Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Social Media CEOs In The Dock

Ask Edison: Life-altering technologies come with a big dose of fear.


By Holman W. Jenkins, Jr.
The Wall Street Journal
May 31, 2017

It often falls to CEOs, usually young ones, to lead society’s adjustment to life-altering technologies. Thomas Edison didn’t just invent the lightbulb and a practical electrical distribution system. He had to teach people what electricity was for, and how not to be afraid. An early failure was setting fire to Henry Vanderbilt’s house, after which Mrs. Vanderbilt refused to return until Edison removed his generator.

On Mark Zuckerberg falls the onus to adjust us to the downsides of social media. In every particular, there is nothing new here. People have committed crimes for publicity before. The media have dwelled on the details to satisfy our prurience before. Consider the irony today of press accounts that lovingly recount a handful of rapes, beatings and murders staged for social media, then wring their hands over our appetite for such details.

Mr. Zuckerberg is told he must develop algorithms to protect the public from such material (or buck up the existing media monopoly on it), which in practice will mean developing algorithms to protect Facebook ’s brand from what some of its users choose to do with its technology.

What would be truly useful, of course, is an algorithm to identify those Facebook users likely to commit such crimes beforehand.

Travis Kalanick, the much vilified CEO of Uber, is next up the hierarchical scale of CEOs whose business involves a heavy dose of social responsibility. If not in every one of his actions, in his generally feisty and heedless demeanor, he’s the chief needed by a company that offers the public a service of huge and transformative value that is opposed by a phalanx of retrograde, self-protecting vested interests and their political handmaidens.

He has been vilified for arguing with one of his drivers as an equal rather than as a small and vulnerable child, which is apparently how many in the media believe tech billionaires should be required to relate to the rest of us.

He has been vilified for a software program, Greyball, that helped protect a service of great value to passengers and drivers from entrapment by bureaucrats seeking to shut it down.

Mr. Kalanick certainly needs to adjust his persona for the conflicting demands on a CEO. He perhaps is already trading notes with Brian Chesky, the comparatively invisible head of Airbnb, which combines a similar need to be nicey-nice for the consuming public with an unrelenting readiness to fight for its right to exist.

We come now to the most explosive techno-social anxiety of the moment, though far from visible is a CEO to spank for the social consequences of that nonexistent product, the self-driving car.

Whole academic and media careers are being built on the threat it poses. The truly self-driving car may not have delivered a passenger to a destination yet, but it has delivered renewed life to a century-old, utopian proposal of a universal, taxpayer-funded basic income to support a future humanity consisting mostly of the non-employed.

Mark Fields, recently fired chief of Ford, some have tried to turn into the lightning rod CEO we need. But perhaps we are getting ahead of ourselves. Google recently began recruiting volunteers for an experimental-vehicle program in the Phoenix area. Like other such pilot programs, Google’s self-driving car will come with a Google employee to keep a hand on the wheel.

Such experiments are transitional, naturally, but they point to a paradox. For the elderly, the disabled, children and others for whom a self-driving car would be a godsend, it will be less of a godsend if it doesn’t also come with a human to help them get in and out with their baggage.

Then there’s an even more destabilizing paradox: Exactly the same technology that allows a self-driving car to find its way through the physical world will also make it unnecessary for people to move through the physical world.

The machine vision and real-time mapping that will let your car navigate to the Kwik-E-Mart will also transport you instantly to San Marco Square in Venice in all its glory. It will let you shop the aisles of a supermarket whose selection and layout are customized entirely for you. It will let you join friends for cocktails in Sydney without leaving Detroit.

But at least the self-driving Tesla in your garage will mean jobs for coal miners to keep it juiced with electricity for the trips it increasingly won’t be taking.

Our social world surely will be transformed by technologies being born today, and in ways we don’t grasp as well as we think we do. In the meantime, Mr. Zuckerberg might borrow an idea from Hollywood. He could just put an R rating on certain Facebook content in much the way the movie industry once used R ratings to signal to minors which films might be especially interesting to see.


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