Sunday, March 25, 2018

Not Merely "A Reckoning" Rather "A Moral Reckoning" Because "Trump Adjacent"

NewYorker |  The most significant Trump-adjacent scandal of the week, the one involving Cambridge Analytica, a data-mining organization financed by the conservative Mercer family, has indeed forced a moral reckoning. But it is not a reckoning in Washington; it is centered, instead, in Menlo Park, California.

From the early days of Silicon Valley’s Internet-era revolution, as engineers, designers, and financiers began to recognize the potential of their inventions, sanctimony was a distinct feature of the revolutionists. The young innovators of Silicon Valley were not like the largely amoral barons of industry and finance. They were visionaries of virtue. Google adopted the slogan “Don’t Be Evil” (which morphed into “Do the Right Thing”). These young innovators were creating a seamlessly “connected” world; they were empowering the dispossessed with their tools and platforms. If you expressed any doubts about the inherent goodness of technology, you didn’t “get it.” And to fail to get it was to be gloomy, a Luddite, and three-quarters dead.

The era of sanctimony has, in the past few years, given way to a dawning skepticism. Even as Alphabet, Amazon, Apple, and Facebook continue to reap immense riches, they have faced questions that could not be answered with flippant declarations of rectitude: Is Google the Standard Oil of search engines, a monopoly best broken up? Does Apple, which has a valuation nearly three times greater than ExxonMobil’s, exploit factory workers in China? Why is Facebook—“the biggest surveillance-based enterprise in the history of mankind,” in the memorable phrase of the critic and novelist John Lanchester—allowed to exploit the work of “content creators” while doing so little to reward them financially? Does the company care that its algorithms have helped create an informational ecosystem that, with its feeds and filter bubbles, has done much to intensify raw partisanship? What does Silicon Valley intend to do about the disparities of race and gender in its ranks? What is the cost of our obsession with the digital devices in our palms—the cost in attention, civility, and moment-to-moment consciousness? The triumphs and wonders of the Internet age have been obvious; the answers to such questions less so.

Careful reporting by the Times, and by the Observer, in the U.K., has now revealed how Cambridge Analytica “scraped” information from as many as fifty million unwitting Facebook users in order to help the Trump campaign. This was a scam with global intent. “They want to fight a culture war in America,” Christopher Wylie, one of the founders of Cambridge Analytica, told the Times

“Cambridge Analytica was supposed to be the arsenal of weapons to fight that culture war.” (Wylie left the firm in 2014 and is now regarded as the main whistle-blower against it.) Just as congratulating autocrats on their election victories is nothing new, Cambridge Analytica did not invent data harvesting for political gain. But, as the news reports make plain, it got hold of the data in particularly deceptive ways. The entire operation is now said to be under scrutiny by Robert Mueller’s investigators.

The question is whether the barons of Silicon Valley can move beyond ritual statements of regret and assurance to a genuine self-accounting. In November, 2016, when Facebook was first presented with evidence that its platform had been exploited by Russian hackers to Trump’s advantage, Mark Zuckerberg, serene and arrogant, dismissed the suggestion as “pretty crazy.” As Nicholas Thompson and Fred Vogelstein write, in Wired, it took Zuckerberg at least a year to fully acknowledge Facebook’s role in the election drama and take action.