Move Fast and Break Things: Afterword by Jonathan Taplin
This new afterword, which also appears in the just-out paperback edition of the book, picks up the story with new revelations about how that reckless disregard for the damage these platforms cause is undermining American democracy.
The long chronicle of reform movements demonstrates that history is made by abrupt transitions. The 1890s are remembered as the Gilded Age where plutocrats like J. P. Morgan and John D. Rockefeller asserted control over the U.S. economy and politics. By 1906, both Rockefeller and Morgan were being forced by antitrust regulators to break up their vast holdings. When I published this book in April of 2017, I thought we were in 1896, not 1906; six months later, as I write this, we are in fact at the beginning of a profound change in how we view tech monopolies. Since the publication of this book, the European Union has fined Google $2.7 billion for abusing its search monopoly, and there is increasing evidence that American politicians and government agencies are open to new regulations of Google, Facebook, and Amazon. Partly this is because of the mounting evidence of the destructive role that both Facebook and Google played in the American election of 2016 — only hinted at as this book went to press in November of 2016 — which proved to be one of the primary causes of Donald Trump’s victory. My sense is that the crisis Facebook and Google face goes way beyond the election. We have come to the realization that we have entrusted them with so much of our most intimate data and that they may not be worthy of that trust.
Our understanding of the Internet as a propaganda machine rather than simply a benign, ever-flowing source of information changed the game in 2016. The notion of right-wing propaganda is not new. Rush Limbaugh’s rise paralleled that of Ronald Reagan. Fox News was launched in 1996 and was in enough markets by 2000 to help elect George W. Bush. But the hijacking of social media as a propaganda organ is distinctly different from partisan radio and television. To begin with, our smartphones are with us every waking hour, whereas TV and radio are not regularly consumed in our workplace. We check our phones 150 times per day and Facebook alone gets 54 minutes of our time per day. The ability of our phones to use notifications to interrupt our other activities, combined with their ability to deliver random rewards like a slot machine, leads to addictive behaviors that make us perfect receptors and transmitters of propaganda. What Trump’s former campaign manager Steve Bannon understood was that a fake news article (“The Pope Endorses Trump”) linked to a Facebook page and then bombed with a million bots can move the article to the top of Google search and Facebook trending topics almost instantly. As former Google engineer Tristan Harris has shown: “Bot networks are used to intimidate users, fabricate social consensus, manipulate #trending topics, propagate disinformation, and manipulate public opinion.” BuzzFeedreported that “In the final three months of the U.S. presidential campaign, the top-performing fake election news stories on Facebook generated more engagement than the top stories from major news outlets such as the New York Times, Washington Post, Huffington Post,NBC News, and others.”
As I write this, neither Facebook nor Google have fully disclosed the extent of foreign manipulation of our election on their platforms. Facebook has made some early gestures to make their ad platform more transparent, but my guess is that we are seeing the tip of the iceberg on this matter. Google’s AdSense software, which provided much of the revenue to the Eastern European teams that were flooding the Web with fake news, knew both the IP addresses and in many cases the bank account information of the fake news providers. Facebook, which shut down 30,000 fake accounts just before the French election, has never disclosed how many fake accounts were involved in hacking the U.S. election, nor the location of the individuals who established the fake accounts. In addition, Facebook has never disclosed the pictures of the more than $75 million of advertising the Trump campaign bought on their platform. Much of that advertising was informed by the work of Cambridge Analytica, a data-analysis company owned by Steve Bannon’s billionaire libertarian patron, Robert Mercer. Cambridge Analytica successfully tested out its ability to use Facebook micro-targeting ads on the Brexit referendum in the UK. Subsequently, Trump digital staffers told the BBC that their victory was a result of Facebook and Cambridge Analytica advertising targeting.
I think big changes could happen if we approach the problem of monopolization of the Internet with honesty, a sense of history, and a determination to protect what we all agree is important: our cultural inheritance. We all need the access to information the Internet provides, but we need to be able to share information about ourselves with our friends without unwittingly supporting a corporation’s profits. Facebook and Google must be willing to alter their business model to protect our privacy and help thousands of artists create a sustainable culture for the centuries, not just make a few software designers billionaires. We need to amend the “safe harbor” provision of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act to provide for a “take down, stay down” provision. If a musician does not want his work on YouTube or Facebook for free, she should be able to file a takedown notice, making it the responsibility of the platform to block that content from ever being uploaded. All the tools needed to make this happen already exist. Second, we need to reform our privacy regulations. The EU is taking the lead on this with their General Data Privacy Regulation (GDPR), which will go into effect in early 2018. The United States should follow the European leadership on this front.
But we also must understand that the men who run Google, Facebook, and Amazon are just the first step in a long project to change our world, so this battle is just beginning. Yuval Noah Harari calls their project Dataism:
Dataists further believe that given enough biometric data and computing power, this all-encompassing system could understand humans much better than we understand ourselves. Once that happens, humans will lose their authority, and humanist practices such as democratic elections will become as obsolete as rain dances and flint knives.
We need to confront this techno-determinism with real solutions before it is too late. I undertake the pursuit of these solutions with both optimism and humility. Optimism because I believe in the power of rock and roll, books, and movies to upset the world. As the writer Toni Morrison observed, “The history of art, whether it’s in music or written or what have you, has always been bloody, because dictators and people in office and people who want to control and deceive know exactly the people who will disturb their plans. And those people are artists. They’re the ones that sing the truth. And that is something that society has got to protect.” I know that brave and passionate art is worth protecting and is more than just click bait for global advertising monopolies. I know it can change lives.
The last ten years have seen the wholesale destruction of the creative economy — journalists, musicians, authors, and filmmakers — wrought by three tech monopolies: Google, Facebook, and Amazon. Their dominance in artificial intelligence will extend this “creative destruction” to much of the service economy, including transportation, medicine, and retail as well There is not a politician in America talking about this, and when the flood of unemployment brought about by the artificial intelligence revolution is upon us, we will not be ready. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin was recently quoted as saying that the robotics and AI revolution would not arrive for one hundred years. “I think that is so far in the future — in terms of artificial intelligence taking over American jobs — I think we’re, like, so far away from that that, it is not even on my radar screen.” But Mnuchin’s former employer Goldman Sachs recently reported that self-driving cars could eliminate 300,000 jobs per year starting in 2022. Both sides of this argument cannot be true, but we are forging ahead with a vision of an AI universe with almost no political debate. We know this is true because of the deafening silence from the politicians in the last ten years as 50 percent of the jobs in journalism were eliminated and revenues at both music companies and newspapers fell by 70 percent. Who was there to speak for the creative workers of America?
The companies that will win the AI race will be the companies that are already in the forefront: Google, Facebook, and Amazon. As AI venture capitalist Kai-Fu Lee recently wrote, “AI is an industry in which strength begets strength: The more data you have, the better your product; the better your product, the more data you can collect; the more data you can collect, the more talent you can attract; the more talent you can attract, the better your product.” Google, Facebook, and Amazon are already pushing out of tech into other sectors of the economy, as Amazon’s acquisition of Whole Foods demonstrates. Google’s life sciences division, Verily, is producing glucose-monitoring contact lenses for diabetics, wrist computers that read diagnostic nanoparticles injected in the blood stream, implantable devices that modify electrical signals passed along nerves, medication robots, human augmentation, and human brain simulation devices. Google’s autonomous car division is already working with Avis to manage their forthcoming self-driving car fleet. As for Facebook’s brand extension plans into video, they recently bid $800 million for the worldwide rights to broadcast Indian Cricket on their platform, only to be outbid by Rupert Murdoch’s Star India. These are just the start of many initiatives to extend the tech giants’ technologies into many parts of the American economy.
Like Toni Morrison, I still believe that art has the power to change minds. Certainly witnessing Bob Dylan go electric at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965 turned this Princeton freshman who had previously been intent on being a lawyer into a passionate follower of the rock-and-roll circus — one who managed to make a good living from the entertainment business. My optimism also showed itself in 1996 when I helped found one of the first streaming video-on-demand services. Anyone crazy enough to found a service that needed broadband in 1996 had to be an optimist. My optimism led to humility, because the diffusion of broadband was much slower than I thought; I know that predicting the future is a humble man’s game.
I think many in my generation have a utopian impulse (which is, it should be observed, different from idealism), but it is slipping away like a short-term memory. I feel I need to quote Dr. King again, who said the night before he was assassinated, “I may not get there with you, but I believe in the promised land.” My generation knew that the road toward a better society would be long, but we hoped our children’s children might live in that land, even if we weren’t able to get there with them. It may take even longer than we imagined to rebuild a sustainable culture.
I hope to see Tim Berners-Lee’s dream of a “re-decentralized” Internet, one that’s much less dependent on surveillance marketing and that allows creative artists to take advantage of the zero-marginal-cost economics of the Web by forming nonprofit distribution cooperatives. I have no illusion that the existing business structures of cultural marketing will go away, but my hope is that we can build a parallel structure that will benefit all creators. The only way this will happen is if in Peter Thiel’s “deadly race between politics and technology,” the people’s voice (politics) will have to win. Google, Amazon, and Facebook may seem like benevolent plutocrats, but the time for plutocracy is over.