicans and gay people". An easy way to resolve this is "Zuckerberg deceived him!".

I think this misses that it's easy to type some of the nastiest things you can imagine into a comment prompt, but it is substantially harder to set up a box on a college campus and shout them through a megaphone, particularly when you start getting nasty looks, jeered at, or harrassed.

Facebook is the perfect outlet for every dingus who thinks themselves transgressive for having a cruel opinion or two but who can't handle the the cost of social ostracism.

This outlet reinforces and radicalizes beliefs gradually because there is no obvious "cost" or "censure" for saying horrible things about your fellow man except, perhaps, being unfollowed. The most unwell in our society use sites like facebook and 4chan and particularly their say-anything mechanism as incubators for their paranoia and rage and then go kill people. There's an obvious cause and effect here, even if the person was unwell prior to engaging with the site.

So, no, it's not Facebook's fault that people think and say this stuff, but it has created a mechanism to amplify it. And the design of the system, driven by "engagement" (aka addiction), creates a negative feedback loop. The more awful something is, the angrier we get, the more we engage, comment, argue, and the higher it climbs in the feed.

They are definitely responsible for this algorithm, at the very least.

It’s the same with the Russians thing, people would rather talk about the Electoral College or foreign election interference instead of the fact that 49% of people voted for someone they abhor. Although in this case it’s less about an individual and more about the state of the general population

>Technology amplifies our nature. It is a neutral force.

On the whole, and in general, I agree. But I think it's worth digging in a bit deeper here.

Technology can amplify the nature of its users, if it's designed to do so. The extent to which this will or won't happen, however, also depends on design decisions made by its creators, whether intentionally or not. Technology in the abstract may be a neutral force, but specific technologies in practice very much are not; its creators have an outsized influence on what ends up happening on the platform. (See Facebook's surfacing of posts in the News Feed by "engagement" for example.)

I agree. I'm not a fan of Facebook at all for this reason. They have a sociopathic ethos, it's been that way from the start and will stay that way no matter how much PR spin they try to put out there. It's baked in at this point.

What's concerning is how much reddit has gone downhill in the last few years. I used to swear by it but you can see how the Chinese investment in it has changed it. Also, the political atmosphere has made it very one-sided as a whole instead of balanced.

I always think of 'E=mc^2' could be used to build a bomb or a reactor, it comes down to the intent and focus of the creator.

>but you can see how the Chinese investment in it has changed it.

How so? I use reddit (and as a side note am pissed that my username was already taken) daily and it hasn't really changed, in my estimation. What do you see that makes you say this?

> It is a neutral force.

This is a common myth that ignores a century of philosophical thought[1] on the subtle interplay between technology and behavior. Good parts and bad parts—often unintended—but certainly not neutral:

- Jacques Ellul insists that 'technique carries with it its own effects quite apart from how it is used... No matter how it is used, it has of itself a number of positive and negative consequences. This is not just a matter of intention'

- Don Ihde, the philosopher, has argued that particular tools unavoidably select, amplify and reduce aspects of experience in various ways

- Abbe Mowshowitz, a computer scientist, argues that 'tools insist on being used in particular ways'

- Neil Postman insists that 'the printing press, the computer, and television are not therefore simply machines which convey information. They are metaphors through which we conceptualize reality in one way or another... we do not see the world as it is. We see it as our coding systems are.'

[1]: https://web.archive.org/web/20190215155149/http://visual-mem...

The UI/UX concept of "affordances" is an example where people understand the concept - a device may afford particular use, while discouraging a different use.

That said, "technology" is a term that covers a lot of things, essentially creating a spectrum of neutrality. For instance, on a direct level, a gun affords killing and coercing with threats of violence. Second-order effects, however, involve complex implications on politics, society and economy. Still, you may declare it "mostly bad". But then let's look at its component - gunpowder, chemicals used in modern ammunition, or explosives in general. Are they force of bad? They don't afford killing as much. Then look at the theoretical chemistry and engineering knowledge around those substances. Those have as much if not more clearly benign applications as they have malicious ones.

Similarly, targeted advertising on-line may be evil, cookies less so. TCP? Ethernet? Those are all "technologies".

>Technology amplifies our nature. It is a neutral force.

I don't think the second assertion follows from the first. This is a tech forum, right? What do we talk about all the time? "Scalability." Can this business scale up & can this tech scale up are eternal questions here and it's commonly understood that some techs don't scale and you'll have to change if growth continues. The same applies for many of the business models discussed here, no one bats an eye at a discussion involving a company where it jumpstarts growth with one strategy and then transitions to another strategy as it grows.

But, but but! We come to humans and there seems to be a faith in our infinite scalability. And not just that we can scale infinitely but that we can do it without changing. That seems incorrect. Seen this way it's not just a question of how far we can push the 'mindfulness' and 'empathy' of humans but whether they will have to give way to other traits as we push them. How far they go, what they morph into, all of this plays into the value of the 'force' and maybe it is neutral, but it's far from a given.

> Technology amplifies our nature. It is a neutral force.

Technology might be morally neutral, but since amplification can bring things to an unrecoverable limit, it isn't neutral in the sense of producing balanced outcomes. If we manage to cure cancer, and blow up the world, we're all still dead.

Having empathy also seems to be foundational in building a civilization that is successful over the long term. Unfortunately these days it seems it is viewed as weakness.

> Technology amplifies our nature. It is a neutral force.

A nuclear bomb is just technology, and is very decidedly not a neutral force.

EDIT: Another counter-example that they used all the time in my Ethics Engineering class was the low-hanging bridge, which served to segregate white-folk from black-folk in New York City.

City Busses cannot pass a low-hanging bridge. So by carefully crafting neighborhoods surrounded by low-hanging bridges, you can prevent bus-traffic, and therefore African Americans from visiting certain neighborhoods.

If you were a Civil Engineer and you were expected to build an anti-bus bridge today, should you, or should you not, build the bridge? This is a fundamental ethics question. As the engineer, your ethics are marked upon the products you make.

> Technology amplifies our nature. It is a neutral force.

No, that is not correct. The "gain" of the amplification is VERY unevenly distributed. For example, nuclear weapons only amplify the force of the biggest and most powerful countries. Outside of thermonuclear warfare, technologies like social media greatly advantage hucksters and propagandist over the calm and rational.

> Technology amplifies our nature. It is a neutral force. Being mindful and having empathy are not just good habits but foundational to being healthy and happy in the 21st century.

But does technology amplify mindfulness and empathy?

It seems to me that technology is a one-sided amplifier. It only amplifies the aspects that are, in the end, profitable for big companies.

are we mindful and emphatic by nature?

Some people are mindful and/or empathetic, and it's not inconceivable that more people would be if society/technology/whatever was more encouraging of it.

"By nature" is not a useful qualifier here. Maybe it's nature, maybe it's nurture; either way, I for one think it would be better if more people were "mindful and empathetic", regardless of whether you attribute that gain to societal encouragement or the removal of societal discouragement.

Most people, left to their own devices, yes - in the small. It gets problematic in the large.

> Most people, left to their own devices, yes - in the small.

As long as people are part of the same tribe. Plenty of small communities who aren't terribly empathetic to outsiders, minorities or foreigners.

It's on overcorrection to the naive optimism that surrounded the internet for 10+ years. I also think all these journalists have this dream that their story/essay is going to be the one that makes everyone come back to craving long form journalism / newsprint again which is even more naive.

I agree, with an elaboration from Marshall McLuhan's theory that technology is an extension of parts of the human body - cognition and memory extending our brain; communication extending our eyes, ears, and mouths; sexuality; transportation, consumption, and trade that used to be limited by walking distance, etc. It has simply extended "us" as humans.

Accurate. People assume that more technology will fix everything but it will have to as much an 'inside job' too if we are too keep progressing as a civilization.

you'll find this intersting, https://youtu.be/mq2mcwtyjEA Peter Medwar said the most human thing about us is our technology. Civilization on the other hand is merely a by product of the phonetic (Phoenician) alphabet. The ability to translate (hoick) the acoustic (thought, dance, poems) into the visual (writing) etc

Agreed. I think the fact that it comes up so frequently is a symptom of no one fixing the problem.

(I don't mind these articles, because I think this topic should be constantly on the mind of anyone building consumer tech services - but maybe thinking that anything will happen as a result is wishful, I hope not)

In principal you're right. People can also use technology to manipulate others. So we could create technology to encourage and manipulate being mindful and having empathy.

It does amplify our nature but the distribution is uneven.

The internet is still being invented. There is work to be done.

We're at the walled garden stage. Who knows what's next?

> Who knows what's next?

More walls.

And then? What comes after the walls? Toppling them? A period of perceived freefom and disruption followed by more walls?

"his claim that the post-Facebook world 'is better,' as he put it in his note in November, is arguable, at best"

A horrible statement in an otherwise decent article. There's a lot of work to be done in keeping these platforms safe, I agree. The article does a really good job of highlighting the uncontrollable growth these communities experienced and the founders' inability to control it.

But to state that an interconnected world is "at best" arguably better? The author comes off as a luddite who disregards the largest human network in history, just because of their anger towards Zuckerberg or Facebook as a corporation. Things need to change, but let's not downplay what we're dealing with here. There has been so much commercial, personal, and community growth thanks to Facebook's network effects. This isn't about the wealth of a single individual anymore.

Yes, I think it’s ok to put the idea out that maybe Facebook hasn’t had a net beneficial effect on humanity.

Maybe it has, maybe it hasn’t. Certainly the interconnectedness in general is moving us forward.

But Facebook in particular is amazing at capturing your attention and manipulating your emotions to get you to spend more time in Facebook. It is a responsive actor that learns what you respond to, and it’s interests are not aligned with yours.

Without Facebook, would we have settled on something less malicious?

That’s impossible to say.

"Certainly the interconnectedness in general is moving us forward."

It is undeniably moving us. I can't imagine the argument that it's not moving us. But I'd submit unless you mean "forward" in the trivial temporal sense, I am unconvinced it's "forward" in the general sense.

I blame as the root cause the mismatch of incentives between Facebook making money via advertising vs. the user's desires and goals. Advertising gives Facebook billions of dollars worth of incentives to invade privacy, hook people to ways of giving up their personal info, manipulating them in ways to ever up "engagement" with the ads specifically (not just the service in general). That's a big negative in my book, possibly as large as "break the political system" large.

On the positive side, we can't credit Facebook with everything thats happens on their service. At best they get the difference of the good social interactions that happen today minus the ones that were already happening without them (and can still happen without them), e.g., school and family reunions and parties happened before Facebook.

Until we do something to remove these incentives created as a second-order effect of trying to build services on top of advertising alone, anything is going to be toxic, whether or not it's called "Facebook".

The Internet is now primarily a tool for serving eyeballs to advertisers at any and all costs, rather than a tool for serving people. How can any other outcome occur until that is fixed?

It's an impressive human accomplishment, but that doesn't mean it made the world better.

I think the world may have been better for a little while, during the era of the chronological timeline (maybe not), but facebook has devolved into a surveillance machine feeding us echo chambers.

I think "more connected" is a hard sell and "better" is false.

I agree, Newsfeed is divisive and toxic. I feel like Facebook was too slow in de-emphasizing it from the core product. But Facebook has become a lot more than that for so many people. I've seen a lot of people that have been able to make a better living thanks to Facebook's network effects.

This isn't thanks to the efforts of Facebook, but a byproduct of their huge social graph. I don't like Facebook as a company but I recognize the value in this, especially for people in less developed countries.

Your description comes somewhat close to the initial grand vision of Facebook as a global community uniting strangers of different cultures in a shared, positive effort of cooperation.

While everyone probably has a few examples of friends they otherwise wouldn't have kept in touch with, that is so far from those optimistic hopes that we stopped debating the possibility about five years ago and don't even make fun of it even more these days.

The world would definitely be better off without facebook. It's worse than useless.

Seriously, how would your life change dramatically without Facebook?

My life? Not at all. I don't really use the product except for managing event invites. But I don't run a business that generates most of their leads through Facebook. Nor do I organize any volunteering or community events that would benefit from reaching a large amount of people.

This is a strange hill to die on, because I really don't agree with most of the company's actions. Yet every time I'm outside of the U.S, I see how important Facebook is to a lot of communities. I could be wrong, but I've just seen large social graphs like Facebook's create value. Hence my surprise to the author insinuating it's made the world a worse place.

Ironically enough the people that benefit the most from the product aren't the primary source of income, as I'm sure first world users are valued higher per ad dollar.

Jaron Lanier made a pretty good argument that the dedication and belief of freedom of information in the 80's is what pushed businesses to adopt the advertisement/surveillance capitalism model

"These are Gothic High-Tech figures, people who position themselves in the narrative rather than building any permanent infrastructure"

Is there a light side to it?

I don't know about you, but I sure do like indoor pluming.

Our salaries.

blah blah . why should i read the rest of this. it contains jewels like this:

> had Hillary Clinton been elected, as most people expected, it’s unlikely that social-media founders would now have as much reason to reckon with what they’ve wrought

who's most people? It's sad to see people die on hills but sometimes they bring it upon themselves.

When clicking on this I assumed it would be about pervasive surveillance, but seems like it's yet another article about how it's a bummer that social media provides an alternative to establishment media.

There is absolutely no doubt that most expected HRC to win. They obviously erred, but that doesn't change the truth of the statement.

Who is ‘most’?

Almost everyone making election predictions with a decent-sized platform, as I recall.

that's not "most people" though

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