An image of Mehmet Geren for Heidi.news. A Turkish designer, he uses digital collage, combining ancient elements with pop culture.
Hijacking your brain | épisode № 07

Listen to the Facebook investor who qualifies the social network as «toxic assets»!

Last episode of our serial. Roger McNamee gives deep insights on what is happening behind the scenes in the business of Internet platforms. And on how it should be stopped, before it’s too late. For him, These companies get into surveillance and they collect any data they can with the explicit goal of manipulating attention to get more people’s time. So our default position must be to stop trusting technology.

The man who wants to save you from the Internet hijacking your brain is also the man who fostered the birth of what has become the biggest consumer of our time and attention - Facebook. His name is Roger McNamee, founder of the investment fund Elevation Partners, living legend of Silicon Valley and self-proclaimed “hippy” that spends his days scouting for the next unicorn and his night playing psychedelic rock with his band.

Traduction française: cliquez ici.

His history as an investor in technology goes back to the Nineties, when McNamee founded the hugely successful firms Integral Capital Partners and Silver Lake Partners. In 2004, he moved to create Elevation Partners with U2’s frontman Bono as his business buddy.

A good tip for Zuck

No surprise that Mark Zuckerberg turned to him when, still an inexperienced CEO, he needed a mentor for taking some of the decisions that would make him one of the most powerful people in the world. In June 2006, when Yahoo offered to write the 22-year-old CEO a 1 billion dollar check for a company whose revenues were worth less than 20 million a year, Roger McNamee advised Zuckerberg not to take it. In ten years the company would grow to 2 billion users amassing 40 billion dollars in annual revenues. Two years later, McNamee also introduced Mark Zuckerberg to Sheryl Sandberg, making a huge contribution towards shaping the iron couple of tech industry management.

The fruitful and amicable relationship changed in October 2016, when McNamee, as he recounts, realised that something strange was happening on Facebook. He had sensed what took months for the world to find out: foreign agents were meddling with the US presidential elections and the social network’s management knew it.

American millionnaires need an honorable cause

In the wake of that scandal, the 62-year-old investor became an activist against tech giants. He worked behind the scenes to drag «Zuck» in front of Congress. He now advocates for Internet platforms to be «paralyzed by Antitrust laws». And described all of his concerns in his book Zucked. Waking Up to the Facebook Catastrophe (Penguin Press, 352 pages), that he is now presenting across America in theatres, with a rock star kind of reception.

Not everybody is truly convinced by his sincerity. «Public relations, that’s all», said a well-known investor who spoke on condition of anonymity. «In America, after you’ve made your first 500 million, you need to have a cause. It has to be honorable. Something that will distract American citizens from the nausea they experiment towards people whose hands smell of money».

Nonetheless, I reached McNamee over the phone for a very long conversation, in which he managed to be convincing.


MehmetGeren-5.jpg
An image of Mehmet Geren for Heidi.news. A Turkish designer, he uses digital collage, combining ancient elements with pop culture.

Let’s pretend that your alarms go unnoticed and that this conversation is taking place five years from now. At that point, what will be the state of digital addictions?

I don't think we can take the risk of doing nothing. Surveillance capitalism is already here. It has taken the nature of marketing from a business where data allows companies to match their products to proper audiences, to a world where companies can manipulate and control audiences to produce desired outcomes. Scientist Shoshana Zuboff makes the point very clear in her book The Age of Surveillance Capitalism. Once people surrender to this model, politics is likely to be dominated by authoritarians, because they have the ability to manipulate. Human agency has been radically reduced. And addictions are a mean to that end.

Is there a plan to reduce our freedom?

The US went through World War II by subordinating the freedom of action and thought of the individual for the collective good. Then began the consumer era. Suddenly the notion of packaging products for consumers to give them what they want, as opposed to what the country needed, gradually taught people that they didn’t need to be active citizens, they could just be passive consumers. Beginning in 2000, roughly, we started doing that with ideas. Google initially and then Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and YouTube made possible to exclude anything that did not reinforce your pre-existent beliefs.

Eli Pariser called it the filter bubble, in a surprisingly enlightening speech back in 2011.

Right. But if people are in a filter bubble long enough they embrace those ideas as their own. The platforms are architectured to prevent deliberation. The results is that the core elements of democracy, which rely on people being able to compromise and deliberate, are undermined. And we cannot look to Google, Facebook or others to solve this problem. Technology can only make it worse.

Are you sure that internet platforms feed us ideas to consume passively?

The business model of these platform is advertising. Advertising requires attention. And it turns out that if you have real time feedbacks the incentives to do heavy duty surveillance are unstoppable. These companies get into surveillance and they collect any data they can with the explicit goal of manipulating attention to get more people’s time. Any advertiser can then buy access to that controlled attention. The result is that those advertisers can use both that manipulated attention and filter bubbles to influence what people believe. How long can that keep going before the harm will be so great that it will take many generations to fix?

You tell us!

I fear we are already to the point. And addiction is the source of all dangers. But the cause is the business model, the business practices and the culture of the companies. They have shown a shocking indifference to what is happening. In October 2016 I showed up at Menlo Park to tell Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg that something wrong was going on at Facebook. I expected them at least to listen to me. They instead chose to deny, deflect and dissemble.

Why do you still own Facebook stocks?

I want to be an example. I made a decision about a year ago that I would hang onto my position until it was obvious that I didn’t have a financial motivation for what I was doing. Initially the stock went up, but then it just got killed, and I am just taking it right with them. I am one person criticising some of the most powerful companies in the world. This is strategic for me.

(Nonetheless, despite scandals, Facebook financial results, disclosed after this interview, showed record profits. Facebook shares went up by over 11% in 2018.)

But you contributed a lot to them!

I basically stopped investing in 2015. In the prior seven years I turned down a number of investment opportunities in companies such as Zynga, Spotify and Uber. I knew they would be hugely successful, but their values and culture made me uncomfortable. I have been a musician since college, and I care deeply about music. By the time Spotify came around musicians were already treated very poorly by majors, but Spotify made it worse. I told my colleagues at Elevation Partners that I couldn’t do another fund because the culture of Silicon Valley has changed in this hyper libertarian thing: people are not worried about the consequences of their action on other people.


MehmetGeren-8.jpg
An image of Mehmet Geren for Heidi.news. A Turkish designer, he uses digital collage, combining ancient elements with pop culture.

Have you ever regretted introducing Mark Zuckerberg to Sheryl Sandberg?

No, because I don’t think that the problem is them. The problem is the combination of the business model and the ultra libertarian culture of Silicon Valley. I believe it would be easier for Mark and Sheryl to change it, because they have the authority. If Mark says to everybody: We have made a mistake, now we change it, people will believe him.

Could we translate the ultra libertarian culture of Silicon Valley this way: people making money exploiting other people without caring of the consequence, often saying that it is for the sake of humanity?

It can be traced back to the PayPal Mafia, Peter Thiel and Elon Musk, to name a couple. They had the insight on social media and were responsible for creating all of Web 2.0. But they were extremes libertarians and had profound influence on the Valley’s culture. It turned out to be very convenient, because it absolves you of the consequences of your action.

(Peter Thiel sits on Facebook’s board of directors)

Consequences as having people addicted and surveilled?

We knew at the beginning of the 80s that if you put a million people in a network that allows anonymity, bullies are going to take over. Facebook, at the beginning, had two genius things: real identities and control of the privacy in the hands of users. But in order for the company to grow faster, Mark embraced a Silicon Valley idea: when you create a product, you ship it and then you let users sort out the problems. At small scale it doesn’t have issues but at the scale of Facebook or Google that model can produce massive problems.

What happened then?

Facebook basically stopped verifying identities. And it gave away users’ data. Also, the business stopped being controlled on data but became controlled by metadata, which is “data about data”: where the user was when he or she posted, what they were doing, with whom, and so on. Facebook did not give people control on that.

Is that why Facebook started making a lot of money?

That money came at a very high social cost. If you were to make Facebook and Alphabet Inc. bear the costs of the negative externalities that their products have produced they would probably go bankrupt.

Is it realistic for companies coming after them to refuse to get people addicted and to choose a different business model?

There are people working at different designs, but they are at hopeless disadvantage, because both Facebook and Google have all of the power of a monopoly so they can choke any competitor.

If it does happen that there are no alternatives to being addicted and manipulated, what do we have to look out for?

We have to be very careful with AI. The artificial intelligence behind all these products is immensely powerful. If you wanna manipulate people, behavioural prediction is very handy. And behavioural prediction engines are getting very good. When you think that you are just looking at pictures of babies and puppies, you are really playing multidimensional chess against an AI that has enormous information and is attempting to influence your attention.

Remember: as promoted by Google and Facebook, AI addresses three big issues. First: eliminate white collar jobs, which means have machines do what humans used to do. Second: filter bubbles, that is to tell people what to think. Third thing: recommendation edges, tell people what to enjoy. Now if you have to set a list of the top five things that identify us as individuals, I think all three - your job, what you think, and how you spend your time - are there.

Google and Facebook have been incredibly successful because they have taken a number of universal functions and made them incredibly convenient. Have we been mentally corrupted by convenience?

If you go back to 20 years, when Steve Jobs was the leading voice for the industry, his vision of technology was what he would call “bicycle for the mind”. If you give humans a bike, they become the most efficient at locomotion on earth. Computer could do for the mind what bikes could do for locomotion. Obviously, letting Google ride your bike is exactly the opposite of that.

How do we break free from surveillance capitalism, digital addictions and their harm?

We need to use Antitrust laws to create spaces for new models to begin, and then encourage human driven technology.

Human driven technology, what is it, concretely?

Technology that empowers instead of replacing. One of things that I would say is that moving to the cloud in order to centralize absolutely everything is a big part of the problem. We want things about us to be processed locally and humanly. The reason Siri, as opposed to Google Home or Amazon Alexa, doesn’t work as well is that Siri processes most of its stuff on your phone, so that the data doesn’t leak.

Human driven tech would use AI to create better medical outcomes, not to replace doctors and nurses. Right now when Google gives a computer to a school their goal is to have these kids addicted to YouTube. We need technology that improves education, not that gets people addicted. We need technology that helps people to be informed, not a one that gives them conspiracy theories.

Antitrust laws means government intervention. Nonetheless, Congress seemed quite paralyzed after Zuck’s hearings.

US legislators have learnt to regulate industries that are much more complicated than the tech industry, like health care and banking. The perception that these things are more complicated, and can not be regulated, is somewhat perpetrated by Facebook and Google.

What could regulation change for tech giants?

These companies are harming the world,. If we have to paralyze them, it would be unfortunate but it would be an acceptable outcome to stop the harm.

Do people actually think that the world and themselves are harmed by platforms?

People love what they get from platforms and they do not want to believe that these products are causing huge harm to society. Of course, they love the products because they are designed to cause addiction. They say: “I am not addicted, they other guy is. Or it is the other person whose data got stolen”, without realising that when data is stolen the way it is used is not directly traceable to the loss of data itself. If you are a member of the Rohingya minority you didn't need to use Facebook to be harmed by the ethnic cleansing.

This business model and its tools can be traced back to BJ Fogg’s persuasive techniques. What a responsibility is that?

I feel sympathy for BJ Fogg, because I think he never considered what the dark side would be. He should have, but he feels like many people are blaming him now. I do think that this would have been impossible to happen without him, and this is something he has to live with forever.

He told me that he and his students were trying to “Build peace on Facebook”. He believes that ethical persuasion exists…

Persuasion is a 20th century phenomenon, it began with the propaganda of the British for World War I, and then evolved into PR, and then evolved into television, and then into the Internet. For fifty years technology earned our trust because it behaved ethically. Facebook and Google and the others have harnessed that trust and abused it. So our default position must be to stop trusting technology.

Where do we start at?

We should not welcome Alexa in our homes without absolute proof it is doing no harm. The philosophy of shipping a product and then letting users sort out bugs and faults has to stop. Perhaps we will need an approval process as for chemicals: before they ship, companies have to demonstrate that not only they do not do harm but that there is something ethical.

But again, all this process starts with users not trusting.

(the end)