2021-02-25

Silicon Valley’s Brave New World — and Chinese Communism may be its Beacon

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by Neil Godfrey

We begin with an interesting observation of Rana Foroohar, author of Don’t Be Evil: How Big Tech Betrayed Its Founding Principles – and All of Us . . . After outlining how Larry Page and Sergey Brin, co-founders of Google, arrived at their PageRank system that became the core feature of Google, Foroohar casts light on the engineers creating this new wonder:

Now their bots could roam with impunity all over cyberspace, tagging, tallying—and potentially trespassing over the copyrights of anyone and everyone who had created the content they were linking to in the process, something that Google would eventually do at industrial scale when it purchased YouTube years later.

All perfectly innocent, right? And all for the greater good, naturally.

To Page and Brin, there was nothing nefarious about this. They simply sought to capture the knowledge tucked away in computer archives across the country to benefit humanity. If it benefited them, too, so much the better. It was the first instance of what later might be classified as lawful theft. If anyone complained, Page expressed mystification. Why would anyone be bothered by an activity of theirs that was so obviously benign? They didn’t see the need to ask permission; they’d just do it. “Larry and Sergey believe that if you try to get everyone on board it will prevent things from happening,” said Terry Winograd, a professor of computer science at Stanford and Page’s former thesis adviser, in an article in 2008. “If you just do it, others will come around to realize they were attached to old ways that were not as good….No one has proven them wrong—yet.”

In earlier pages, Foroohar opened the door to the educational and cultural background (from Montessori to Stanford) of Page and Brin that fostered this attitude.

This became the Google way. As Jonathan Taplin wrote in his book, Move Fast and Break Things, when Google released the first version of Gmail, Page refused to allow engineers to include a delete button “because Google’s ability to profile you by preserving your correspondence was more important than your ability to eliminate embarrassing parts of your past.” Likewise, customers were never asked if Google Street View cameras could take pictures of their front yards and match them to addresses in order to sell more ads. They adhered strictly to the maxim that says it’s better to ask for forgiveness than to beg for permission—though in truth they weren’t really doing either.

Oh, to have the freedom to create that only China can provide. . .

It’s an attitude of entitlement that still exists today, even after all the events of the past few years. In 2018, while attending a major economics conference, I was stuck in a cab with a Google data scientist, who expressed envy at the amount of surveillance that Chinese companies are allowed to conduct on citizens, and the vast amount of data it produces. She seemed genuinely outraged about the fact that the university where she was conducting AI research had apparently allowed her to put just a handful of data-recording sensors around campus to collect information that could then be used in her research. “And it took me five years to get them!” she told me, indignantly.

Like innocent children who believe they can create the brave new world . . .

Such incredulity is widespread among Valley denizens, who tend to believe that their priorities should override the privacy, civil liberties, and security of others. They simply can’t imagine that anyone would question their motives, given that they know best. Big Tech should be free to disrupt government, politics, civic society, and law, if those things should prove to be inconvenient. This is the logic held by the band of tech titans who would like to see the Valley secede not just from America, but from California itself, since, according to them, the other regions aren’t pulling their economic weight.

History and the humanities? Never bothered with them, but they do make a rich source of hyperlinks . . .

The kings (and handful of queens) of Silicon Valley see themselves as prophets of sorts, given that tech is, after all, the future. The problem is that creators of the future often feel they have little to learn from the past. As lauded venture capitalist Bill Janeway once put it to me, “Zuck and many of the rest [of the tech titans] have an amazing naïveté about context. They really believe that because they are inventing the new economy, they can’t really learn anything from the old one. The result is that you get these cultural and political frictions that are offsetting many of the benefits of the technology itself.”

Law? Ethics? We can’t code for those!

Frank Pasquale, a University of Maryland law professor and noted Big Tech critic whose book The Black Box Society is a must-read for those who want to understand the effects of technology on politics and the economy, provided a telling example of this attitude. “I once had a conversation with a Silicon Valley consultant about search neutrality [the idea that search engine titans should not be able to favor their own content], and he said, ‘We can’t code for that.’ I said this was a legal matter, not a technical one. But he just repeated, with a touch of condescension: ‘Yes, but we can’t code for it, so it can’t be done.’ ” The message was that the debate would be held on the technologist’s terms, or not at all.

Human things require real humans to work humanely. Google removed the “Don’t be evil” motto from the introduction to its code of conduct in 2018.

Times have, of course, changed. Today, Facebook, Google, and other companies absolutely can—and do—monitor nearly everything we do online. And yet, they want to play both sides of the fence when it comes to taking responsibility for the hate speech, Russian-funded political ads, and fake news that proliferate on their platforms. Apparently, they have no difficulty tracking every purchase we make, every ad we click on, and every news article we read, but to weed out articles from sketchy conspiracy websites, block anti-Semitic comments, or spot nefarious Russian bots still proves too onerous a task. That’s because doing so requires real human beings earning real wages using real judgment—and that’s something that platform companies that have grown on the back of automation have tried to avoid.

If all of that is a little too familiar and disconcerting, let’s turn to something light, a science fiction novel, though to be truthful the novel is really a sugar-coating for a serious proposal for a genuinely better world order. Coincidentally, China makes an appearance here, too, and once again as a perfect match for Silicon Valley.

Eva — “a recovering investment banker turned true-blue, dry, academic economist . . . if anything she exemplified Oscar Wilde’s definition of the cynic – she who knows everything about prices but nothing about values” — is reflecting on a communication from a parallel universe. Her conviction that a totalitarian government was antithetical to human happiness was being challenged:

In the 1920s and 1930s, her liberal forebears had assailed socialists who aspired to replace markets with some centrally designed system for allocating raw materials, jobs and goods with a powerful critique: no human mind or organization, however smart and well meaning, can ever know what society wants, what capacities it has or how it should use its resources. It was not, the free-market liberals maintained, a question of insufficient computing capacity. In the same way that squaring the circle is not just immensely hard but absolutely impossible, working out what we all want, and how we should get it, is downright undoable. Only by groping around in the marketplace as individual consumers and producers can we hope to find out what each of us wants and what each is capable of. At least, that was their story.

Yes, free markets were the key. Nothing good could come from totalitarianism. But then she noticed something that shook that conviction . . . .

Eva believed it. But then, one day in 2019, her faith was tested. Browsing the Amazon website, scrolling through the list of books it was recommending to her, she realized that its algorithm was spookily accurate at guessing her preferences. Experimenting, she turned her attention to music. The big tech companies had all sussed her out. Amazon, Spotify and Apple Music all picked songs she liked and some she was interested in trying out. She needed only to type a character or two into Google Search, and it completed her words. Netflix, meanwhile, inundated her with movie suggestions that only a friend who knew her film tastes inside out would have made. Though it might not be perfect, it was no longer true, she suddenly realized, that a centrally designed system could never know what we want.

Stop and think for a moment: what really brought down the centralized Soviet system was its inefficiency. Where does “freedom” enter the equation?

With liberal arguments against communism’s inherent inefficiency disproved by capitalism’s technologies, Eva’s faith in capitalism now hung by a single thread: her belief that a centrally planned system, even if potentially efficient, posed a grave threat to human rights and personal freedom. But was this enough? Capitalism triumphed in 1991 not so much because the citizens of the USSR or East Germany lacked freedom but because of the queues they had to endure to get hold of anything, whether a loaf of bread or a TV set. Had it been solely a question of freedom, Eva feared, the red flag would still be flying over the Kremlin – perhaps over the White House too.

Eva concluded that Silicon Valley’s greatest, and perhaps only, beneficiary was the Chinese Communist Party . . .

From BBN Times

Once big tech had given the lie to the liberals’ insistence that individual preferences could never be centrally served, Eva concluded that Silicon Valley’s greatest, and perhaps only, beneficiary was the Chinese Communist Party. She saw no reason why Beijing could not, in time and with development, adopt the very same technologies that allow Alibaba – China’s equivalent of Amazon – to predict accurately what its customers will want next in order to manage the country’s entire economy. It already had the authority to do so; all it needed was the means. And once artificial intelligence advanced a little more, what would there be to stop Chinese-style communism from overrunning markets completely?

Varoufoukis sets out an alternative to capitalism, an alternative that points to pockets of exemplars working successfully today.


Foroohar, Rana. Don’t Be Evil: How Big Tech Betrayed Its Founding Principles — and All of Us. New York: Currency, 2019.

Varoufakis, Yanis. Another Now: Dispatches from an Alternative Present. London: The Bodley Head, 2020.


 

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Neil Godfrey

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9 thoughts on “Silicon Valley’s Brave New World — and Chinese Communism may be its Beacon”

  1. So, lemme see . . . . The real problem is not that powerful entities can’t give people what they want because they cannot know what the people want. Now that powerful entities can know what the people want, the real problem is that the people don’t want the things we good people think they’re supposed to want.

    What am I misunderstanding here?

    1. the real problem is that the people don’t want the things we good people think they’re supposed to want.

      I don’t think “we good people” see “the people” (with their wants) as the problem.

        1. I’m not sure where you are coming from, sorry. My take is that Big Tech companies are freely harvesting masses of personal data (“wants” are only a fraction of that in the big scheme of things) on users for their own profit and power, but that’s just repeating, I think, what was in the post, yes? But again, I don’t know what point you are driving at.

          1. I’m coming from the political right, and I was triggered by this statement: “She saw no reason why Beijing could not, in time and with development, adopt the very same technologies that allow Alibaba – China’s equivalent of Amazon – to predict accurately what its customers will want next in order to manage the country’s entire economy.” I get it that the article wasn’t talking only about people’s wants, but that’s what caught my attention.

            The point I’m driving at concerns the hostility of the political left to capitalism. I don’t deny that big corporations are doing lots of things they shouldn’t be doing. I’m not that kind of conservative. Neither do I deny that they exercise a tyrannical kind of political influence. My problem with the liberal agenda is its apparent assumption that the best response to the inappropriate exercise of corporate power is an augmentation of governmental power.

            1. You use the terms “left” and “liberal” as if they mean the same political stance, if I understand you correctly — so am I correct in thinking you are American and pro-libertarian?

              But thanks for clarifying what was driving your question.

              My response would be: if corporations are behaving badly then what can be done about that behaviour that does not involve political power?

              In a later post (End of Capitalism and Rise of China) the viewpoint I was presenting was implying that the problems of bad corp behaviour have arisen since the winding back of government regulations and that the solution was to restore some of the post World War 2 regulation.

              The post on which you are commenting and the particular line you are addressing was drawing on a science fiction novel that addresses economic questions of today. The Eva character who expressed the thought “She could see no reason why Beijing could not . . . ” represents a staunch capitalist who is being confronted with events that are causing her to rethink some things that she has always believed.

              The author, Varoufakis, is of the left himself, but he is certainly opposed strongly to government control of the sort we have seen in Russia and China. He is in fact, from what I have picked up, more of an anarcho-syndicalist, and promotes corporate systems that involve no hierarchies at all. See https://vridar.org/2020/12/28/no-bosses-no-wages-no-problem/

              1. If you think I believe left = liberal, then you’re not understanding me correctly, but that would be on me. Words are defined by usage, but usage of political labels has gotten so inconsistent I’ve given up trying for maximal clarity during the initial stages of any conversation. I call myself a conservative for what I regard as sufficient reason, but there are plenty of conservatives who would assure you that I’m not one of them. I think we can have a useful discussion by focusing our conversation on our particular beliefs rather than where they would fit in some ideological taxonomy.

                You are correct in thinking I am an American. I am sympathetic to libertarians, but I think their faith in unregulated markets is beyond anything Adam Smith would have approved of (a secular analogue of “more Catholic than the Pope”), and I believe they are mistakenly indifferent to insights about human nature to be gained from studying evolutionary psychology.

                I do not advocate a hands-off governmental approach to corporate behavior. But, neither do I have a handy algorithm for sorting good regulations from bad regulations. That would require far more research than I have ever had time or opportunity to do. One thing I have noticed, though, about the regulatory trends that have happened in my lifetime, is that regulations tend to be predicated on a presupposition that whatever is good for business cannot be good for the public in general. Of course business interests are sometimes inconsistent with the public interest, but the assumption that they are always and necessarily so is, I believe, itself contrary to the public interest.

                I agree that the deregulation of recent decades has had some bad consequences. I don’t agree that the consequences have been uniformly bad. Regulations are good when they are intelligently formulated and intelligently enforced. Sometimes they are, and when those regulations are eliminated, then bad things happen. Often they are not, and when those regulations are eliminated, then good things can happen. I believe the main problem of our current situation is a shortage of intelligence, not of good will, in both the political and the economic realms.

                I’m a lifelong fan of science fiction. I know we always have to be careful about overliteralizing metaphors, but “archaeology of the future” doesn’t quite work for me because of its suggestion that the future is fixed. I prefer an image I came across several years ago, endorsed but not originated in an article by Jerry Pournelle: Science fiction writers are the scouts of the future. They try to tell us what might be ahead if we continue our present course, and if it looks bad, they can also explore some alternatives.

                As for hierarchy . . . I don’t believe its elimination is possible, now or in any foreseeable future. If one company has found a way around it, then they can go for it, but just because some people can do it doesn’t mean all people can. Or, just because it works for one company doesn’t mean it will work for any other company. And, just by the way, I’m not believing that “there are no bosses, at least in the traditional sense of the word” just because Varoufakis says so – but it might depend, of course, on what he means by “the traditional sense of the word.”

              2. Thanks for clarifying. What do you suggest needs to be done about corporate bad behaviour, then, if we are to avoid extending government control?

              3. I should add that I was trying to set out positions of the authors addressed that would appear not to fit easily with the view that they are knee-jerking toward increasing government power in an anti-capitalist spirit. Hence seeking a return to the capitalism of the post WW2 situation in one case and philosophically against extending government power over people’s lives in the other. (I should add that Varoufakis’s novel brings out problems that his vision does not easily solve so he is not blindly and impractically idealistic, and he does not turn his eyes away from the fact that some people cannot handle working in a non-hierarchical environment.)

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