Weapons of mass distraction

#08 Leveraging Archimedes' Lever

Hi there,

Is screen technology a weapon of mass distraction?

And here’s this week's piece - part 4:

Leveraging Archimedes' Lever

Reading time: 4 minutes

"Facebook’s business model is built on capturing as much of our attention as possible, to encourage people to create and share more information about who they are and who they want to be. We pay for Facebook with our data and our attention, and by either measure it doesn’t come cheap.” 

Chris Hughes - Facebook co-founder

Archimedes, the greatest scientist of his time, understood the principle of leverage better than anyone. Folklore has it that, with a long enough lever, resting over a fulcrum, he could "move the world.”

Society needs such a lever to shift the unwieldy beast that is the digital tech industry towards a more ethical business model.  

The tech industry is built on keeping people engaged and distracted by maximising "watch time.” Studies have shown time and time again, their methods to achieve this goal, makes technology addictive, causes anxiety and depression. There are also well-publicised issues around privacy and misinformation.

In order to incentivise companies to behave more ethically, many argue the tech industry must decouple its ‘attention” success from it’s business success

If this is the answer, what is the best way to achieve this? 

Here’s a whistle stop tour of three main schools of thought:

  1. Taxation

  2. Regulation

  3. Monopoly break-up

1. Taxation

“Digital platforms may not be too big to fail. But they are too big to trust”

Paul Romer

Paul Romer, 2018 Nobel laureate in Economics, suggests taxing revenue from sales of targeted digital ads, the cornerstone the Facebooks, Googles of this world.  He argues it will encourage them to adopt a "healthier, more traditional model”.  Instead of "tracking customers with ever more sophisticated surveillance techniques”, they would be incentivised to introduce an ad-free subscription model.

This model is already succeeding. Netflix and Amazon Prime continue torrid growth with their ad-free experiences. YouTube has introduced subscription models, while Spotify has proven people are willing to pay for ad-free music.

With a subscription model, companies would be less incentivised to follow the “attention” model. 

Issues:

  • Tech companies are clever at avoiding taxes.

  • Advertising is a tax on the poor.  A more ethical business model would benefit those who can afford to pay. Meanwhile those less well-off would be in danger of being abandoned to bargain basement versions, where the old model persist.

2. Regulation

"Internet companies should be accountable for enforcing standards"

Mark Zuckerberg

The world seems to be moving in the direction of greater regulation:

Mark Zuckerberg has called for regulation of the Internet. Ireland is establishing of a Digital Safety Commissioner, while Australia already has one in place. In the US, legislation has been proposed to limit the addictive techniques used by digital tech companies to hold attention.  

Issues:

  • In a stable democracy, laws and regulation can be a force for good, but in countries like Nigeria, a proposed Social Media Bill has sparked fears of an authoritarian crackdown, with jail time threatened for those posting content authorities decide is fake news.

  • Most of the dominant Big Tech companies might already be too large and powerful to regulate. Instead of supervising private interests, Regulators can end up serving them.  For past form, you just need to look at the financial crisis of tens years ago to see how banks manipulated so-called Regulators. Recent crashes of two Boeing airplanes has raised serious concerns about the Federal Aviation Administration too.

3. Break-up

"Competition spurs growth and innovation.” 

Adam Smith

There’s a monopoly on attention, shared between a handful of major technology companies ⁠— Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Snapchat, Instagram, WhatsApp.  New business models that don’t rely on “hooking” users to their product, cannot compete. 

These overwhelmingly dominant companies exist within a capitalist society and, at the end of the day, a key component of capitalism is to ensure no individual company wields excessive power.

But the opposite has happened. Take Facebook for example, instead of facing up to competition, it gobbled up its rivals and consolidated it’s market dominance.

As a consequence, Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes recently echoed U.S. presidential hopeful Elizabeth Warren, in calling for it to be broken up.  

Issues:

  • Some economists argue breaking up companies like Facebook would do little to inspire competition.  This, they believe, is because such companies are “natural monopolies” who provide an essential public service. Like an energy supplier, or phone utility where the price of entering the business is very high because you have to lay pipes or electrical lines, others would be unable to compete even against a smaller Facebook or Google.

  • Others worry that the breakup of Facebook and other tech companies could create a security problem. Because advancements in artificial intelligence require immense amounts of data and computing power, only large companies like Facebook, Google and Amazon can afford such investments. By shrinking these companies, there is a fear the West could be outpaced by countries with lower ethical standards.

Technology - the anti-tool

"Reward companies for having a high integrity public square”

Tristan Harris - Centre for Humane Tech

In 2005 Zuckerberg compared Facebook to an address book, helping people locate and stay in touch with friends and family. As this wonderful metaphor goes up in flames in light of recent scandals, we must be reminded that technology is just a tool. When used as a tool of empowerment, digital technology can be a beautiful life-enhancing one. 

The problem lies with the business model of advertising and engagement.  It makes digital technology the anti-tool because, rather than help people, it hinders them. Rather than giving, it takes something of value - your attention and your data.

If Archimedes could move the world, maybe Government could move the business model, by providing appropriate incentives and oversight.


As ever, thanks very much for tuning in! 

Feel free to share or get in touch.

Otherwise, until next week…

Scott