Silicon Valley Pioneers Question Today’s Dysfunctional Internet

Testifying before Congress, Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg listed all the ways his company has erred, from fake news to hate speech and data privacy — and then apologized for not taking “a broad enough view of our responsibility.” He isn’t the only Silicon Valley leader to take stock of the state of the Internet and worry about its future. Facebook’s first president, Sean Parker, has warned about what social media is “doing to our children’s brains,” calling it a “dangerous form of psychological manipulation.”

New York Magazine interviewed “more than a dozen architects of our digital present” to understand “how the Silicon Valley dream of building a networked utopia turned into a globalized strip-mall casino overrun by pop-up ads and cyberbullies and Vladimir Putin.”

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Those interviewed “made clear” that “the Internet’s original sin … was its business model.” To draw eyeballs to ads, they needed to gin up emotion. Anger is “the emotion most effective at driving ‘engagement’,” said virtual reality pioneer Jaron Lanier. Thus, outrage became the engine driving the Internet’s growth, becoming “a self-perpetuating loop of shock and recrimination.” Social media has “further polarized” the country.

The advertising model behind the Internet is based on microtargeting, which, says New York Magazine, is “nothing more than a fancy term for social atomization — a business logic that promises community while promoting its opposite.”

When Donald Trump was elected president, Silicon Valley began to regret its part: “Twitter served as his unprecedented direct-mail-style megaphone, Google helped pro-Trump forces target users most susceptible to crass Islamophobia, the digital clubhouses of Reddit and 4chan served as breeding grounds for the alt-right, and Facebook became the weapon of choice for Russian trolls and data-scrapers like Cambridge Analytica.”

The result is that “Silicon Valley visionaries [are] no longer in control of the platforms they built” while their “unregulated, quasi-autonomous, imperial scale” makes it “harder to figure out an effective remedy.” Possibilities to fix the problem include a subscription model, smart regulations or breaking up of tech monopolies to create competition. Clearly, it concludes, “Silicon Valley, it turns out, won’t save the world.”