Every tech giant today is under siege. From Facebook’s data issues around Cambridge Analytica to Google’s struggles with re-launching in China. Apple’s battles with being environmentally friendly. And more. Governments in Western democracies are demanding the tech giants appear before them. We hear ever louder rumblings of regulation, legislation and anti-trust. Of breaking them up. We hear outcries of disdain and the reality of a techlash grows ever louder. Thing is, we shouldn’t be blaming the tech giants. We need to re-frame the debate. Why?
When Facebook was created and Google, Microsoft, Apple…they had a fairly simple business plan; connect people and drive revenues through advertising or services.
There was simply no way that any of these platforms or channels could have ever predicted how their tools would impact society. A decade ago, could Facebook have predicted that foreign powers would manipulate its platform to disrupt elections? To have predicted that would’ve been a miracle. Google knew it could connect consumers to products and services, but could it have predicted a whole industry based on trying to game its algorithms called SEO? If they could have, the odds would be better in choosing a winning lottery ticket.
Could Amazon anticipate it would create a voice activated device that would have law enforcement seeking warrants to get voice recordings for a murder investigation? Not at all. Could Twitter have predicted an American president would use their platform in the way he does? Not at all.
Alexander Bell invented the telephone not to connect people, but rather to share opera music. Twitter was created to enable communication between ambulance crews and hospitals.
We cannot ever predict how a technology will be used. What we do know is that all technologies are a double edged sword. A knife can provide food and shelter and it can take a life. Same with a hammer or screwdriver.
We Need to Rethink Ourselves Instead
As we see all these ways search engines, smartphones, social networks and analytics tools are being used, we need to understand that in 99.99% of the instances, they are not what the inventors expected. Larry Page and Sergey Brin, Mark Zuckerberg…they wanted to build something and figure out a business model. That’s entirely legitimate and a core part of a healthy democracy.
Do these platforms now need to be regulated? Perhaps. Probably. To some degree. But what we can’t do is blame the inventors. To vilify them is to play the age old game of finding a scapegoat. That’s simple and boring and rather pedestrian. Because of their tools, because we can find more information and grow our knowledge, we should know better. Perhaps now, we can make better anticipations. Any startup today, needs to consider the two sides of its technology.
Instead, we should look at how these tools have been adapted by consumers and citizens and see what “we” as the general public, have done with them. They weren’t uses that the inventors could have ever predicted. Technology is neutral. Human’s aren’t. Through tactics like SEO humans sought ways to game the system. Foreign powers saw opportunity to game Facebook. We shouldn’t blame Facebook for how Russians sought to sow dissent in democracies. We should blame ourselves and help the tech giants fight back. We use their technologies, we benefit from them. In ways few understand. Instead, we need to re-think ourselves. How are we using these tools? How can we help them help us? As the saying goes; don’t shoot the messenger.