By Peter Martin
Few of us who have survived the last year aren’t grateful for technology.
Zoom, email, connected workplaces and solid internet connections at home have made it possible to work, shop, study and carry on our lives in a way that wouldn’t have been possible had the pandemic hit, say, 20 years earlier.
But parts of big tech—the parts that track us and drive us to think dangerous and antisocial things just so we keep clicking—are doing us enormous damage.
Although it might seem like we can’t have the best of both worlds—the connectivity without the damage—I reckon we can. But we are going to have to change the way we think about big tech.
The first thing is to recognize that big tech is intrinsically weak. Yes, weak. The second is that it has only become strong each time we have let it.
By “big tech” I mean Facebook /zigman2/quotes/205064656/composite FB +1.41% and Google /zigman2/quotes/205453964/composite GOOG -0.08% and related companies such as Instagram and YouTube (owned by Facebook and Google respectively).
The firms that came before them were indeed weak in the sense that they didn’t have a guaranteed future. Think back to Netscape , Myspace , MSN and all those other monoliths we were told at the time would become natural monopolies.
Terrified of losing its edge
Much of the behavior revealed by Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen this past month is that of a market leader terrified it is losing its edge.
It switched what it showed away from news toward posts that inflamed and enraged people in 2018, with “unhealthy side effects on important slices of public content” in part because users had begun to interact less with it .
Facebook knew that “we make body image issues worse,” in the words of one of its memos , but did little to change the way Instagram worked. In part this was because teens spent 50% more time on Instagram than Facebook. Instagram looked like the future.
When engagement on Instagram started flagging, Facebook developed plans for Instagram Kids , seeing preteens as “a valuable but untapped audience.”
These don’t sound like the actions of a company confident of staying on top.
Nor does its initial purchase of Instagram in 2012 when it could have started its own photo-sharing service on mobiles, leveraging all that it had.
Facebook also bought WhatsApp in 2014 because its own messaging platform, Messenger, was losing ground.
It couldn’t grow anything like as big by itself, because when firms grow beyond a certain size they turn sluggish, bureaucratic.
They are the actions of a hungry company, but not one supremely confident of staying at the top.