Originally published on 24 May 2018.
There is a common misquote about money and evil. I’m sure you’ve heard it.
“Money is the route of all evil.”
The actual quote (in the King James Bible) is:
“For the love of money is the root of all evil.”
Money or wealth in itself is neutral. It’s only when money is put above morals that the trouble starts.
The reason I bring it up is because in the last few weeks we’ve seen an unprecedented amount of “big tech” companies doing bad things.
These companies were once regarded with esteem. They were the “good guys and gals”.
They were the ones refusing to hand over our private data to government agencies. They were on our side. We trusted them and wanted them to succeed.
Then at the beginning of this year the mood all changed.
Is big always bad?
Big tech became synonymous with the other “big” industries. Big pharma. Big tobacco. Big oil. The big banks, et al.
Is this the fate of any big industry? Once it gets big enough does it inevitably lose its morals?
When the other big industries started, were they liked and seen as on our side? Was it public perception that changed, or was it something they all did?
That’s my question today. When an industry gets “big” and goes from being a source of public adulation to a source of public scorn, was it the public that changed or the industry?
Facebook, once seen as a harmless timewaster that helps you keep in touch with your friends, is now seen as a data monster. This monster knows everything about you. It records every conversation you’ve ever had and sells that data to the highest bidder.
Google was founded on the motto “don’t be evil”. Not any more. It dropped that pesky principle last week. (Coincidentally the day after I wrote this article: Is Google… evil?) Now it can happily further autonomous weapon research and curate our data selves on its “Selfish Ledger”.
And now Amazon is under fire. As Recode reported:
Amazon found itself at the center of a brewing privacy controversy on Tuesday after the American Civil Liberties Union disclosed that the tech giant is selling facial recognition technology to law enforcement that the company has said “helps identify persons of interest against a collection of millions of faces in real-time.”
And unlike the facial recognition covertly used by our own police forces, which has a 98% false positive rate and has never successfully identified a criminal, Amazon’s works.
Since the disclosure about Amazon’s surveillance system many news agencies have admitted using it to identify guests as last weekend’s royal wedding.
Still, it all pales in comparison to China’s surveillance used to enforce its social credit system.
Its enforcers wear smart glasses that can identify people with a low social credit in real time. And so far China’s social credit system has, according to Business Insider, blocked people from taking 11 million flights and 4 million train trips.
I’m not sure who supplies the tech behind China’s system, but it will no doubt come to light one day.
Big tech has gone from champions of civil liberties to authoritarian enforcers in a snap. Was it always inevitable?
People, organisations, industries, morals themselves evolve over time. It just seems strange that in the world of business these evolutions invariably lead to worse outcomes for the public.
Big tech may be getting worse, but the world is getting better
It’s a strange conundrum, because the world is undeniably getting better. I’m currently about halfway through Steven Pinker’s latest book: Enlightenment Now. In which he lays out all the science and stats that show pretty much everything is getting better.
Poverty, inequality, violence, discrimination, human rights, war… it’s all undeniably getting better. And has been for decades.
What is not getting better is journalism. Or what journalists choose to write about. As things have gotten better, news stories have reported more and more bad and less and less good.
From Enlightenment Now:
The data scientist Kalev Leetaru applied a technique called sentiment mining to every article published in the New York Times between 1945 and 2005, and to an archive of translated articles and broadcasts from 130 countries between 1979 and 2010. Sentiment mining assesses the emotional tone of a text by tallying the number and contexts of words with positive and negative connotations, like good, nice, terrible, and horrific.
Putting aside the wiggles and waves that reflect the crises of the day, we see that the impression that the news has become more negative over time is real. The New York Times got steadily more morose from the early 1960s to the early 1970s, lightened up a bit (but just a bit) in the 1980s and 1990s, and then sank into a progressively worse mood in the first decade of the new century. News outlets in the rest of the world, too, became gloomier and gloomier from the late 1970s to the present day.
And remember, while the articles are getting more negative the reality of the world is getting more positive. The late Hans Rosling was a key figure in proving that.
Pinker says it probably has something to do with the effect Watergate, Vietnam and other scandals had on how we view journalism’s role.
Bornstein and Rosenberg don’t blame the usual culprits (cable TV, social media, late-night comedians) but instead trace it to the shift during the Vietnam and Watergate eras from glorifying leaders to checking their power—with an overshoot toward indiscriminate cynicism, in which everything about America’s civic actors invites an aggressive takedown.
It’s easy to see how the Availability heuristic, stoked by the news policy “If it bleeds, it leads,” could induce a sense of gloom about the state of the world.
So while it seems like companies and industries turn evil once they reach a certain threshold, that can’t really be true. The world is getting better, not worse.
Are big tech’s “evil deeds” just a blip?
Maybe it’s just that we have got to a point where we actually care about this kind of stuff.
Maybe it’s always been going on, but we have never been at a place where we care. Maybe the fact all of this is making major news shows that we are moving into a new age where this kind of exploitation and deception won’t stand.
For me, it’s an infinitely interesting topic. And one that is almost impossible to draw any real conclusion about. If you’re a regular reader, you’re probably well aware of things like “the availability heuristic” and “confirmation bias” and how they mess up our own perception.
And even when the studies come out about these trends in big tech – which people must be preparing – it will be hard not to equate correlation with causation.
When major studies come out and assume that correlation implies causation, it does no one any favours. It simply feeds into the whole “don’t trust the experts” narrative.
Are the super-rich all psychopaths?
I don’t subscribe to the “big companies are run by evil people” or all super-rich and successful people are psychopaths line of thinking.
I do subscribe to the idea that bureaucracy creates huge issues. And I believe that as more and more layers are added to any given system it can lose its way.
For example, there was a section I read in a book once which descried how Russian agents were told to clog up American industry.
According to this book, they were told to create as many committees and hold as many meetings as possible. That, the Russians knew, was the best way to stop any meaningful work taking place.
I wish I could remember the name of the book, but it escapes me.
And I’ve annoyed Nick O’Connor many times over the last six or seven years by often repeating David Ogilvy’s quote:
Search all the parks in all your cities. You’ll find no statues of committees.
So maybe, once your organisation or industry gets big enough, it’s destined to lose its way. Maybe that’s the point it starts believing its own hype and tries to reshape the world in its own image – a la Google’s Selfish Ledger.
There’s a maxim that goes: “Happiness is achieved not by adding positives to your life, but by removing the negatives.”
Maybe that’s true on a universal, as well as an individual level.
Maybe these big tech companies need to concentrate, not on adding endless positives to the world, but on removing some of the negatives they have inadvertently created.
Until next time,
Editor, Exponential Investor
PS This all leads into my thoughts on bitcoin’s rules and the fictional science of psychohistory. How do you ensure your business or system doesn’t fall into the same disrepair as all these “big” industries? Build it on a set of immutable rules – immutable code in bitcoin’s case – that can never be changed. You can read the article here.