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Here's Where Big Tech Lags Behind

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The Internet of Trusted Things

“There’s an old saying, ‘Things move at the speed of trust,’” Brian Chesky, co-founder, and chief executive of Airbnb.

A new Netflix documentary features a super-team of user-crusaders—from tech drop-outs to venerable scholars— blowing the whistle on the psychologically manipulative underbelly squeezing the Google and Facebook profit rag for nearly $200 billion annually. Even the term “user” comes under fire in the docu: “There are only two industries that call their customers 'users': illegal drugs and software.”

Netflix (which uses a monthly subscription model) is devoting prime online real estate to promote “The Social Dilemma” to 73 million US subscribers. Key characters include Shoshana Zuboff, author of “The Age of Surveillance Capitalism” and Professor Emeritus at Harvard Business school; Jaron Lanier, a VR pioneer with the voice of an angel and dreads you could tie down a drunk elephant with; Roger McNamee, the life-loving venture capitalist who mentored Zuck in his formative pre-IPO years. And the young star of the show: Tristan Harris, the whipsmart young Stanford and Google alum whom the Atlantic called the “closest thing Silicon Valley has to a conscience.” Tristan has spent the better part of a decade blasting spittle at regulators to force tech platforms to take responsibility for the content they publish and promote. 

McNamee and Harris teamed up to coach legislators ahead of Zuckerberg and Sandberg’s first deposition in 2018. Despite their efforts, legislators were widely mocked (mainly on social media) for their dim understanding of the online world. The then 84-year-old Utah Senator Orrin Hatch asked, with an air of self-satisfied gotcha: “How do you sustain a business model where users don’t pay for your service?” Zuckerberg looked up, paused, and said simply: “Senator, we run ads.” A murmur ran through the room, and Zuckerberg couldn’t help it; he grinned broadly, and then quickly composed himself. It was clear from this exchange, and many others like it, that many Golden Gate Bridges stood between legislators and a grasp of technical reality.

The documentary paints the broad problem space on a canvas of easy-to-grasp analogy and concrete metaphor. Jaron Lanier asks viewers to imagine a version of Wikipedia that displays articles that tell individual readers what they want to hear, based on data about their interests and political preferences, instead of showing everyone the same article. Unthinkable right? But, Lanier goes on to say, Google search and Facebook feeds already do this. 

Everyone’s reality is massaged to keep their eyeballs popping out of their sockets, and so a shared understanding of reality is impossible. Lanier is a self-described technology junkie, but he sees these large firms going off the rails in wild pursuit of profit: The financial incentive that makes our world go round. Of course, it is no crime to earn a profit, but it is the pursuit of short-term profit without regard for user well-being that grinds activists’ gears.

The last two years have seen ballooning public awareness of user manipulation and potential monopolistic abuse. A summer deposition of the big four (this time on anti-trust) brought the tech CEOs unwanted national exposure. And “The Social Dilemma” forced Facebook to do the unthinkable: To respond directly to the adverse claims. In a glossy PDF one-pager titled: “What ‘The Social Dilemma’ Gets Wrong,” Facebook lays out seven categories where the documentary veers away from reality into sensationalism, saying: “they rely on commentary from those who haven’t been on the inside for many years.”

So, where lies the truth? As Jaron Lanier says, we have to look at the incentives. And the incentives, in this case, are the profits, baby. And here lies the rub. Facebook and Google are on the bleeding edge of innovation; they are highly resourced and motivated to grow as a grizzly bear in June. But they have been slow to respond to increasing market demand for organizations to transcend profit-focused myopia and look at the bigger picture. 

In the New York Times Dealbook from November 2019, Airbnb founder Brian Chesky said, “There’s an old saying, ‘Things move at the speed of trust,’” during a discussion about a shooting that took place at an Airbnb property, “I think many of us in this industry over the last 10 years are going from a hands-off model, where the internet’s an immune system, to realizing that’s not really enough, that we have to take more responsibility for the stuff on our platform,” he went on to say. “And I think this has been a gradual, maybe too gradual, transition for our industry.”

In September, the Times interviewed business leaders to mark the 50th anniversary of Milton Friedman’s seminal essay: “The Social Responsibility of Business Is to Increase Its Profits” to get their take on whether Friedman’s advice held true. Marc Benioff of Salesforce panned Friedman’s essay, “It’s time for a new kind of capitalism — stakeholder capitalism, which recognizes that our companies have a responsibility to all our stakeholders,” he said. “Yes, that includes shareholders, but also our employees, customers, communities and the planet.”

This is not to say that companies should not make money. But as our species evolves, we should continue to improve our systems of trust and cooperation. At IoTeX, we have embraced user-well-being as the fundamental character of our business. Data-ownership, no surveillance, and no ads guide our long term growth strategy. Blockchain is the root of trust for companies and protocols based on stakeholder-capitalism, where token holders can trustlessly exchange their protocol coins for guaranteed services. We hope to lead the way for more businesses to follow with a similar broad-focused devotion to stakeholders and society at large. 


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