Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Why Twitter Must Be Saved

It is election day in the United States, and the tech figure who had one of the biggest impacts on the current cycle is perhaps a non-obvious one: Jeff Bezos.

Back in 2013 Bezos bought the Washington Post, whose coverage of the campaign has been exemplary. The august newspaper’s reporting, particularly the work of David Fahrenthold, has uncovered stories that have had a far bigger impact than any number of tweets or blog posts or calls for days-off-work in Democrat-safe California ever could have had. What Bezos understood is a technology industry truism: impact is made at scale through the construction of repeatable processes. (...)

In this respect, what Bezos is doing feels almost obligatory. Technology — and I’m using the term very broadly here — has torn so much down; surely it’s the responsibility of technologists to build it back up.

And yet, I fear we as an industry are woefully unprepared for this responsibility. We glorify dropouts, endorse endless hours at work, and subscribe to a libertarian ideal that has little to do with reality. (...)

To say that this election cycle has only deepened those worries would be a dramatic understatement. This is not a partisan statement, just an objective statement that technology has made objective truth a casualty to the pursuit of happiness — or engagement, to use the technical term — and now life and liberty hang in the balance.

A few weeks ago, during the keynote of the Oculus Connect 3 developer conference, Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg articulated a vision for Facebook that I found chilling:
At Facebook, this is something we’re really committed to. You know, I’m an engineer, and I think a key part of the engineering mindset is this hope and this belief that you can take any system that’s out there and make it much much better than it is today. Anything, whether it’s hardware, or software, a company, a developer ecosystem, you can take anything and make it much, much better. And as I look out today, I see a lot of people who share this engineering mindset. And we all know where we want to improve and where we want virtual reality to eventually get… 
The magic of VR software is this feeling of presence. The feeling that you’re really there with another person or in another place. And helping this community build this software and these experiences is the single thing I am most excited about when it comes to virtual reality. Because this is what we do at Facebook. We build software and we build platforms that billions of people use to connect with the people and things that they care about.
Leave aside the parts about virtual reality; what bothers me is the faint hints of utopianism inherent in Zuckerberg’s declaration: engineers can make things better by sheer force of will — and that Facebook is an example of just that. In fact, Facebook is the premier example just how efficient tech companies can be, and just how problematic that efficiency is when it is employed in the pursuit of “engagement” with no regard to the objective truth specifically or the impact on society broadly. (...)

And yet it is Twitter that has reaffirmed itself as the most powerful antidote to Facebook’s algorithm: misinformation certainly spreads via a tweet, but truth follows unusually quickly; thanks to the power of retweets and quoted tweets, both are far more inescapable than they are on Facebook. Twitter is a far preferable manifestation of Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis’ famous concurrence in Whitney vs California (emphasis mine):
Those who won our independence believed that the final end of the State was to make men free to develop their faculties, and that, in its government, the deliberative forces should prevail over the arbitrary. They valued liberty both as an end, and as a means. They believed liberty to be the secret of happiness, and courage to be the secret of liberty. They believed that freedom to think as you will and to speak as you think are means indispensable to the discovery and spread of political truth; that, without free speech and assembly, discussion would be futile; that, with them, discussion affords ordinarily adequate protection against the dissemination of noxious doctrine; that the greatest menace to freedom is an inert people; that public discussion is a political duty, and that this should be a fundamental principle of the American government. They recognized the risks to which all human institutions are subject.
Brandeis’ concurrence was a defense of free speech, the right of which applies to government action; private companies are free to police their platforms at they wish. What, though, does free speech mean in an era of abundance? When information was scarce limiting speech was a real danger; when information is abundant shielding people from speech they might disagree with has its own perverse effects.

by Ben Thompson, Stratechery |  Read more:
Image: uncredited