MATTSPLAINED [] MSP77 [] The Ultimate Disruption: Breaking Up the Giants

Original Images: Pixabay. Glitched @ Kulturpop

Original Images: Pixabay. Glitched @ Kulturpop

MATTSPLAINED [] MSP77 [] The Ultimate Disruption: Breaking Up the Giants

In the final part of our Disrupted World series, MSP asks the ultimate question: is it time to break up the tech giants?

Do we have the power and the will? Will it solve the problems big tech has created, or do we have to look deeper, at finding alternate solutions and pushing them through ourselves.

            

Produced by Jeff Sandhu for BFM89.9

            

Show Links: 

https://www.vox.com/recode/2019/5/9/18537122/billionaire-study-wealthx-san-francisco

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/may/11/big-tech-progressive-vision-silicon-valley

 

Episode Transcript

 

These shows are dictated to and transcribed by machines, and hurriedly edited by a human. Apologies for the typos and grammar flaws.

 

Whatever we cover on MSP, we always seem to be pulled back to the tech giants and social media. On the final part of our Disrupted World series we return to Silicon Valley to ask Matt: is it time to break up the giants. 

 

Matt, is it time to break up the giants?

·      I like the amount of effort you’ve put into the questions and the intro this week.

 

I’m trying to be disruptive…

·      I guess that’s one of the points that we’ve been making over the past few weeks…

 

I thought the point of the last few weeks was to get as many Game of Thrones references into the shows as possible?

·      Which is the perfect segue for me to make a GOT analogy.

·      You could look at the current season of the show as being disruptive, in the sense that it’s disrupting any sense of narrative plot development.

·      We’re seeing character arcs being disrupted, geographical distances disrupted and even weaknesses and flaws the show has spent seasons creating, being disrupted out of CGI’d existence with the waft of a pixel.

·      And it’s no different in the real world.

·      Disruption has become this shorthand for being mean and rude.

·      It’s a bit like saying, no, I didn’t poke you in the eye, I simply changed the way you see the world.

·      When you’re the one who has been disrupted, it’s just a poke in the eye.

 

But this week, we’re talking about the giants getting the poke in the eye rather than the free folk?

·      See, the GOT references continue. 

·      Yes. This week we’re touching on one of the biggest disruptions of them all:

o  Should we break up the tech giants?

o  Can we break them up?

o  Should we subject them to more oversight.

o  In which case, who administers that oversight and in whose interest?

·      To say that it’s a complicated topic is to disrupt the meaning of complicated.

·      We might as well say it here at the start: it’s probably one of those insurmountable challenges.

·      It’s like that Churchill quote about democracy being the worst form of government except for all the others. I’m paraphrasing btw. 

 

Whatever solutions we come up with will be bad?

·      They don’t have to be in theory.

·      But we often find that things that don’t have to be bad in theory, turn out to be bad in practise. 

·      And I have a feeling that however we manage to ‘fix’ this problem, we’re going to end up with a fairly awful compromise. 

·      It’s like most things. It’s much easier to prevent than cure. 

·      Modern medicine can give you a new kidney, but you’re unlikely to break any Olympic records afterwards.

 

At least with today’s show, there does seem to be some wider consensus out there. You haven’t just plucked this topic out of there.

·      Even that wider consensus is a little worrying.

·      So, US presidential contender Elizabeth Warren has made the break up of companies like Facebook a central part of her campaign plan.

·      That’s fine. But it would really be preferable to see more consensus on this issue. 

·      This isn’t something we want to become a political hem and us struggle.

·      Because it’s already a them and us struggle. 

·      Consumers and companies. This could make it a them and them and us issue.

·      Which won’t be healthy for us. 

·      Politics is so partisan and compartmentalised. This isn’t an issue that should fall into those boxes.

 

Aren’t we already seeing a partisan approach?

·      Yes, Which is quite funny.

·      President Trump has railed against Facebook and Twitter for being unfair to him and to conservatives in general.

·      They aren’t so much in favour of limiting the power of the social media networks, as amplifying the power of the voices they want to hear.

 

I know you have a slightly different take on the freedom of speech argument…

·      Yeah, I don’t think we have any right to be on any of those services. There isn’t a free speech argument.

·      We’ve taken for granted the fact that we can go on FB, or Twitter or Reddit and spout any nonsense we like.

·      Social Media has turned into a down-at-heel diner at 4am on a Sunday morning. 

·      A great place to go to fill your belly with cheap, greasy sustenance, but a terrible place to go for information and advice.

·      Maybe that’s an aspect that the companies should have come down on earlier. 

·      But it is something we’ve talked about before: They aren’t social services. 

·      They’re private, profit seeking companies. And they don’t have to entertain me or my views.

 

Which is, again, something we’ve covered many times before.

·      Exactly. We have the rights they allow us. And, as we’ve said in the past, because we’re their users and not their customers, we don’t even have many of those rights.

·      They get to ban some of us for one set of actions and then promote others for the same. 

·      I think there was a story this week that an anti-abortion advocacy group in the US had managed to benefit from USD150k of free Google ads.

·      These are the kind of oversights and discrepancies that get people riled up.

·      Imagine what this show could do with 150k of free ads?

 

Nothing good…

·      Exactly. That’s essentially my mission in life.

·      Google’s motto used to be Don’t Be Evil.

·      At Mattsplained it’s Doing No Good. And you can take that however you want. 

 

In a sense though, we are asking a lot of tech companies to do something impossible.

·      You want Facebook to charge you no money, protect your privacy, check the spread of fake news, ensure your kids or your parents don’t see anything untoward and somehow make a profit.

·      If you set those constraints as the criteria for newcomers in a Hackathon, I’m fairly sure that everyone would fail.

·      If one of those companies did start to make money, I think it would be fair to assume that they weren’t following those constraints to the letter.

·      How could they be? 

·      It’s an impossible recipe. It sets you up to fail or disappoint.

·      For most tech companies, the reality will be both.

 

We talk about how difficult it is to fact check. But sites like Wikipedia manage it without a profit incentive. 

·      It’s a quandary, isn’t it.

·      Clickbait and hatred are generally a lot more fun to consume than an summary of the Byzantine Empire.

·      Certainly Wikipedia isn’t trying to moderate information at the same rate or scale. 

·      And it generally isn’t as time sensitive. I can wait a couple of days to find out about minotaurs.

·      Whereas it doesn’t make as much sense to show people a photo of what I had for breakfast last Tuesday.

·      In some ways we shouldn’t think of Facebook or Apple or Huawei as anything but an Alpha test, a sub-routine for the next leap in human development.

 

Not evolution?

·      It would be nice to think that we’d evolve some kind of frog like nictitating membrane over our eyes to filter out digital lies but that’s probably a couple of million year away.

·      Which is quite literally the blink of an eye in evolutionary terms.

·      This idea of living in a digital age is so new.

·      We still haven’t mastered urbanisation after hundreds of years.

·      Or managed to spread the rewards of development more equally.

·      Future Matt will probably regard us as one of a number of lost generations.

·      A transitional people, whose idols, the leaders of the Fortune 500, will end up as nothing more than some ones and zeroes in a quantum computer’s redundant memory.

 

Is that how you see our lives? As a kind of damage limitation exercise for future generations?

·      I know that’s pretty bleak.

·      By the way – data mining suggests that bleak is one of the more popular words on this show.

·      I wouldn’t call you a liar. 

·      This technology is disruptive in the same way that the industrial revolution was disruptive.

·      Or the transition from the bronze to the iron age. 

·      Huge cultural and economic transformations are always messy.

 

How much of our current frustrations do you think are down to tone deafness and disconnection? 

·      That’s where we come back to disruption, and after the break we’ll try and frame it in a slightly different way.

·      There was a hugely insightful piece by Evgeny Morozov – another name that crops up regularly on the show – on the Guardian website, where he more masterfully summarises some of the ideas we’ve run around the past few weeks.

·      But I’ll give you an example of the disconnect from something that happened to me earlier this week.

·      I needed to transfer all my data from one cloud storage platform to another.

·      I won’t bore you with details, partly it was to do with trying to reduce the number of different cloud services I’m paying for, which already outnumbers my fingers and toes.

 

I’ve heard that you more than your fair share of those…

·      I’m from rural UK. It’s normal for us to have toed hooves.

·      We call it selective breeding. 

·      Anyway, more digression, I signed up for a service called cloudHq to help me sync the data between the two drives.

·      And I got the usual welcome message in my Inbox.

·      Hi There, I’m blah blah, the  co-founder of CloudHQ, and your login email is: blah blah blah.

·      Most of the things you sign up for online send you a hello from.

·      But you can see how this sounds sinister – I’m the founder of a tech company and I have your email.

·      That’s not a friendly sounding message. 

·      And that’s what I mean about disconnect and tone deafness.

·      Somebody at that company has decided that that is an acceptable or even desirable way to talk to their customers.

·      To tell them that we have a record of your identity.

·      And that’s just one of the many reasons we have a problem with big tech.

·      To their credit – when I mentioned this on Twitter, cloudhq did get in touch with me and said they would put my suggestions under consideration.

 

When we come back – Actually, I’ve no idea. Matt has genuinely disrupted my sense of editorial flow.

 

BREAK

 

Before the break we talked about some stuff. It was all very disruptive. And now for… …something else.

·      I‘ll let you gather your thoughts by digressing again. 

·      As we all know, there are approximately 7.5bn people in the world.

·      Of those, around 2,000 are billionaires.

·      That’s equates to about one billionaire for every 3.75m people.

·      A report on the Vox website this week alleges that in San Francisco, the heart of SV’s wealth, one in 11.600 people is a billionaire.

·      That’s a staggering statistic and it shows you how skewed and concentrated this group of power-breakers is.

 

And that’s disruptive?

·      Yes, because it shows you who is reaping the benefit of disruption. 

·      And it’s small group of people in a small location.

 

A conspiracy theory?

·      Heavens no. I don’t think they’re acting together - I think they probably hate each other more than anyone else.

·      Oh, your G500 only has carpeting? Mine has Italian marble floors. That kind 

·      No. it’s more about that perception of disruption.

·      And what we said a couple of episodes ago, about us, the people at the non-millionaire or billionaire end of the spectrum, being the ones whose lives who end up disrupted.

·      Because, in a lot of ways, it’s the potential of technology to improve our lives that’s being intercepted or disrupted, depending on how you look at it.

·      Let’s go back to something we were talking about earlier: clickbait and ad revenue.

 

We were talking about them earlier?

·      Stay with me a little bit longer.

·      I promise you after today’s show, we’ll do something easy like cosmic rays and bit flips.

·      As I like to mention, we aren’t Facebook or Twitter’s customers.

·      Clickbait is an easy way to get us to produce the milk that they sell on to their actual customers.

·      What do you do if you’re a company looking for eyeballs and money? 

·      What do you do if shady or covert political groups want to spend hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars with your company, especially when the content they’re promoting will help to keep you glued and commenting.

 

Even if those things are making us miserable and angry?

·      I think that’s one of the fundamental mistakes we make.

·      Why do we assume that FB, or MS, or Twitter or Apple is there to make us happy?

·      They’re there to keep us connected. Perhaps informed. If power-lifting camels and meal prepping tutorials count as keeping us informed.

·      It’s the same reason we follow celebrity gossip: it’s not because it makes us happy. 

·      We envy their lives and hope there’ll some form of scandal and downfall.

·      It’s like me and Twitter. 

·      After five years away, it was the sheer amount of information relating to this show that led me back.

·      It’s one of the easiest ways to get in touch with people and sound them out.

·      It’s useful, but it doesn’t make me happier. I stay happy by limiting the amount of time I spend on it.

 

But you’re not the typical user?

·      No. And not because I’m smarter than any other user. 

·      Just that I’m maybe more cynical.

·      But also, because I don’t forget what Twitter is.

·      It’s a tool that is run in its own self-interest.

·      That’s the thing about self-interest, it’s naturally exclusive.

·      There was an op-ed in the NYT this week, written by a former British Deputy PM called Nick Clegg.

·      Who now happens to be Vice President of Global Affairs and Communication at Facebook.

 

He’s one of their top PR guys?

·      Essentially.

·      Now, I’m not going to comment on the revolving door between public service and industry, I’m sure you all have your own views on that. 

·      But Mr Clegg wrote an opinion piece in the NYT on May 9 titled Breaking Up Facebook Is Not the Answer that I want to have a quick look at:

·      I’ll quote a little bit, which relates to areas that Facebook is requesting lawmakers legislate more tightly. 

·      “We concentrate on four key areas: reducing the amount of harmful content that people post; 

·      protecting democratic elections; 

·      supporting unified rules for data privacy; 

·      and giving individuals more ability to easily move their data. 

·      In all these areas, we believe that governments should make the rules consistent with their own principles, not those of private companies like Facebook.”

 

I think Nick Clegg also points out that very few industries ask governments for more regulation.

·      Perfectly true. Mr Clegg also admits in the same article that the company makes almost all of its money from digital advertising. 

·      What Mr Clegg isn’t advocating for is protection of user data from advertisers.

·      Or from political parties – that would be simpler to do. 

·      We talk about the problem of protecting elections.

·      All these companies could stop taking money for any political advertising.

·      That doesn’t require legislation. 

·      And Mr Clegg is a former legislator. 

·      Which is one of the reasons that I  think very few of the current crop of global lawmakers has any answer to the problems we face at the user end of technology.

 

I feel like we’re drifting from the original premise: disruption and big tech…

·      Are you more committed to your sense of editorial integrity or this show?

·      You can’t have both. You know what, don’t answer that question.

 

Not that it would make the slightest difference to what you’re about to say…

·      Exactly. And that’s what disruption is actually about.

·      Protecting the veneer. 

·      And that’s the thing. Breaking up those big tech companies will protect us from them, but not from the problems they represent.

·      Break up Facebook and we are still at risk from fake news.

·      Because the people touting it will move to wherever we are.

·      We’re already seeing a transfer – India is often referenced – of the fake news ad disinformation movement to platforms like Whatsapp and other messaging apps around the world.

·      Decentralised, encrypted and almost undetectable.

 

That doesn’t mean the company isn’t moving to combat these problems.

·      I think it’s been reported that FB is deleting up to 2m WA accounts a month to try and combat it.

·      And this week we also found out that an Israeli based intelligence company had developed software that targeted a vulnerability in WA.

·      These are societal and industry flaws, not company related ones.

·      For example. Breaking up Amazon won’t necessarily bring retailers back to the high streets and malls.

 

It just empowers Amazon’s rivals?

·      Perhaps. We’re seeing a change in our own behaviour. 

·      It’s easy to buy online.

·      That’s why these changes have to originate from us. 

·      Lawmakers have to be more beholden to us than business interests. 

·      I mentioned Evgeny Morozov before the break. 

·      I would suggest anyone who’s enjoyed this show so far to read his Guardian article, titled, rather self-explanatorily:

·      It’s Not Enough To Break Up Big Tech.

o  We Need To Imagine a Better Alternative.

·      I’ll post the link in the shownotes.

 

What do you mean by change?

·      I’ll try and do a mix of Morozov and me and see if it makes any sense.

·      We have to not be beholden to tech companies or to people who are beholden to tech companies.

·      The solution to an infrastructure problem – a failing government service, a distribution network, an information technology system – is not to bring in a corporate monopoly to replace it.

·      I think Morozov refers to Brazil’s president calling for Google or Amazon to take over the country’s postal service.

·      That’s not a solution.

 

We want to see more empowerment?

·      Yes. We were sold the idea of technology as a tool for social change and mobility.

·      We were sold on the idea of citizen journalists harnessing the power of FB, Twitter and YT.

·      What we got are companies concentrating the power away from us and retaining the profits.

·      The medium has changed but the status quo remains.

·      What has been disrupted is the transformative power of that technology. 

·      In his piece, Morozov refers to it as Survival Tech.

 

In what sense?

·      We’re all afraid. Look at the fake news spreading via WA in India or the vaccine and health workers targeted in Pakistan.

·      We’re using this technology to hunker down. To build physical and digital bunkers.

·      To use these tools to communicate with people like us and exclude those who aren’t. 

·      As Morozov also says, breaking up Facebook or Google or Amazon isn’t enough to overcome those problems.

·      Maybe it’s a start – but that’s your decision.

·      And that’s why I talked about us being an Alpha test for a digital future.

·      If we want a different, or better future, we have to imagine it and make it happen.

 

It’s easy to say and harder to do.

·      It is. There’s another great piece on Vox this week.

·      It’s about people demanding more privacy and then going out and buying devices that give it away.

·      Go figure.

·      We need other solutions and ideas. Morozov calls it Rebel Tech.

·      I’m not sure I agree with the terminology but I agree with the idea.

·      Google’s vision of the future – a data absorbing desert – needn’t be ours.

·      But to combat that vision, we have to have ideas.

 

Your ideas?

·      No.we have to figure out what we want for ourselves.

·       Of course, I have a vision.

·      Which would be me, living in Superman’s ice palace.

·      It’s not enough to be obstructionist. 

·      We have to have something to work towards.

·      That may be a world of decentralised, self-sustaining villages.

·      Maybe it’s a people focused One World Order. 

·      It could be hyper market driven or compassionately socialist.

·      It doesn’t matter what I think, any more than it matters what Mark Zuckerberg, or Sergey Brin or Jeff Bezos or the founder of that data transfer service think.

·      It only matters what you think. 

·      And you have to disrupt the world by telling people.