As I See It: When Gates Was Young
December 9, 2019 Victor Rozek
You would have to be of a certain age to remember how excited and optimistic users once were about computer technology. It all seems Paleolithic by today’s standards, but those heavy boxes and bulky monitors were wondrous tools and novel toys in their day. Technology transformed us into Harry Potter and a personal computer became our magic stick.
My first computer was a PS/2. No, not a PlayStation, an IBM Personal System/2 that boasted a whopping 2 MB of RAM and 20 MB of disk storage – who could ever need anything more? It also contained a VGA graphic cards. Machines, once limited to black screens with green or orange lettering, morphed into hundreds of shades of color. Floppy disks shrank and acquired hard plastic covers. Hard drives and faster processors emerged. Size and cost shrank, speed and utility soared.
You could write a novel, code a spreadsheet, or play Pong. As a writer, I was able to do things unimagined by the world’s bygone authors. I could cut and paste whole paragraphs, spell check my work, and enhance my vocabulary with a pull-down Thesaurus. It all seems pedestrian by today’s standards, but it was groundbreaking back then.
And long before social media, computer technology had far-reaching social impacts. Programming became one of the few professions that didn’t overtly discriminate against women. You either knew how to code, or you didn’t. If you could bend a computer to your will, no one cared about your gender.
Then came the Internet. What a marvel – being able to communicate with anyone, anywhere, at any time. Surely thoughtful people would bond together and transform the world. Beyond the reach of governments, ayatollahs, and other forms of disapproving authority, ordinary citizens could weave a principled, compassionate mycelium stretching across the digital underground that would dissolve tribal fears and transform global relations.
With the Internet came the concept of open source: sharing your work for the greater good. Linus Torvalds of Linux fame said this about the benefits of openness and collaboration: “I often compare open source to science,” he said. “To where science took this whole notion of developing ideas in the open and improving on other peoples’ ideas and making it into what science is today and the incredible advances that we have had.”
Dreamers and idealists were still prominent in the industry. Their new technology was bright, and shiny, and ripe with possibility. The Internet, they believed, would make dreams like open source, equal and unfettered access, and the uncensored flow of information possible.
As users began to explore this new digital ecosystem, their capabilities were initially limited by experience and imagination. But so was the potential for damage inherent in the technology. The perils lay dormant, unintended, trapped in code and cables, waiting to be exploited by less principled actors.
And then came social media: a playground for the innocent, but risky for restrictive cultures and exploitable by the less scrupulous. Suddenly, everyone’s reach was amplified. The benevolent and the vindictive, the tranquil and the angry, the kind and the hate-filled – all had a shared platform for their thoughts and grievances. And, with the advent of big data and analytics, the hateful, the paranoid, the angry and the unscrupulous organized – or became vulnerable to being organized by the unethical.
What is it about human nature that compels some among us to turn gold into straw? It’s a form of reverse alchemy: taking something valuable, something well-intended, something beneficial, and using it to cause deliberate harm.
Timothy Karr, writing for Common Dreams, shared one of the most startling statistics I have ever come across: “Facebook revealed that it had removed a whopping 3.2 billion fake accounts from March through September 2019.” That’s not a typo; that’s billion with a B.
To put that in perspective, Kerr quotes enterprise tech reporter Aditya Srivastava: “The number is [nearly] half of living human beings on planet earth.” And that, he says, “is a lot of disinformation.”
Further, Kerr writes, “Facebook also claims to have removed or labeled 54 million pieces of content flagged as too violent and graphic, 18.5 million items deemed sexual exploitation, 11.4 million posts breaking its anti-hate speech rules, and 5.7 million that violated its bullying and harassment policies.”
And all of this malignant online activity has real-world consequences. Children are bullied to the point of suicide; immigrants and LGBTQ people are harassed, attacked, and sometimes killed; neo-Nazis are emboldened to march through our streets; women and children are sexually exploited to feed the boundless appetite for pornography; and dangerous divisions grow around the world as orchestrated lies feed suspicions and fuel hatreds.
Nations now have low-cost, non-military means to influence, disrupt and divide their adversaries. In the run up to the Brexit vote, Russian trolls were able to convince a sizeable portion of the British electorate that Turkey was going to be welcomed into the European Union and, as a result, England would be invaded by millions of Turks seeking a better life. None of it was true, but enough people believed it to fracture the European Union. It was the first known instance of an economic and cultural alliance being shattered from remote desktops.
And here in the United States, Russian electoral interference helped – depending on your orientation – elect either the man chosen by God to save the country, or that fraction of a human being who resides in the White House. In nations where freedom is a threat, digital Berlin walls are being constructed. Paul Krugman describes China’s efforts to keep its people ignorant and docile.
“China created its Great Firewall to seal off the Internet inside China from the global Internet – so Beijing could censor all news and online internal discussions, freezing out Google, Facebook, and Twitter. China, as well as other countries, has also begun ring-fencing certain data pools, software and technology stacks to make sure that all of them, or at least key elements, are stored on domestic servers and not accessible from abroad.”
And so, these marvelous, miraculous creations – personal computers, the Internet, social media – the gifts of the digital Magi, have been weaponized. The dreamers and idealists were right: They did change the world, but could not have imagined the direction the changes would take, or all of the ways their inventions would be abused.
The fearful, vile, and opportunistic have historically used the brilliance of their betters to harm the object of their fears. I think it was Ayn Rand who posited that the person who harnessed fire was probably the first to be burned at the stake. Regardless, technological progress continues at an accelerated pace. It races out ahead of our ability to integrate it. It is the evolution of human consciousness that lags so frightfully behind.