As I See It: The Curse Of The Clever
April 16, 2018 Victor Rozek
By all accounts, Neville Chamberlain was a clever man. Clever enough to become Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. But it turned out he was also stunningly naïve, signing the Munich Agreement granting Germany the right to annex the Czech Sudetenland in return for a promise of peace, thus emboldening one of history’s great monsters, Adolf Hitler.
The consequences of extreme cleverness and dangerous naiveté play out across the entire spectrum of human interactions, but are perhaps most visible in politics and business. The pursuit of power and money invites troves of uber-clever people who all too soon become enamored of – then blinded by – their own shrewdness, and thus become dupes of equally clever but less scrupulous people.
That, in part, is what I think happened to a clever kid, who had a great idea built on a problematic business model. The great idea was Facebook. The kid, of course, is Mark Zuckerberg. The problematic business model requires the collection and monetization of private information. That model is inherently exploitable, and it didn’t take long for the ethically immune to exploit it.
Here’s the progression:
While in college, a young man has a clever idea – he becomes successful – to become wildly successful, he is willing to move fast and break things – because he is well-intended, he comes to believe that whatever he does must be right – soon, other clever people seek to take advantage of what he has created – unethical and possibly illegal activity comes to the attention of regulatory agencies – the young man makes promises of reform but resists undermining his vision or the source of his financial success – privately, he believes he can minimize the consequences because he’s the cleverest kid on the block – his arrogance continues to be exploited by designing people and blinds him to the part he plays enabling them.
But enable them he did. In what is surely one of history’s ironic coincidences, like Chamberlain, Zuckerberg also unintentionally enabled a Fascist, this one rebranded as alt-right: chief executive officer of Trump’s presidential bid, Steve Bannon.
But Facebook’s problems started long before the Cambridge Analytica affair in which Bannon and company hoovered Facebook to amass the preferences and prejudices of an estimated 87 million users (up from the original estimate of 50 million), then targeted them with customized political adds supported by misinformation.
For over a decade, The Federal Trade Commission, whose job – at least in theory – is to “protect America’s consumers,” has been compiling a litany of complaints against Facebook’s fast and loose privacy practices. Seven separate grievances were documented including changing settings so that private information became accessible without user consent; sharing of private data with third-party apps; failure to verify security of third-party apps; and lying about not sharing personal information with advertisers.
More recently, it was discovered that Facebook’s Android app has been scraping user contacts, call logs, and metadata about every text message ever sent or received.
Small wonder that according to a recent Reuters/Ipsos poll, “fewer than half of Americans trust Facebook to obey US privacy laws.” It’s worse in Europe where “60 percent of Germans fear that Facebook and other social networks are having a negative impact on democracy.”
Indeed, Facebook’s carelessness in allowing the most basic of democratic processes to be manipulated is precisely at the heart of the Cambridge Analytica scandal. The British firm ostensibly knew it was breaking federal election laws by meddling in US elections. Foreigners are barred from developing strategies for US political campaigns. But The New York Times reported that as early as July 2014, an attorney sent a memo to Bannon, GOP mega-donor Rebekah Mercer, and Cambridge Analytica chief Alexander Nix, apprising them of that fact. No doubt impressed with their own cleverness, they apparently ignored it.
The resulting firestorm of user backlash has cost Facebook dearly, shaving an estimated $100 billion in market value. In response, Zuckerberg did the obligatory apology tour, promising again to do better, and listing a number of policy changes. According to Reuters, that includes “severing ties with several large data brokers who help advertisers target people on the social network.”
But even the departure of a substantial number of disgruntled users is unlikely to change Facebook’s overall trajectory.
Consider for a moment Facebook’s staggering reach. It has, at last count, over 2.2 billion active monthly users. If you think of Facebook’s devotees as converts rather than users, Facebook is bigger than any of the world’s major religions. And many of its practitioners worship at the altar of the lower-case f dozens of times a day, every day. Their likes and dislikes, what they choose to post, what makes them angry; the banal details of their lives are digital gold, keys to how they can be manipulated. As the maxim of social media suggests: when the product is free, you become the product.
Perhaps Facebook outgrew management’s ability to contain it. Perhaps success and overreach simply go hand in hand. Perhaps the clever kid who likes wearing T-shirts and breaking things, was used by far more worldly people with Machiavellian aspirations.
Regardless, there are signs that Zuckerberg has learned some difficult life lessons. Part of his apology included this:
“We’re an idealistic and optimistic company . . . but it’s clear now that we didn’t do enough. We didn’t focus enough on preventing abuse and thinking through how people could use these tools to do harm . . . We didn’t take a broad enough view of what our responsibility is and that was a huge mistake. That was my mistake.
“It’s not enough to just connect people. We have to make sure those connections are positive and that they’re bringing people together. It’s not enough just to give people a voice, we have to make sure that people are not using that voice to hurt people or spread misinformation. And it’s not enough to give people tools to sign into apps, we have to make sure that all those developers protect people’s information too.”
“It’s not enough to have rules requiring that they protect the information. It’s not enough to believe them when they’re telling us they’re protecting information. We actually have to ensure that everyone in our ecosystem protects people’s information.”
Zuckerberg testified before Congress, where he was asked to explain why his company is hemorrhaging private data and what he intends to do about it. He even wore a suit.