Washington, DC is currently in the grips of techno dystopian group think. Lobbyists and activists with something to gain, and politicians looking to reap rewards, have dreamt up an absurd imagined society where there is great injustice caused by technology.
The assertions are that technology is evil, that it biases people against certain political views, crushes democracy and risks our very liberties. The rhetoric used in circulated letters for free market and liberty loving groups to sign argues that long standing ideology should be abandoned and that industry should be controlled by government.
On opinion panels, these people sound like promotional ads for 1950’s sci-fi horror thrillers. Presented in a comic strip, the language would be replete with exclamation points and mid-century graphics. Bang! Pow! Oh, the Horror! This would all be somewhat comical political theatre if the threats of heavy-handed government were not so real.
Not many years ago, the idea that globe-spanning, great American companies could be built in a garage was held up as an example of evidence of the American dream. That an idea could become a physical manifestation as either a service or product was lauded. The world wanted innovation and the U.S. was proud to be the launching pad, and home, for household name technology companies from HP to Microsoft, from Dell to Apple.
These companies, founded by great creators, financed with private money deliver great benefits to consumers. The online world exploded with new invention, and the future looked even more promising for consumers. Then politics intervened.
After years of standing for property rights and the free market, some groups are turning against those ideals by demanding that government either break up or regulate, social media companies. Marketplace rivals of online companies have spun up politicians and activists asking them to push for government control of private industry.
The thinly supported argument is that these companies do not put forth a balance of conservative and liberal ideas and content, ignoring that these are private companies with no obligation to balance the views they put forth. They argue that government should be used to require a private company to balance its political views under threat of being destroyed. What they are actually demanding is that individuals be forced to change their political views.
The content on social media is provided by its users, that is, by individuals. Social media platforms simply provide a place for the commentary, as if providing the newsprint but not a coherent newspaper. Twitter does not preview tweets. A person does not have to work through an editor to have their Facebook post approved. YouTube hosts millions of videos made by others.
But these platforms are free to set their own standards to create an environment where people want to engage whether a space without knowing criminal behavior, a forum that rejects pornography or a platform that appeals to various social communities. As for search engines, they are algorithms that try to anticipate what material a person will mostly likely want when that person inputs her own search terms. One way to anticipate is to provide the material that most people have been reading so far. In both cases it is the users who have a huge impact in guiding the material that other users will see.
But the process is not perfect and some mistakes are undoubtably made. For example, a machine cannot always make the tough judgment call on what is truly too graphic, material that a responsible company might want to restrict to some young viewers absent a parent’s permission. Those sorts of judgment calls are made by people, by reviewers across the country. Sometimes they slip up, but a system is in place to correct any error.
However, the critics are relentless, apparently believing they are without error themselves. They use the mistakes, or their correction, as admission of wrongdoing rather than as evidence of effective self-assessment and review to help stamp out bias.
Hopefully all people and organizations strive to correct errors. In this case, hopefully the failure to stand for the property and the free market will be caught and corrected.
Bartlett Cleland is a senior fellow in tech and innovation at the Pacific Research Institute.