Monday, January 21, 2019

Monetizing Like Minds

...the pressure to monetize data at tech companies is ceaseless. Facebook didn’t grow from a website connecting college kids into a purveyor of user profiles and predilections worth $478 billion by walling off personal data.
Palantir Knows Everything About You - Bloomberg

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I’ve never liked Facebook. But my aversion wasn't prompted by particular concerns about privacy and data sales. It was the “feel” that repelled me. I’ll get to that in a bit. First some pertinent history.

Ways to circumvent digital privacy were being developed from the earliest days of the Internet. In 1999, Scott McNealy, then CEO of Sun Microsystems, was rebuked by his peers when he dared to admit that consumer privacy issues are a "red herring”. "You have zero privacy anyway," he told a group of reporters and analysts..."Get over it"

Data-enhanced marketing and advertising began stoking our consumption economy well before computers arrived. Edward Bernays, father of Public Relations (PR) and nephew of Sigmund Freud, codified the methodology in his book, Propaganda, in 1928.
In theory, every citizen makes up his mind on public questions and matters of private conduct. In practice, if all men had to study for themselves the abstruse economic, political, and ethical data involved in every question, they would find it impossible to come to a conclusion about anything. We have voluntarily agreed to let an invisible government sift the data and high-spot the outstanding issues so that our field of choice shall be narrowed to practical proportions.
As Bernays suggested, with only human effort available to aggregate and evaluate data, it was a tedious and often mistaken effort at best. But a few decades later, after successfully decrypting Germany’s Enigma machine in World War II, Alan Turing invented the Automatic Computing Engine (ACE) which happened to bring Bernays’ data dilemma a critical step closer to resolution. Machines could "sift the data and high-spot the outstanding issues" for us. 

Then, on October 29, 1969, two advanced versions of these computational machines communicated with each other directly. This breakthrough led to the creation of the first computer network, called ARPANET. And as a result, our power to gather, sort, and analyze data rose exponentially. 

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The Cost of a Free Cookie

By the 1980’s, with guidance and funding from the National Science Foundation, ARPANET was expanded into the Internet (contraction of Interconnected Network) with a global presence in universities, research institutes and even corporations. Under the official rubric of Data Science, this web of nodes led to the creation of Neural Networks and the capacity to undertake data mining. The race to dominance, particularly on the part of the US, was evident even in the language of the culture with the phrase, "master-slave", used as the preferred description for network database architecture.  

Feeding on bits, nibbles, and bytes, these networks have been likened to living organisms that can learn and grow without human intervention. Under the debatable guise of increased accuracy, their growth was encouraged to include exponential amounts of data. (“Garbage In Garbage Out”). Indeed, the liveliest debate around data gathering on the early Web was about how Cookies - bits of code that track your behavior - got that name (from Fortune Cookies, Sesame Street Cookie Monster, or Unix Magic Cookies?), not whether the code should even be used.
The commercial Web’s early retailing successes - notably Amazon and eBay - remain sturdy exemplars of selling online done well. A key to their continued success is personalization, made possible by something called the “cookie”: a small text file, placed in your browser by the Web site...that tracks your activities as you go about your business on the Web, reporting back what it has found to one or more among thousands of advertising companies, most of which you’ve never heard of.
The Intention Economy
Doc Searls - Harvard Business Review Press 2012
Influenced by the insights of Norbert Wiener, a mathematical genius and founder of cybernetics, first generation Netizens in the 1980’s and 90’s were playful and somewhat naive (myself included). They were cybernauts not cryogenic oligarchs. They created an Open Source model of software development that encouraged code sharing. They constructed a dutiful Gopher that assisted Archie, Jughead, and Veronica in searching vast data libraries on our behalf. From a cybernaut perspective, the humane potential of the World Wide Web was as unlimited as its name suggests. The opening paragraphs of Fred Turner’s essay, Machine Politics, in Harper’s January 2019 edition recounts the hopeful exuberance of the time.
“The Goliath of totalitarianism will be brought down by the David of the microchip,” Ronald Reagan said in 1989. He was speaking to a thousand British notables in London’s historic Guildhall, several months before the fall of the Berlin Wall. Reagan proclaimed that the world was on the precipice of “a new era in human history,” one that would bring “peace and freedom for all.” Communism was crumbling, just as fascism had before it. Liberal democracies would soon encircle the globe, thanks to the innovations of Silicon Valley. “I believe,” he said, “that more than armies, more than diplomacy, more than the best intentions of democratic nations, the communications revolution will be the greatest force for the advancement of human freedom the world has ever seen.”

At the time, most everyone thought Reagan was right. The twentieth century had been dominated by media that delivered the same material to millions of people at the same time—radio and newspapers, movies and television. These were the kinds of one-to-many, top-down mass media that Orwell’s Big Brother had used to stay in power. Now, however, Americans were catching sight of the internet. They believed that it would do what earlier media could not: it would allow people to speak for themselves, directly to one another, around the world. “True personalization is now upon us,” wrote MIT professor Nicholas Negroponte in his 1995 bestseller Being Digital. Corporations, industries, and even whole nations would soon be transformed as centralized authorities were demolished. Hierarchies would dissolve and peer-to-peer collaborations would take their place. “Like a force of nature,” wrote Negroponte, “the digital age cannot be denied or stopped.”
From the egalitarian open-source worldview of Netizen economics, “free” was the only appropriate admission fee to charge for the benefits of cyberspace. But this zero price point did not deter marketing types who well understood that “free” can also be an irresistible lure. From a capitalist ROI (Return On Investment) perspective, free gifts were a sure way to acquire hordes of loyal customers. So, a technology intended as a communications defense in war time became a corporate marketing offense in peacetime.


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Skin in the Game

“The real question is not whether machines think but whether men do. The mystery which surrounds a thinking machine already surrounds a thinking man.”
B.F. Skinner Contingencies of Reinforcement, 1969
Meanwhile, in the emerging field of Behaviorism, B.F. Skinner went beyond Ivan Pavlov’s Classical Conditioning study, eliciting saliva from his now famous dog. Instead, Skinner built a box that gathered data on how rewards and punishments could create, modify, and reinforce voluntary actions. And this historic intersection of human/computer innovation would eventually reward us with the uber-addictive Facebook “Like” button.
We're entering the age of Skinnerian Marketing. Future applications making use of big data, location, maps, tracking of a browser's interests, and data streams coming from mobile and wearable devices, promise to usher in the era of unprecedented power in the hands of marketers, who are no longer merely appealing to our innate desires, but programming our behaviors.
Skinner Marketing: We're the Rats, and Facebook Likes Are the Reward
Bill Davidow, The Atlantic, June 2013
WebTrends, one of the first website analytic tools, still uses Cookies to record as much data as possible about a website’s user traffic -- what pages are popular, how long visitors stay, what links from other sites led them there, and so on. A marketing website is designed to imperceptibly lead a site user toward the marketer’s objective. Usually referred to as “User Experience” (UX), this is technology engineered and optimized around human behavioral psychology. Like the title of this aptly named book written in 2000, Don’t Make Me Think, the most successful commercial websites seem as though they are anticipating your needs while actually, they are creating and shaping them.

In contrast to the cyber-utopian “Information SuperHighway” for all - a utility that was funded and developed as public infrastructure - the corporate commercial Net Vision was more akin to Cable Television’s Home Shopping Network (HSN). On the ideal HSN version of the Internet, a viewing audience would simply feed their shopping addiction from a Naugahyde recliner with a built-in “buy” button. The only real challenges to achieving this goal were inadequate bandwidth and no secure system for accepting personal financial transactions. The Telecom industry, however, convincingly assured venture capitalists that this was only a minor setback.

After Bill Clinton signed the Telecommunications act of 1996 into law, the deregulated Telecom Titans were expected to fulfill their promise of providing high speed fiber optic Internet access to the front door of every American household. Instead, AT&T and the Cable companies battled each other to become King of “Cyberspace” while investment banking bottom feeders gorged on the spoils. All slicked up in bespoke suits, these financial “advisers” preyed particularly hard on rural areas that struggled (as many still do) to get Internet service into the farthest reaches, or so-called “Last Mile”, of an area. The Touch America bankruptcy scandal, a country-bumpkin-esque swindle concocted by Enron and Goldman Sachs, was a prime-time example of these outright robberies. Even Sixty Minutes was impressed.

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The Opportunity in Chaos

By the end of the twentieth century, rapacious mega-mergers and leveraged buyouts created more chaos than even Titans could withstand. Adequate bandwidth and user-friendly payment solutions did not arrive in time. The gushing froth of Dot Com Venture Capital peaked on the NASDAQ at 5048.62 and burst on March 10, 2000. Yet, seeing beyond the carnage of irrational exuberance, Intel’s Andy Grove encouraged us to Believe in the Internet More than Ever. And we did.

Written just three months prior to 9/11, his advice became prescient as a result of that tragedy. In the aftermath of 9/11, Internet adoption soared because it proved to be the most robust two-way communication conduit for both government entities and the general public. Though there was still some corporate skepticism about the Internet becoming a viable cash cow, the post 9/11 surge of general public adoption did rejuvenate investment in building public/private fiber optic networks. For good measure, a Web 2.0 re-brand launched a fresh opportunity to make it profitable.

...the Pew Internet Project survey provides evidence about how some Internet users have changed their online behavior in the year since the 9/11 attacks.
  • 19 million Americans rekindled relationships after 9/11 by sending email to family members, friends, former colleagues and others that they had not contacted in years. Fully 83% of those who renewed contact with others have maintained those relationships through the past year.
  • Notable numbers of American Internet users say they are using email more often, gathering news online more often, visiting government Websites more often, giving more donations via the Internet, and seeking health and mental health information more often because of the 9/11 attacks.
One year later: Sept 11 and the Internet
Pew Internet Life - Sept 2002

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Trust Makes a Lower Case

With the simple addition of a small “e” (eBusiness, eCommerce, eHealth, eInsurance...), behemoth consultancy groups like Arthur Anderson (rebranded as Accenture after being convicted in the Enron scandal), Price Waterhouse, Deloitte, Bain, and far too many others became eVisionaries peddling non-threatening homespun advice like, “don’t boil the ocean” and look for the “low hanging fruit”. They were the PR Army of the New Corporate Net. And this was their winning strategy.

Typical mid-00 New Millennium organizations of all types were drowning in paper. Computers bred databases that bred spreadsheets and directories on a never ending basis. Lotus Notes and Microsoft Office institutionalized verbose versioning as a standard CYA (Cover Your Ass) paper trail practice. The early Information Age was printed, copied, and distributed on dead trees. So, online electronic access to all this information had an immediate, measurable ROI with the added benefit of saving forests. In the cubicles of Corporate America, “pulp” was a fruit, hanging so low, it was already fermenting.

By 2005, the brave new world of eBusiness efficiency was firmly entrenched. Ads for free productivity tools popped up (literally) on computer screens everywhere while mobile phones, once ridiculed as “electronic leashes”, morphed into “smart” status symbols Surfing the Web from anywhere. Driven from both a consumer and patriotic national security standpoint, 24/7 “always on” website availability became an industry standard. The Net was open for business.
The fact that digital information, unlike oil, is also “non-rivalrous”, meaning that it can be copied and used by more than one person (or algorithm) at a time....means that data can easily be used for other purposes than those agreed. And it adds to the confusion about who owns data (in the case of an autonomous car, it could be the carmaker, the supplier of the sensors, the passenger and, in time, if self-driving cars become self-owning ones, the vehicle itself)...

... “A regulated national information market could allow personal information to be bought and sold, conferring on the seller the right to determine how much information is divulged,” Kenneth Laudon of New York University wrote in an influential article entitled “Markets and Privacy” in 1996. More recently, the WEF (World Economic Forum) proposed the concept of a data bank account. A person’s data, it suggested, should “reside in an account where it would be controlled, managed, exchanged and accounted for”.


The idea seems elegant, but neither a market nor data accounts have materialised yet...people give personal data away too readily in return for “free” services....After the dotcom bubble burst in the early 2000s, firms badly needed a way to make money. Gathering data for targeted advertising was the quickest fix.

Data is Giving Rise to a New Economy
The Economist - May 2017

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Doing an AboutFace 

It was through this eBusiness productivity craze that I first encountered the word, “facebook”. But it had no connection to Zuckerberg’s leviathan. As early as 2000, a company called AboutFace promoted an online “Employee Facebook” directory with the following tagline, “Foster community, and ensure security, within your organization with an online facebook”.



I discovered the AboutFace “facebook” while evaluating the latest selection of online directory tools for my employer. The immediate downside of AboutFace, though, was that it wasn’t free, a kiss of death in a world of no-cost competitors. The raison d'être for eBusiness was cutting expenses, not adding to them. So I didn’t spend much time with the AboutFace “facebook”, but the name lodged in my brain.

Meanwhile, as old-school executive types were learning to sound all eBusiness savvy about cost reduction, CyberPirates started disrupting corporate copyrights. A digital tsunami of personal BitTorrent servers made “sharing” the new rally cry of Netizen economics.

Although file sharing had been a staple of the Internet from the start, with services like Usenet and the playful Gopher I mentioned earlier, it was mostly hard core technical types who engaged in it. That situation quickly changed when simpler tools like Napster, Grokster and LimeWire granted file sharing to the masses with just a mouse click. Homegrown freebooters began to seriously undermine the copyright royalty income of media behemoths like Time Warner and Twentieth Century Fox by sharing their corporate “properties” for free on platforms such as Friendster, MySpace, and YouTube.

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Sorting into Social Silos

There is some dispute about how the concept of “social media” came about but history tips toward a site called SixDegrees which technofied the humble contact list into a personal network. Beyond dispute, though, is the fact that Web tools of this type, including Blogger, WordPress, YouTube, and Vimeo (a mashup of “video” and “me”), enabled an unprecedented degree of individual exposure and promotion.

I came to digital technology through computer animation, so it was Web video that captured my attention. I did open accounts on MySpace and LinkedIn but mostly to keep up with their evolution. When I first heard of Facebook, my mind connected the name with AboutFace which didn't seem worthy of followup. Then it came up again when a staff attorney, where I worked, began bragging about how her son at Harvard was friends with the guy who started Facebook. It was certain to be a success, she said, because so many large companies were already using it.

At the time, my Web work revolved around UX (User Experience); designing, building and testing user interfaces, the critical bridge between humans and computers. Evaluating the “look and feel” of an interface was automatic for me. And I found Facebook repellent from the first time I saw it.

The strength of this aversion, in fact, surprised me. I was a Web Evangelist, a convert to Mosaic in 1992 on the campus of Silicon Graphics, driven to explore every New New Thing on the Net and to encourage that curiosity in others. From the flashing mishmash of early eCommerce to the graphic wizardry of You Don’t Know Jack, every site had something I appreciated. With Facebook, though, I was most amazed by the fact that such an amateurish vanity project garnered so much attention. This snapshot of its early interface illustrates my point.



Zuckerberg did get the site's color right. Though, according to a September 2018 profile in the New Yorker, this was because "He is red-green color-blind, and he chose blue because he sees it most vividly".

Blue is the color of trust so all the big players capitalize on it. Blue Cross-Blue Shield, Microsoft, Walmart, American Express, IBM (Big Blue). Of course, none of these companies are necessarily trustworthy. But they illustrate the point that, if you're aiming to build a brand that engenders automatic acceptance, true-blue is the color to choose. From my UX perspective, Facebook's color clashed with its odd disregard for two dominant Web standards of the time.


In the Western world, thanks to written language conventions, our eyes are automatically drawn to the upper left corner of a screen. On an interface, this is considered the "first impression" spot for a brand. Mr. Zuckerberg chose to impress us with his personal version of the Evil Eye. The other standard it ignored has since, for various reasons, fallen out of favor but was a critical customer service consideration at the time.

Based upon the long standing convention of printed newspapers, the most valuable site content was placed on the first page and "above the fold".  In addition, early eye tracking studies demonstrated that we scan a page in a Z pattern, starting at the upper left and coming to rest, with no scrolling, at the bottom middle of the page. So this became established as the "helpful information" space for phone numbers and email addresses. The previous AboutFace screenshot is a good example. Then look at the early Facebook shot.

Zuck greets his audience with a glare before they Z on down to his "Mark Zuckerberg production" credit at the end. To quote Maya Angelou, "When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time", advice worth noting while reading this article from the Harvard Crimson.
The creator of the short-lived but popular Harvard version of the Am I Hot or Not? website said he will not have to leave school after being called before the Administrative Board yesterday afternoon. Mark E. Zuckerberg ’06 said he was accused of breaching security, violating copyrights and violating individual privacy by creating the website, www.facemash.com, about two weeks ago.

The charges were based on a complaint from the computer services department over his unauthorized use of on-line facebook photographs, he said.

...The site was created entirely by Zuckerberg over the last week in October, after a friend gave him the idea. The website used photos compiled from the online facebooks of nine Houses, placing two next to each other at a time and asking users to choose the “hotter” person.

Students were ranked within the general Harvard community and individual Houses according to attractiveness.

Zuckerberg hacked into House websites to gather the photos, and then wrote the codes to compute rankings after every vote.

Facemash Creator Survives Ad Board
Harvard Crimson 2003


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The Jackpot VC Trifecta

With hindsight, it is obvious why my first Facebook encounter left me feeling wary and repelled. But as a bona fide Web worker in 2006, it was death by derision to criticize "FB". Disheartening most of all, though, was to watch Zuckerberg's glare become so quickly and eagerly rewarded.
It is not easy capturing the attention of Jim Breyer, one of Silicon Valley's leading venture capitalists. But Mark Zuckerberg, a 21-year-old Harvard student, managed to do it with a Web site that has attracted 2.8 million registered users on more than 800 campuses since it began in February 2004.

Mr. Breyer was so taken with Mr. Zuckerberg's company, thefacebook.com, which creates online interactive college-student networks, that his firm, Accel Partners, plans to announce a $13 million investment in the start-up today.

''It is a business that has seen tremendous underlying, organic growth and the team itself is intellectually honest and breathtakingly brilliant in terms of understanding the college student experience,'' Mr. Breyer said.

Five years after the Internet bubble burst, a new generation of Web start-ups is quietly attracting investment capital. Thefacebook.com typifies the breed: a company that is built on substance rather than high expectations. While $13 million might seem paltry next to the free-flowing sums of the late 1990's, Mr. Breyer said it was a ''significant investment'' from Accel's new $400 million fund.

...(Thefacebook.com is not the first foray into a college site for Mr. Zuckerberg, a computer-sciences-turned-psychology major. As a prank in November 2003, he set up facemash.com, a site that ''popped up two students' photos and asked users to choose who was more attractive,'' he said. Harvard officials were not amused and they put him on probation. But the university's administration has not voiced any complaints with thefacebook.com, he said.)

...Mr. Zuckerberg arranged a dinner with Sean Parker, the founder of Napster (Comment: Parker is a cyberpirate turned Venture Capitalist), to talk about his Web site, which had swept through Stanford University in a number of weeks. A few weeks later, the two bumped into each other on a street in Palo Alto, Calif. Before long, Mr. Parker...began informally advising the company. He then introduced Mr. Zuckerberg to Peter Thiel, a venture capitalist and founder of PayPal, the online payment service acquired by eBay in 2002.

Mr. Thiel invested $500,000 as seed money, the first major infusion of cash into thefacebook.com, Mr. Zuckerberg said. More important, his connection gave it the imprimatur of an up-and-coming company. Soon, other investors came calling.

But the one who impressed them most was the team from Accel, said Mr. Zuckerberg, who is thefacebook.com's chief executive. At 43, Mr. Breyer, the firm's managing partner, is a seasoned investor who serves on the boards of Wal-Mart Stores and Real Networks.

Mr. Breyer has taken a seat on the company's board, joining Mr. Zuckerberg, Mr. Parker and Mr. Thiel. He would not disclose the size of the stake Accel will take in thefacebook.com. And while he envisions that the company will one day go public, he said there was ''no significant timetable.''

Mr. Zuckerberg and Mr. Parker decline to disclose revenue, which comes solely from advertising, though they say the company is profitable. With the infusion of outside cash, they are also able to pay themselves salaries and rent an office in Palo Alto

...While the breakout success of thefacebook.com is unusual, those in Silicon Valley say there is plenty of room for other Internet companies. According to Allen Wiener, an analyst at the research firm Gartner Inc., a successful company needs to have a ''clearly articulated product and service,'' that will ''save time or money, offer something someone can't find somewhere else and fulfill a greed or lust factor.'' The service offered should be ''compelling,'' adds Mr. Thiel, and one which ''draws in new users to get organic grass-roots growth.''
Accel Partners Invests in thefacebook.com
Corporate Site - 2005- Wayback Machine Archive

Given what we know now, it is reasonable to imagine that these early investors understood the profit potential in Facebook's ability to horde personalized user data and that they chose to ignore the ethical ramifications of selling it. After all, selling user data became Facebook's entire business model without their slightest dismay.

In the preceding Accel announcement, I added the comment about Sean Parker because, for a certain breed of entrepreneur, crime most certainly does pay. The bad-whiteboy-turned-billionaire fraternity is the most exclusive club in the world. The highlighted line at the end sums up what I call the ideal Jackpot VC Trifecta: Bernays marketing, Skinner conditioning, and Internet facilitation. Infection - Addiction - Transmission. And here is an additional noteworthy thought about Peter Thiel. While becoming Facebook's first investor/adviser/board member, Mr. Thiel was also building Palantir, one of the world's biggest of the "Big Data" enterprises.

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Marijuana Made Me Do It

In 2010, I volunteered my web media skills in support of California's Proposition 19 campaign to legalize cannabis and was astounded to find myself embedded with some of Facebook's headiest honchos. If I was going to participate, I had to dive in, Facebook first.



The Prop 19 website crew consisted of many 19+ year old young men with ties to Facebook and me, a fifty-six year old woman. But what contrasted even more for me in this situation was how my web team mates worked, coding on the fly. It was a Facebook "move fast and break things" approach that didn't have much use for my "user testing before release" method. So I took direction well, made site content updates, produced promotional video spots, and accepted Facebook's culture.

By the time Proposition 19 made it to the ballot in 2010, decades of political battles had reduced the most influential drug law reform players to a small handful. For various reasons, including timing and ego, none of them were willing to back the campaign at its start. So it was essentially the work, vision and funding of one person, Richard Lee, that sustained it.

Lacking adequate financial support and given the fact that 2010, as a mid-term election, would likely have a small voter turnout, the chips were stacked against a win for Prop 19. Undaunted, a David versus Goliath "whatever it takes" attitude permeated the Oakland campaign headquarters. Rather than costly printed posters and advertising, we relied on person to person canvassing, heavy telephone calling, and lots of Facebook organizing that focused on believing it would be Prop 19's savior.


During the summer of 2010, the "Like" button was less than a year old and commenting on posts had just been added in June. Armed with this fresh battery of Facebook "bomb makers" (Prop 19 FB events were called bombs), we pushed hard to make Friends and Tag them, share Comments, get Likes and establish as many FB Prop 19 support pages as possible. The goal was to grab and hold attention. 

In the midst of a high profile political campaign, promoting itself through FB Likes, Pokes, and Shares, I got to observe a constant stream of random interactions with the application and noticed that the interface arrangement could vary from one day to the next and even from person to person. I witnessed real life misunderstanding and hyper-emotion about Comments, Likes and Shares. The UX designer in me kept whispering that this felt like some kind of testing scenario. A few years later, I discovered that my intuition was accurate.

Facebook's heavy involvement in the Prop 19 campaign was part of a test around influencing voter turnout. News that the experiment took place wasn't publicly disclosed until 2012 when the results were published in the science journal, Nature, then carried internationally. A PDF of the report is free to download. 
UC San Diego News
The researchers did not find any evidence of differences in effects among self-described liberals and conservatives.

Research is now continuing on what kinds of messages work best for increasing voter participation and what kinds of people are most influential in the process.

Although the effect of the message per friend was small, Fowler points to the advantages of scale. When you multiply a small effect across the millions of users and billions of friendships in online social networks, you quickly get to numbers that make a difference.

“The main driver of behavior change is not the message – it’s the vast social network. Whether we want to get out the vote or improve public health, we should not only focus on the direct effect of an intervention, but also on the indirect effect as it spreads from person to person to person.”

As I've highlighted above, the power of "network effects" was demonstrated in this voter turn out test in 2010, yet in 2016 Mr. Zuckerberg scoffed at the idea that Facebook could influence an election.


Mark Zuckerberg says the notion that fake news influenced the U.S. presidential election is "a pretty crazy idea."
....The problem, he says, is that people don't click on things that don't conform to their worldview. And, he says, "I don't know what to do about that."

Zuckerberg Denies Fake News On Facebook Had Impact On The Election
All Tech Considered - NPR Nov 2016

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Let's Face It

The scale of recent public outrage over Facebook's user data abuse is new. But the company has been censured for such behavior throughout its history. And, of course, it is not alone in its scoundrel ways. 

All of the biggest digital tech firms profit from perpetrating abuse in one way or another, psychologically, financially, and even physically. What's most egregious about Facebook, though, is their perpetually aghast pretense of being naive victims themselves.
While the company has long outwardly projected an image of a benevolent public works project to connect the world and a careful and trustworthy steward of the intimate information entrusted to it, its internal emails and decisions laid bare in the email trove capture a quite ordinary commercial company bent on growth at all cost, discussing hiding its collection practices from users and even the possibility of directly selling access to user data.

...Zuckerberg complains that the media offers an unfair accounting of his company, yet he refuses to offer them a competing narrative beyond “trust us.” Perhaps it's finally time to stop trusting Facebook before its too late.

We Really Are Just Data For Sale In Facebook's Eyes
Forbes - Dec. 2018

A reconstruction of Sri Lanka’s descent into violence, based on interviews with officials, victims and ordinary users caught up in online anger, found that Facebook’s newsfeed played a central role in nearly every step from rumor to killing. Facebook officials, they say, ignored repeated warnings of the potential for violence, resisting pressure to hire moderators or establish emergency points of contact.
Where Countries Are Tinderboxes and Facebook Is a Match New York Times - April 2018


Implicit in the highlight above is Facebook's motivation for turning a blind eye to the tragedy it enabled. Profit at any price. Even when it does respond with its standard "we need to do better" PR apology, it is seldom, if ever, pressed to acknowledge that selling targeted attention through user data access is Facebook's entire business model. If it doesn't sell data, it doesn't have a revenue stream. 

Critics of the company have said the root cause of Facebook's repeated controversies is a business model that gives Facebook an incentive to collect as much information about people as possible to give advertisers ever more finely tuned tools to harness that data to pitch to their customers or potential ones. Facebook's ad system is one of the most effective business models ever created for the internet, but it may be rotten at the core.
The Reason Facebook Won't Offer a Paid Option
Bloomberg - April 2018

The chilled out 1990's HSN TV shopper in a Naugahyde recliner has been disrupted into an Everywhere Anytime consumption fiend. We didn't arrive at this place by accident. Bill Gates laid out the game plan for "friction-free capitalism" in 1996.
Bill Gates' new book, "The Road Ahead," features a chapter titled "Friction-Free Capitalism." This new slogan was the subject of a lot of discussion at last summer's Aspen, Colo., meeting called "Cyberspace and the American Dream," sponsored by the Progress and Freedom Foundation, Newt Gingrich's think tank.

What does a "friction-free" economy mean?

Imagine that it's 2025. The world is thoroughly wired with a vast, high-capacity telecommunications network, and just about every home in America has a digital "telecosm" device. You want to watch your favorite sitcom. You don't have to wait until it comes up in a weekly schedule, and you won't have to get it from a TV company or even a TV network. Instead, you'll tap into a digital feed from the sitcom producers themselves.

Say you want to buy a new refrigerator. Instead of driving to nearby stores and looking at the various models and prices or scouring newspaper ads for sales, you'll just whip up a special little software program and send it off to scour the global Net for refrigerators that match your needs and price range. When it finds sources that match your requirements, it'll let you know where they are. You might wind up buying a refrigerator directly from a manufacturer in northwest China.

...Gates blithely says in his book, "[A]s long as society needs help, there will definitely be plenty for everyone to do." What he neglects to mention, in his catalog of how technology will do nearly everything for us in the future, is that the "help" that most people may be asked to provide is likely to be in the form of jobs of the "dog-washing" variety. This is already happening. Los Angeles, for example, is witnessing a boom in valet parking, bathroom attendants and similar jobs that barely existed 30 years ago.

Beneath the celebratory rhetoric about the coming "friction-free" economy is a ticking time bomb: the explosive idea that tens of millions of workers can be summed up, and shunted aside, as mere friction.

'Friction-Free' Economy Rhetoric Holds a Time Bomb
LA Times - January 1996

Amid all the rightful hand ringing about app addiction and data mongering, a crucial fact, hardly ever mentioned, is that tech moguls and investment bankers operate hand in glove. Goldman Sacks, JPMorgan, Morgan Stanley, were all rescued with Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) funds which they funneled into their Venture Capital investment arms. Then massive institutional retirement funds looking to recoup Great Recession shortfalls became their best customers. 


Goldman is so impressed with fintech, it is launching its own online lending operation. Venture capitalists invested $23.5 billion globally in fintech in the past two years, according to estimates by Santander, Oliver Wyman, and Anthemis Group: "Of this investment, 27% has been in consumer lending, 23% in payments and 16% in business lending," the researchers wrote in a recent report, adding: "Fintechs have two unique selling points: better use of data and frictionless customer experience."
Why Fintech Is One of the Most Promising Industries of 2015
Inc.5000 - Sept. 2015
The mutually beneficial relationship between tech and finance is too tangled and opaque to delve into here. Flash Boys, by Michael Lewis is a good introduction to the gaming mindset common to both camps. From a general public standpoint, though, the critical point to recognize is that Tech and FANG stocks in particular are the "virtual cloud" foundation of the Great Recession recovery. And this has been the only hope of solvency for too many institutional retirement funds. In spite of whatever arrogant havoc "move fast and break things" causes, their returns are too crucial to fail. 
Investing in the so-called FANG stocks over the past few years has been an unbeatable path to profits. Facebook (NASDAQ:FB), Amazon.com (NASDAQ:AMZN), Netflix (NASDAQ:NFLX), and Google parent Alphabet (NASDAQ:GOOG)(NASDAQ:GOOGL) have all resoundingly trounced the market indexes over the last three- and five-year periods.

Yet after social media giant Facebook has come under intense scrutiny for mishandling its user data and allowing it to be used by political consultancy Cambridge Analytica, some institutional investors are wondering if they should drop the platform as an investment, while the backlash swells.

With an average gain over the last five years of 290% compared to a 47% rise in the S&P 500, "de-fanging" the group by taking out Facebook is no small matter. The question individual investors must consider is if they should follow the path of institutional investors.

The Motley Fool - April 2018

Since it launched in 2006, repeated calls to regulate Facebook have resulted in nothing but hollow bluster, affirming the value of Zuckerberg's Succès de scandale - "no such thing as bad publicity" approach to PR. Well rehearsed apology tours are crafted to assure Facebook's own target audience, its advertisers and stockholders, that Zuckerberg really does have the gall to do whatever it takes to maximize profits. A cyberspace version of the revered American Robber Baron.

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Attracting Flies with Honey

1984, George Orwell's classic dystopian novel, shot to the top of Amazon's best seller list a year after the 2016 election. Phrases like "Fake News" and "Deep State", inflamed fear of insidious manipulation across the political spectrum and 1984 seemed to foreshadow our current state of engineered confusion.
As the novel’s hero, Winston Smith, sees it, the Party “told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears,” and he vows, early in the book, to defend “the obvious” and “the true”: “The solid world exists, its laws do not change. Stones are hard, water is wet, objects unsupported fall toward the earth’s center.” Freedom, he reminds himself, “is the freedom to say that two plus two make four,” even though the Party will force him to agree that “TWO AND TWO MAKE FIVE” — not unlike the way Mr. Spicer tried to insist that Mr. Trump’s inauguration crowd was “the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration,” despite data and photographs to the contrary.
Why ‘1984’ Is a 2017 Must-Read
New York Times - Jan 2017
Published in 1949 as an illustration of propaganda's oppressive power, Orwell's vision does not include the insight that there are much less coercive yet effective ways to exact obedience. But Edward Bernays, Freud's opportunist nephew cited at the beginning of this essay, was laying out the framework for just such an approach as early as 1928. Joseph Goebbels, Hitler's prime media man, even used Bernays' early work, Propaganda (1928) and Crystallizing Public Opinion (1923), as guidebooks. 

In 1947, a few years before Orwell's book was published, Bernays concluding that, "if you could use propaganda for war, you could certainly use it for peace...the conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society". He laid out his method for turning propaganda into marketing in a treatise called The Engineering of Consent.
FREEDOM of speech and its democratic corollary, a free press, have tacitly expanded our Bill of Rights to include the right of persuasion.

...the engineer of consent must create news. News is not an inanimate thing. It is the overt act that makes news, and news in turn shapes the attitudes and actions of people. A good criterion as to whether something is or is not news is whether the event juts out of the pattern of routine. The developing of events and circumstances that are not routine is one of the basic functions of the engineer of consent. Events so planned can be projected over the communication systems to infinitely more people than those actually participating, and such events vividly dramatize ideas for those who do not witness the events.

The imaginatively managed event can compete successfully with other events for attention. Newsworthy events, involving people, usually do not happen by accident. They are planned deliberately to accomplish a purpose, to influence our ideas and actions. Events may also be set up in chain reaction. By harnessing the energies of group leaders, the engineer of consent can stimulate them to set in motion activities of their own.
By demonstrating and documenting how the human psyche can be seamlessly hacked, Bernays distilled the essence of marketing. Through the foibles of our basic emotions - vanity; fear; insecurity; avarice; and even love - we can be unconsciously enticed to a particular end. Adopt a behavior, believe an opinion, purchase a product. It's a reality as old as human nature.

But Bernays also saw beyond the basic premise of manipulating emotion to achieve a desired result. He recognized the critical role of mass communication in the Jackpot VC Trifecta we now worship - Infection, Addiction, and Transmission.
...the expansion of the media of free speech and persuasion...provide open doors to the public mind. Any one of us through these media may influence the attitudes and actions of our fellow citizens.

The tremendous expansion of communications in the United States has given this Nation the world's most penetrating and effective apparatus for the transmission of ideas. Every resident is constantly exposed to the impact of our vast network of communications which reach every corner of the country, no matter how remote or isolated. Words hammer continually at the eyes and ears of America. The United States has become a small room in which a single whisper is magnified thousands of times.

Knowledge of how to use this enormous amplifying system becomes a matter of primary concern to those who are interested in socially constructive action.

...This web of communications, sometimes duplicating, crisscrossing, and overlapping, is a condition of fact, not theory. We must recognize the significance of modern communications not only as a highly organized mechanical web but as a potent force for social good or possible evil. We can determine whether this network shall be employed to its greatest extent for sound social ends.

For only by mastering the techniques of communication can leadership be exercised fruitfully in the vast complex that is modern democracy in the United States.

The Engineering of Consent

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Sharing Slick Secrets


“If I was down to my last dollar, I’d spend it on public relations”
- Bill Gates.
 


It seems safe to assume that Bill Gates is a Bernays devotee. And that he passed along lessons from Propaganda as he mentored the young Zuck. Certainly, Bernays' mention of an "enormous amplifying system" would have resonated with Zuckerberg's Network Effect research. So it's no surprise that the he concocted a rascally mashup of "Friction Free Capitalism" and Engineering Consent which he called "Frictionless Sharing".

It was introduced without warning, even to Facebook's tech partners. Many, such as Spotify, were harmfully impacted by it. Frictionless sharing resulted in massive amounts of unintended friction for Facebook. Even calls for an FTC probe. But it wasn't the threat of Federal regulation that got this disastrous feature removed. It was the simple fact that user interest was so low, it would probably never be profitable.

One year into its quest to get us to passively share everything with each other all the time, it's starting to sink in at Facebook that people aren't very interested in bringing radical transparency to their digital lives.
Frictionless Sharing Hits the Skids at Facebook
The Atlantic - Sept. 2012
As always, the negative flack just spurred Zuckerberg (by this point including Sheryl Sandberg) to take cover under another mea culpa PR blitz while contriving even more surreptitious means to ill-gotten gains. It's a "move fast and break things" business strategy built to circumvent any detrimental consequence for the company. To date, it has worked very well.

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Banking on a Redeemer


At the end of July 2018, I went to the Decentralized Web Summit hosted by the Internet Archive in San Francisco. My reasons for attending were personal. I wanted to meet Tim Berners Lee in real life. And I longed to be among others who understand the painful disappointment of the monetized Web. I am grateful for being at the summit - Thank You Internet Archive - but for me, it was a bittersweet experience.

The sweet note was Tim Berners-Lee who is, without question, one of the most unaffected people to walk the earth. Eternal cheers to Sir Tim. Shaking his hand was an unparalleled pleasure. The bitter pill, though, was the understated but pervasive awareness that, barring a propitious "Black Swan", we are probably beyond saving ourselves from the negative impacts of our addiction driven consumer economy.

By my judgement, attendees seemed clustered into roughly three camps: A disillusioned, mostly older and distinguished, group hoping to devise a benign antidote to the Corporate Net's silo engine. An edgy, mostly younger and risk seeking, section infatuated with various crypto-currency/blockchain pursuits. And a contrite, visibly anxious, few of Silicon Valley insurgents such as Tristan Harris who are sounding an alarm well summarized by this quote, "Profiting from the problem, these platforms won’t change on their own".


I am most closely aligned with the older, disillusioned generation, but there is a deep desire in me to co-opt Andy Grove's "Believe In The Internet More Than Ever" as a call to re-claim the early vision of a digital nirvana.

Through direct experience on my own YouTube channel, I know the miraculous wonder of being able, as a single unknown individual, to inspire and delight a global audience. But time does not rewind. And the consequences of today's dilemma are too dire and immediate to be dismissed by wistful fantasy. So where can we look for hope?

In a world that worships a "move fast and break things" fix, we've been programmed to turn to technology first. This Gizmodo review of "app usage tracking apps" illustrates the circular snare of tech solution marketing...using an app to manage the apps that are managing us. One called "Instant" even looks likely to increase overall screen time just to keep it configured.

Instant (Android and iOS—from $2/month)
If you want something to track your phone and app use across both Android and iOS devices, then Instant is the best option we’ve found—with the caveat we mentioned above, that iOS apps can only really track total phone time use, rather than looking at your time in individual apps. It also requires a premium subscription, costing $2 per month.


You get much more besides app and phone tracking though: Instant shows you every bit of data your phone can gather, including how much you’ve been sleeping, the places you’ve been visiting, how many steps you’re taking. All of this can be linked to reports and goals you can set yourself if you want to be spending less time on your mobile.

At a recent UX Meetup in Portland Oregon, I watched more than a hundred trend conscious tech designers review the latest batch of time tracking apps. As a demographic, the crowd was quite uniformly white, young, and well-educated. In critiquing an apps' features and utility, they considered only their own needs. The immense diversity of scenarios and challenges among general public users never came up.

This feedback was a tacit admission that such an app fix is only practical for those who are tech savvy and time privileged. Other users don't matter because the underlying objective of these apps is mainly to capitalize on "Disconnecting - The Next Big Thing in Tech". They must expect a significant ROI because even Arianna Huffington, the perpetual opportunist, has boarded the bandwagon with her Thrive Global, a so-called "wellness" brand. 

For the army of common gig workers in the "sharing" economy, though, the idea of going without an electronic leash - their mobile phone - is inconceivable. It is how they survive while Arianna "Thrives" on an Uber ride.

Then there is the fact that the vast majority of Facebook users are tech neophytes who commonly believe that Facebook is the Internet and they are not just in remote sectors of the globe. I have personally been astounded by the number of people I've met, often educated and in positions of authority, who say Facebook is the first and only Internet application they've ever used. These people won't be downloading a feature laden tacking app any time soon.

According to Internet World Stats, there are currently about 4.2 billion people who are connected to the internet. Facebook’s networks include WhatsApp and Instagram, and it has managed to pull more than half of the whole lot of us into using at least one of them. While most companies would be totally thrilled to have a user base larger than any nation on Earth, it’s important to remember that Zuckerberg isn’t even halfway to his goal of connecting everyone.

The trouble is, Zuckerberg makes it seem as though Facebook, with its already massive scale, is the internet. But that notion lets him off the hook for properly policing the thing he’s created because the internet has no master. It is its own ecosystem that requires decentralized control to function at its best. The tradeoff of decentralization is that there’s no one to blame for what a fucked up place the internet truly is. But Zuckerberg does not control the internet; he controls Facebook and all that comes with it. Until he begins to fully espouse the difference, he’ll continue to demand we just give him more time while he figures out how to clean up the messes his creation has made.

As Long as Mark Zuckerberg Thinks Facebook Is the Internet, He'll Never Be Sorry
Gizmodo - February 2019

Since details surfaced about the Cambridge Analytica data exposé, calls for tech industry regulation again began trending through media headlines, political chambers, and corporate boardrooms. There is something about regulation that rings of satisfaction and even slight revenge. It sounds like the obvious solution.

Call it a Bill of Rights for the internet.

Six months ago, Ms. Pelosi charged Ro Khanna — the Democratic representative whose California district is home to Apple, Intel and Yahoo — with the creation of that list. After consulting with think tanks like the Center for Democracy and Technology and big Silicon Valley companies like Apple, Google and Facebook, as well as some of tech’s biggest brains, like Nicole Wong and Tim Berners-Lee, he came up with a list of 10 principles that cover topics such as privacy, net neutrality and discrimination.

To set the table, let’s be clear that the tech industry has long operated nearly unfettered, aided by laws that have given its major companies broad immunity and an open plain on which to operate. The goal was to foster and encourage innovation. And like the pioneers who once set out for California to make their fortune, tech companies have thrived in that regulation-free landscape.

But it has become ever clearer with every misstep — including but not limited to Russian interference on social media platforms, the amplification of hate speech and fake news, and the misuse of personal information — that tech’s freedom has come at a steep price to the American people. If voters give her the chance, the once and perhaps future speaker of the House says she will lead a push to get the industry in line.

Introducing the Internet Bill of Rights
NY Times - October 2018
Given her political standing and connection to Silicon Valley, this was a move Nancy Pelosi had to make. As she says in the article, “Something needs to be done to protect the privacy of the American people and come up with overarching values”.


Such a complex conundrum had to be distilled for public consumption so Pelosi appointed an outstanding candidate for the task, Congressman Ro Khanna, of California’s 17th District which includes much of Silicon Valley. But as Kara Swisher, the author of the Times article above, goes on to ask, "will it be too little, too late?" From my perspective, the answer is yes.

Like the Wall Street/Silicon Valley mutual benefit pact, the story of government efforts to regulate corporations is a maze of dark alley deals leading to public welfare dead ends. Not something that can be covered with any depth here. But I do have some insights to offer about regulating the tech industry.

In general, tech heavily favors self-regulation. Their typical justification is fear of stifling innovation. If this sounds like a self-serving excuse, that's because it is. But smaller players do have a legitimate concern. The established giants will craft compliance standards that only they have the money and means to meet. Any general public outsider who believes that government agencies will determine these regulations should review the April 2018 congressional hearings where a confused Senator Lindsey Graham, among others, asked Zuckerberg to help write legislation in the future


From our current perspective of Russian election meddling, this opening tidbit from Zuckerberg's 2010 "Person of the Year" Time magazine award is a cautionary example of how tech celebrity can dazzle anyone.
[Context: Took place at Facebook during an FBI tour of Silicon Valley.]
The door opened, and a distinguished-looking gray-haired man burst in — it's the only way to describe his entrance — trailed by a couple of deputies. He was both the oldest person in the room by 20 years and the only one wearing a suit. He was in the building, he explained with the delighted air of a man about to secure ironclad bragging rights forever, and he just had to stop in and introduce himself to Zuckerberg: Robert Mueller, director of the FBI, pleased to meet you. They shook hands and chatted about nothing for a couple of minutes, and then Mueller left. There was a giddy silence while everybody just looked at one another as if to say, What the hell just happened?
PERSON OF THE YEAR 2010 - Mark Zuckerberg
Time Magazine - December 2010

Laws won't impede bad boy hackathon culture. It feeds on challenges. And Venture Capital rewards those who most brazenly circumvent the rules.


Antonio García Martínez’s “Chaos Monkeys: Obscene Fortune and Random Failure in Silicon Valley" is an insider view of the winner-take-all mindset that now has the power to manipulate nearly half the people on the planet. Martínez salutes his adversaries with this dedication, “To all my enemies: I could not have done it without you.” He then describes the virtues that it took to defeat them, "I was wholly devoid of most human boundaries or morality.” And finally his definition of a typical VC burning tech bro highlights the character that leads to success, “bomb-throwing anarchist subversive mixed with coldblooded execution mixed with irreverent whimsy, a sort of ­technology-enabled 12-year-old boy.” In short, regulation will not be our savior.

Barring an irreparable collapse of the so-called "cloud" infrastructure, we are, in fact, on a relentless trajectory toward tech infiltration in every facet of life. As legislative brows furrow in Washington over "concerns" about data abuse, shiny new bobbles are teasing us with the next awesome ways to give it away. We may be wary of tech at the moment, but look! A fast approaching 5G Network promises to deliver the "new cellular system that will potentially transform our world".

This 5 gigabyte tsunami of silent intrusion has an ideal emotion-fueled vehicle waiting to drive it even into our flesh and bones: The Internet of Things(IoT) for healthcare. Implanted, network dependent medical devices such as pacemakers, defibrillators, infusion pumps, and glucose monitors are previews of how the medical needs of an expensive, unwieldy bulge of baby boomers will be provided and even welcomed.


At this point, Jeff Bezos is positioned to be the primary profiteer of digital health. I'll discuss this in a future post about Amazon. For now, just note that Amazon's penetration into private homes is a made-to-order interface into its real profit center, Amazon Web Services (AWS) which happens to manage data for Healthcare.gov, Medicare, Medicaid... In fact, Amazon's AWS Cloud Computing Services should be recognized as the Official Information Technology Department of the United States Government. In April 2018, Bezos singled out AWS as a big contributor to its jump in profit and “remarkable acceleration” in growth. Without realizing it, US taxpayers are responsible for making Jeff Bezos the richest person on earth.
Amazon’s biggest move into healthcare thus far has been through Amazon Web Services, its highly successful business unit that offers other companies and government agencies data storage and computing capacity. Since 2014 Amazon Web Services has provided cloud computing and network support services to Healthcare.gov, the health insurance e-commerce network operated by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, a division of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Under a multiyear contract Amazon Web Services has with the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, Amazon has built several e-commerce programs that have enabled millions of consumers to comparison shop and purchase health insurance on Healthcare.gov. Those tools include building an identity management system, a feature for comparing insurance plans, and a tool to determine eligibility for specific plans based on a consumer’s income and other variables.

Amazon Web Services, which generated revenue of $12.21 billion in 2016, or 9% of Amazon’s total revenue of $135.98 billion, has nearly three dozen publicly named big healthcare clients. They include such health systems as Cleveland Clinic and Intermountain Healthcare, and health insurers such as Oscar Healthcare. For the Cleveland Clinic, Amazon Web Services helped to develop the Healthy Brains Initiative, which gives patients and neurologists a way to enter and analyze information about conditions and activities that affect brain health. For Intermountain, Amazon Web Services worked with oncologists across the U.S. to deliver precision medicine to cancer patients, while Oscar uses AWS to run its insurance platform, customer databases, and analytics program.

But the move with Cerner gives Amazon more direct access to the biggest hospitals and health systems that use Cerner’s electronic health records system. About one-fifth of the U.S. hospital market, about 1,029 organizations, use Cerner health records system.

“Prior press reports indicated Amazon was selectively looking to enter certain healthcare information technology markets via its 1492 project, including electronic health records and as such we are encouraged by this broader partnership between Amazon and Cerner,” Gilmore says. “It’s better to be aligned with Amazon vs. being disrupted.” (emphasis taken from original)

Cerner Deal is a Sign Amazon Has Big Plans for Healthcare
Digital Commerce 360 - November 2017

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Reflection as a Remedy

There are no quick fixes for this mess. But there are ways to help amplify improvements through individual initiative. 

Tristan Harris, mentioned earlier in reference to the Decentralized Web Conference, may be Silicon Valley's best known tech reform agitator. His work on behalf of The Center for Humane Technology, educating both his peers and the public about the industry's surreptitious attention-extraction business model, is urgent, tireless and underscored by genuine remorse for his own culpability as a Design Ethicist at Google.

Though his message is burdened by the reality of Silicon Valley's ceaseless profit mongering, it nonetheless is moving our attention compass toward the most significant step in any recovery program, to first recognize and admit there is a problem.





As Harris emphasizes in the video above, it is our own nature that provides the platform for deception and manipulation to succeed. Through understanding and accepting our own motivations, we may free ourselves from ourselves. The lessons that lead to self-knowledge are as old as contemplation.

Ro Kahanna touches on this insight near the end of an interview/podcast when he notes the need for developing technology within a humanities framework of ethics and sensibilities.

It’s human judgment to shape these platforms and that’s why ultimately, I still believe in the liberal arts and humanities. And in a role for the humanities. I think what technology and technology leaders should recognize is there’s room for art and poetry and philosophy — and not just room, but a necessity for that.

To have some sense of how it impacts people. And to understand that ultimately those values are what drive humanity forward. That creating these platforms are extraordinarily beneficial if they are guided by the right values.

Silicon Valley Congressman Ro Kahanna Explains The Internet Bill of Rights
Recode Decode with Kara Swisher - Oct 2018
A privileged education is not the only way to access the benefit of the humanities. Resources are available in public libraries and are as vast as the Internet itself. A humanities informed worldview encourages thoughtful judgement through comparison, analysis, and connection. As an effective defense against manipulation, it provides a time-tested compass for navigating the subtle power of human communication and how it shapes our lives. Tim Wu's book, The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads is an excellent introduction to the covert influence of marketing and advertising in our "free will" capitalist world.
[From the chapter: Peak Attention, American Style]
Launched in 1955, the Marlboro Man campaign was...among the most astonishing campaigns in the history of demand engineering...upon the cowboy's appearance, Marlboro went from a mere 1 percent of sales to become the fourth bestselling brand in the United States within a year; its sales increased by an astonishing 3,000 percent over that time.

...advertising was proving that it could project not only "reasons why" but whole mythologies; it was naturally suited to things of the spirit...If ideas of appealing to unconscious desires were once merely in the air, now an array of firms run by professional psychologists offered "motivation research," aimed at the deepest human desires...as one reporter put it in 1959, "The difference between an ad man and a behavioral scientist became only a matter of degree."

Among the most outspoken, highly paid, and controversial of the new commercial psychologists was Ernest Dichter-"Mr. Mass Motivations," as he was sometimes known. A Freudian from Austria, Dichter made his name and fortune as an advisor to companies with marketing problems.

Dichter was...blunt about the purpose of advertising. It was never merely to inform but existed to "manipulate human motivations and desires and develop a need for goods with which the public has at one time been unfamiliar-perhaps even un-desirous of purchasing." His research was conducted through intense, psychotherapy-like sessions with consumers-usually housewives-sometimes several together, which he was the first to call a "focus group." His analysis rarely failed to uncover deep associations, sexual or otherwise, explaining why consumers bought the things they did.

The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads
Tim Wu - Knopf 2016
A more realistic twist on the once trending, "code or be coded", mantra could be "manipulate or be manipulated". Computer code itself is amoral, indifferent to questions of right or wrong. On the other hand, those who specify the objectives to accomplish with code, such as targeted marketing, are not. By the time Zuckerberg was facemashing up his psychology and computer science training at Harvard, the advertising industry was primed and ready for him.
...he understands a remarkable amount about other people. Sometimes it seems like the understanding of an alien anthropologist studying earthlings, but it's real. "In college I was a psychology major at the same time as being a computer-science major," he says. "I say that fairly frequently, and people can't understand it. It's like, obviously I'm a CS person! But I was always interested in how those two things combined. For me, computers were always just a way to build good stuff, not like an end in itself."
Mark Zuckerberg - Person of the Year
Time Magazine - December 2010
Among Zuckerberg apologists - usually former mentors and current stockholders - a popular excuse for his unethical behavior is that the poor boy was simply deprived of a humanities education. And for some reason, Phillips Exeter Academy and Harvard University, two of the country's oldest and most elite academic institutions, seem to be OK with that. 

But even if the Zuck did happen to pick up a few stray Exeter/Harvard credit hours in history, literature, and philosophy - his professed obsession with Augustus Caesar suggests he probably did - this is no guarantee of an ethical character outcome. A humanities/liberal arts education does not by default create good behavior. In fact, the subtlest manipulators are usually well-schooled in ways to persuade others. There is no better proof of that than the Catholic Church.


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Reverse Engineering Consent

In the wake of Cambridge Analytica's whodunit, #DeleteFacebook was trending so hot even Elon Musk grabbed a spotlight to confess his FB "willies"


I've personally wasted too much time on Google's many social media failures (Orkut, Dodgeball, Friend Connect, Lively, Latitude, Wave, Buzz, Google+) and too much hope on hopeless, even tragic, open source options such as Diaspora to expect that Facebook will be usurped any time soon. By design, it's too enmeshed with everyday life for most users to abruptly cut it off. 

So for those squirming with their own FB "willies" but unready to leap into "delete", I suggest turning Facebook into its own aversion therapy. The power of pure disgust may free you from the Emperor King of Chaos Monkeys. Here is the basic recipe. 

Begin by researching Edward Bernays.
Often called the Father of Spin, this is also the title of Larry Tye's biography of Bernays which includes historical insights about how his influence continues to shape our consumer culture.

In addition, Bernays donated all of his writing to the public domain so it is available for free. Much of it can be found by searching the Internet Archive. Here are two of his most cited works, Propaganda and The Engineering of Consent. For a quick overview of his life, go to the Edward Bernays Wikipedia entry.


Become savvy about influence.
Notice words and phrases that are used a lot and research their meaning. Repetition "brands" them in our minds for a reason. Take one of Zuck's favorite words "sharing", for example.

Dictionary.com says that the new "digital technology" definition is to give specific users access to online content. But it also includes the ethically nuanced understanding that culture has infused in us since birth: to divide and distribute in shares; to divide, apportion, or receive equally.

Sharing implies goodness. Human history has loaded powerful emotional expectation in this word even before the added overlays of context, tone, and interpretation. From wanting to be liked, to fear of appearing selfish, we have an ingrained motivation to share.

With the benefit of technology, Zuckerberg uses this automatic cultural pressure to maximize an unprecedented degree of targeted marketing leverage. Turn your attention inward for insights about your own reaction.



Contemplate the roots of reaction.
Browse Facebook pages with an objective curiosity. Notice patterns in the posts and comments, from the warm fuzzy "heart" warmers to the flaming ones in ALL CAPS. See that multiple exclamation points (!!!...) are commonplace and recognize them as personal campaigns for acknowledgement and attention. Reflect on the fact that this "sharing" is being engineered to feed a dependence that generates unchecked profit.



Trust (but verify) your feelings.
Gut instinct, pattern matching, spidey sense, whatever you want to call it, when "willies" begin to squirm, there is probably good reason. Evaluate your own skill at recognizing manipulation by becoming your own User Experience counsel. 


As an illustration, apply your evaluation skills to Mr. Zuckerberg's Facebook post entitled, Bringing the World Closer Together, a text version of his speech at the "first ever Facebook Community Summit!".

[reference excerpts from the speech]
Before we get started, I want to introduce myself. I'm Mark, and I'm a member of the Zuckerberg family group. I'm also a member of Max's Circle, which is like our family group except we all just share cute photos of my daughter doing ridiculous things.

...I'm a member of five groups for people who like the same kind of dog. That's my dog. His name is Beast. He's a Puli. He's basically a walking mop, except he makes things dirtier, not cleaner. And it turns out there are thousands of dogs just like him.

...You see, we're all here trying to do the most good for our communities with what we've been given. We know how lucky we are and how much we owe it to our communities to give back...And today I want to share with you that we're close to a milestone for our community.

...Our full mission statement is: give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together. That reflects that we can't do this ourselves, but only by empowering people to build communities and bring people together.

...Today we're going to talk about two parts of our product roadmap focused on building "Meaningful Communities".

...Online communities strengthen physical communities by helping people come together online as well as offline, even across great distances.

So I started asking the question: if 2 billion people use Facebook, then how come we've only helped 100 million of them join meaningful communities?

Well, it turns out most people don't seek out communities in the physical world or online. Either your friends invite you or on Facebook we suggest them for you. So we started a project to see if we could get better at suggesting groups that will be meaningful to you. We started building artificial intelligence to do this. And it works! In the first 6 months, we helped 50% more people join meaningful communities. And there's a lot more to do here.

So now we're setting a goal -- to help one billion people join meaningful communities. If we can do this, it will not only turn around the whole decline in community membership we've seen for decades, it will start to strengthen our social fabric and bring the world closer together.


Now equipped with some relevant research, read through the speech with an objective curiosity. Note the word repetition and the approachable "ordinary guy" tone. Observe the course of the speech - how it opens and closes with inspiring personal anecdotes - how these mute a hard core center of global growth objectives aided by Artificial Intelligence - how the promise of shared success becomes an enchanting inevitable result. Understand that this message was meticulously crafted to achieve a specific effect.

Reflect on your reactions. Explore them for insights about motivations. Whether you eventually #DeleteFacebook, just spend much less time with it, or even decide to go deeper into its rabbit hole for the sake of experience, you'll be better attuned to the willies of manipulation, a skill which is just as valuable in real life as it is online.

What happens next is anybody's guess. As Doris Day once counseled my generation (and Samsung cleverly revived in a recent commercial), "Whatever will be, will be. The future's not ours to see." Even Mr. Zuckerberg admitted a note of uncertainty in his speech with the line, "When you bring people together, you never know where it will lead".

Perhaps technology's most significant achievement will be to confront us with the truths of our own human nature.

Thank you for your time and attention.
"Life is the Ultimate UX"