Today, the very same platforms and communication apps used by dissidents in the Arab Spring, protestors in Hong Kong, and ordinary folk to chat and organize — like Twitter, or Telegram — can also be employed by those with destructive agendas.
This — the pervasive use of digital technologies, and the growing power of the companies which operate them, is now sparking difficult questions that challenge the fundamentals of how the modern tech world operates.
That Facebook and other media platforms may have meddled in elections, helped to propagate ethnic violence in Myanmar, and contributed to radicalization and teen depression are not the intent of these platforms — separate developments converged in tragic serendipity to form monstrosities of fake news, hate speech, isolation, and social division. In chasing user attention, features like endless scroll, feedback loops that left users craving likes and followers, and targeted suggestions kept us on our phones while directing us towards echo chambers of our biases; in chasing revenue, our data and preferences were dissected, analyzed, and sold to third parties so they could better persuade us to buy and do the things they suggest; in searching for privacy, encrypted messaging created havens for both whistleblowers and terrorists.
In the true sense of the word synergy, the sum of these features became greater than its parts. And sometimes, the syngergized result can look pretty grim.
Facebook, a commonly-cited antagonist in techno-pessimist camps, once had an internal motto of “move fast and break things”. Although that is no longer the company’s official line, that is no guarantee that the rapid trial-and-error innovation will change. Facebook is also by no means the only company in tech to act on that premise — whether or not it’s publicized as the guiding principle, failure is often considered an inherent part of innovation — so if you fail quickly, success might come quicker, too.
To be sure, there are merits to this kind of thinking (eggs have to be broken to make omelettes). But, add to the mix oceans upon oceans of VC money, complete with vocabulary with terms like “Blitzscaling” and “10X”, and Softbank-type encouragements for entrepreneurial insanity — you end up with the scale tipping from calculated risk to outright recklessness.
Sometimes, this leads to companies going a bit too mad so they either fail or are forced to downsize, like WeWork. Sometimes, you move fast and are successful in creating a world-spanning platform, like Youtube, Twitter, or Facebook. But in the process you might have also broken a few things, which in the case of Youtube, are funnels of radicalization and child exploitation; for Twitter and Facebook, the democratic process and fabric of society.
Trying to predict how a technology will be used and how it might affect the world beyond your business plan is at best incredibly difficult, and at worst a fool’s game. But, to not consider at all what your creation might unleash upon the world is more foolish still.
Moving fast and breaking things can be a strong motivator when you’re a young company that’s strapped for cash and eager to invent with the bravado of having little to lose. But if you grow to become a company as big as something like Facebook, when you move too quickly, the things you end up breaking along the way might just be things you really, really don’t want to break.