Dear Joe Biden: Don’t Listen to Silicon Valley

Dear Vice President Biden,

In this moment when a pandemic, an economic contraction, and protests against racism have combined to trigger national self-reflection, you have an opportunity to lead us forward to a better America, one that comes closer to the nation’s ideals than ever before. I am one of millions of Americans looking to you for new approaches to government and leadership. We are counting on you to reject the old ways that brought us to this point.

WIRED OPINION

ABOUT

Roger McNamee (@Moonalice) is the author of the New York Times bestseller Zucked: Waking Up to the Facebook Catastrophe. He spent 34 years as a technology investor, was an early investor in Facebook, and an adviser to Mark Zuckerberg.

One of the policy areas that demands a new approach is technology. New technologies like facial recognition and artificial intelligence have been plagued by racial and gender bias, with particular harm in areas like law enforcement, job hiring, and mortgage applications. Internet platforms like Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, and Twitter have amplified hate speech, disinformation, and conspiracy theories, undermining our politics, our pandemic response, and the safety of our citizens. More than 1,000 marketers have joined the #StopHateForProfit campaign, agreeing to pause their advertising on Facebook for a month or more to protest the amplification of hate. In addition, many companies in Silicon Valley have been accused of racial and gender bias relative to employees, most recently Facebook, where an employee and two applicants filed a complaint of alleged racial bias. For all its past contributions to our nation, Silicon Valley now has issues with culture, business models, and business practices that require government intervention.

Imagine my disappointment last week when The New York Times reported that President Obama had suggested that you work with two members of the Silicon Valley establishment, former Google CEO Eric Schmidt and LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman. I know both men well. They are brilliant and very successful. Their money and expertise may be valuable to your campaign, but I hope you will not turn to them for policy guidance. They were architects of the culture and values that produced the problems I described above.

I hope you will take to heart the words of Albert Einstein, who said, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” This is particularly true in tech.

Silicon Valley has been an engine of growth in our economy and has influenced our culture since 1956, when a Justice Department consent decree created the computer industry and made the transistor available to anyone who wanted to use it. In the ’60s and ’70s, the optimism of the space program was infectious. In the ’80s and ’90s, personal computers empowered us, then the internet connected us. In the early aughts, Google, Facebook, and LinkedIn transformed our lives, initially for the better. But those companies had different cultural values than their predecessors. Where Steve Jobs talked of his products as “bicycles for the mind,” Mark Zuckerberg said he wanted to “move fast and break things,” and he built a company to do precisely that. Reid Hoffman advocated blitzscaling, which prioritized speed over efficiency and scale over values. The success of Zuckerberg and Hoffman caused a generation of imitators whose focus on building their own wealth and power has come at great cost to customers, suppliers, and employees. Eric Schmidt told us that privacy should not matter to us. When he said that “Google is a belief system,” he meant it.

Unlike 20 years ago, today’s Silicon Valley culture is elitist and authoritarian. The cult of the founder has blinded Silicon Valley to society’s needs. The tech industry has been transformed into a poster child for income inequality, toxic masculinity, and white privilege. In the era of George Floyd, Silicon Valley’s leaders are the last people to provide you with guidance on technology policy. Their companies and their community should instead be targets for reform.

The problems with Silicon Valley’s largest companies, especially the internet platforms, are not occasional or inadvertent. They are systemic and intentional. Hate speech, disinformation, and conspiracy theories are the meticulously engineered lubricants that maximize revenue for Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, and Twitter. The decline of journalism has happened because Google and Facebook found a way to insert themselves between media companies and their audience, and then to siphon off advertising dollars. The explosion and influence of extremist groups on Facebook are not an accident; they are the result of conscious choices. Facebook’s internal research revealed that its own recommendations account for 64 percent of registrations to Facebook Groups focused on extremist topics. Rather than change policy, management did nothing. The convenience of Amazon Prime, Uber, and Postmates (now an Uber subsidiary) results in part from exploitative labor practices. The flaws of new products like facial recognition and AI are not inevitable; they result from a culture that ships products at the earliest possible moment, without consideration for the impact on the people who use or are affected by them. These examples just scratch the surface.

There is much good that comes from Silicon Valley products. It is hard to imagine life without smartphones. Internet platforms enable connections that are otherwise impractical. Important events, such as the March for Our Lives, have been organized on them. Fundraising on internet platforms has reduced the dependence of politicians on PACs and rich donors.

Consumers and policymakers love the products created by Silicon Valley, but most remain largely unaware of the business practices that create them. Most still don’t connect the internet platforms they like to use with the rise of white supremacy or climate change denial. They may not realize that YouTube empowers conspiracy theorists and violent extremists. They are not aware that some technology companies empower authoritarian governments around the world and racially biased policing at home. They do not acknowledge the moral and environmental cost of convenience. Just as important, they do not realize that the dominance of a handful of companies in Silicon Valley has limited our choices, reduced innovation, and limited the opportunities for startups.

Technology can and should be a huge contributor to the American economy, but today its culture and business models produce consistently suboptimal outcomes for society. The best analogies are the chemicals industry prior to the Clean Air Act and the pharmaceuticals industry before the Pure Food and Drug Act. Tech companies are profitable because they are not responsible for the harm they cause. They pour toxic content into our public discourse and ship products that are unsafe, without being responsible for the cost to society. The next president must change that.

In your recent speeches, Mr. Vice President, you have talked about the need for new approaches. Nowhere is that more important than in technology. If we are to have any hope of defeating Covid-19, reducing the threat of white supremacy, or saving the world from climate change, we will have to force changes to internet platforms so that they do not give disproportionate political influence to small groups of extremists who exploit their algorithms and business model. If we want to end discriminatory policing, we must stop technology companies from supplying law enforcement with facial recognition and artificial intelligence products that are biased and inaccurate. If we want to protect workers and consumers from exploitation and discrimination, we need to address the business practices of technology companies. If we want our political discourse to be civil, our next president will have to lead by example.

Silicon Valley reflects many of the worst aspects of American industry today. It consists of monopolies and oligopolies. Too many business models are predatory. The industry has outsourced too many jobs, and helped to eliminate jobs in other industries. The companies do not pay enough taxes. Some operate as if they have more power than any government.

It does not have to be this way. With the proper regulations, technology can once again be a driver of economic growth, while also being a force for good. This is your opportunity.

Today’s leaders of Silicon Valley are part of the problem, not the solution. I am certain that President Obama meant well, but on this issue he is wrong. Instead you could turn to Harvard professor Shoshana Zuboff, author of The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, or Judy Estrin, a technologist and entrepreneur from the era when Silicon Valley empowered its customers, and others who can help you change the incentives for technology companies so they deliver value to consumers and society as a whole. Your administration has an opportunity to make technology products safe; protect consumer privacy; restore competition, entrepreneurship, and innovation; and ensure that tech workers are treated fairly. Setting America’s technology industry on a good path again should be part of your legacy. That will require new approaches and new leadership.


WIRED Opinion publishes articles by outside contributors representing a wide range of viewpoints. Read more opinions here. Submit an op-ed at [email protected].


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