The problems of social media aren’t just technology challenges, they’re social challenges

David Adams, the founder and publisher of OSNews discusses the cyclical nature of technology and the implications of computing’s return to the network
Photo Illustration: ThisisEngineering RAEng/Unsplash

Episode Summary

We don’t think enough about just how much our lives have changed because of technology. If you’re a millennial or older, chances are you can remember a time when payphones existed, everyone went to the movie theater, and lots of people didn’t have an email address.

A lot has changed for us along the way. The technology world itself has changed a lot from those early days in the late 90s as well. It’s worth taking stock of what happened over years, not just to remember how things were, but how what went before is impacting us today and will be in the future. And that’s because, just like history, technology doesn’t repeat itself, but it sure does rhyme.

In this episode, we’re featuring David Adams, he’s the founder and publisher of OSNews.com, a publication that covers larger technology and platform trends. He’s also the chief product officer at Equiem, a software company that serves the commercial real estate market.

The video of our conversation is below. A transcript of the edited audio is below.


Transcript

MATTHEW SHEFFIELD: Thanks for being here, David.

DAVID ADAMS: Hello. Thank you.

SHEFFIELD: So, this is a big topic, but I wanted to, for those who haven’t heard of OSNews, let’s just talk a little about what OSNews is. It’s one of the first technology publications out there, you started in 1997, right?

ADAMS: Yeah. When we started OSNews, I had already been a very early computer user and enthusiast, and, in the mid to late nineties, there were some very exciting things happening with technology. the.com boom was just getting going. But the personal computing space was a little dismal because Microsoft was ascendant and they were consolidating their hold on the personal computer.

Apple was at its lowest point. And it was not even certain whether it was going to survive. And a lot of the interesting things that have happened over the past decades with Linux and with mobile computing were really just in their earliest stages. And so, I started OSNews as a way of tracking, and I guess in a way, even championing some of these trends that looked to make the computing space more vibrant and more competitive and more interesting.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. And I think that moment for Apple, it’s something that a lot of people, it’s like they never heard of it, or they don’t remember it at the time, but I think it was a really interesting moment because, in the nineties they were pushing their original MacOS operating system and computers, and they were just, it was totally obsolete. And Microsoft had come out with Windows 95 and, it had some problems, but it was a lot more stable. And they came out with Windows NT actually before that, and then plopped on Windows 95 onto it, the shell.

And they were just totally crushing Apple and Apple really had nothing to offer business computer users, people who needed their computers not to crash. Even that’s a thing that’s changed substantially in the past 20, some odd years. That, people forget that in the early days, computers crashed all the time.

ADAMS: Yeah. It’s much, much less likely now that you’re going to be working on an important term paper for school and your computer is going to crash and you’re going to lose all your work. (laughter)

SHEFFIELD: I know you can’t use it as an excuse anymore. (laughter)

ADAMS: But yeah. Apple, the truth is both Microsoft and Apple in the early nineties had operating systems that weren’t particularly stable. But Microsoft in, in late nineties was, had had a lot more to work with as far as a war chest, and they muddled through and were able to transform Windows, something that was pretty lousy, into something that was pretty good, just by throwing resources at it.

And the Apple on the other hand, had made an attempt at designing its own modern operating system which was codenamed Copeland and that project failed. And a former Apple executive, Jean-Louis Gassée, had started an upstart operating system company called Be, and they made the BeOS was quite exciting and modern, and they were actually making a play to be acquired by Apple, and have that operating system be the basis for Apple’s new operating system. And then out of nowhere, Steve Jobs comes back, riding a white horse practically. And—

SHEFFIELD: Because Steve Jobs was fired from Apple.

ADAMS: He had been fired by Apple’s CEO for being an asshole, which he was.

But in the meantime, he had started a couple of other companies. One of them was Pixar Animation Studios, which was, which ended up being very successful. And the other one was NeXT, which built a new operating system based on an old operating system. So they had taken a version of Unix that— and Unix was a very stable, sort of enterprise-grade operating system that had been around for a couple of decades, and had a few sort of academic forks. So there were some commercial versions. Most of the big tech firms, AT&T, Hewlett-Packard, Digital, they all had versions of Unix that they used on, on, on their big servers.

But hobbyists and academics had taken up some, had made some versions of Unix and Steve Jobs had used one of those as the basis for the NeXT computer that he developed. And when Apple acquired NeXT, brought Steve Jobs back, they decided that technology that they built for NeXT, which was built on really an old and somewhat crusty operating system— but the interesting thing is that those origins, those Unix origins, are what the modern Apple MacOS are built on and also, the Linux operating system also comes from some of those same origins.

And that’s what Android is built on. So the interesting thing about what’s happened in the operating system world in the past 30 years is that an operating system sort of kernel, that was already old by then, is still kicking around and a lot of our most modern high-tech devices—

SHEFFIELD: Yeah, and that strategy though, for bringing NeXT and Steve Jobs back, it was a take two strategy though for Apple, because they also were trying to do that earlier on their own with A/UX, Apple Unix. And unfortunately, it was an abortive project that never really got anywhere, but it’s fascinating as a museum piece, having anybody’s interested and checking that out. I’ll put some, I’ll put a link.

There’s a guy out there named Nathan Lineback who has a website called the GUI graphical user interface, GUI Gallery. And he has information on all kinds of historic operating systems and shows you what they look like. So it’s a fun, it’s a fun site if you are into computing history. So I’ll put a link to that.

But yeah, you’re right. That is a great example, as you said, about how technology, people think of it as, just always moving forward in one direction always and never looking backward, but that really isn’t how it works. Even Windows itself, Windows NT, which is the basis of all current versions of Windows, owes a lot to VMS, which is another operating system from the seventies.

ADAMS: A competitor to Unix, actually. When I first Became familiar with the internet as the administrator of a Gopher server, Gopher was a pre-World wide web internet protocol for sharing text-based data that was on a VMS server. So, I learned how to do file management and navigate in a VMS system back in the early nineties.

We’re in a situation now where we have a lot of good operating systems to choose from. Windows has become very good. And I think the MacOS has become very good, and Linux has become a really— you don’t have to be nearly as much of a geek to use a Linux desktop, or laptop, like maybe you would have had to be 20 years ago.

Android, iOS— we’ve got we’ve got a lot of capable platforms for operating computing devices. And so many of the things that were frustrating back in the olden days, back in the bad old days, having an operating system that wasn’t stable, very safe, having operating systems that were too incompatible with one another. And having hardware that was too slow, or too heavy, or too small, or whatever—

SHEFFIELD: Too expensive,

ADAMS: Too expensive, so many of those problems have gone away, and we have this embarrassment of riches of fantastic computing devices to use.

Now, the problems are a little bit more subtle, and they have a lot more to do with the fact that the operating system itself, and the device, and the operating system working in concert together, it’s no longer the dominant paradigm for computers.

Because the operating systems now are increasingly dependent on services that are related to them. There’s an ecosystem component to personal and business computing that is new and the strength of these ecosystems and the sort of lock-in and the control that the vendors of these ecosystems is becoming more and more important to everybody’s daily computing existence.

And it’s almost to the point where you can have great hardware that’s running great software, but increasingly, you’re limited in what you can actually do with these devices— the permission that you have from that ecosystem’s owner that dictates how you can operate.

SHEFFIELD: We’ll explore that further, but I think this has always been a dynamic in computing. One of the things that was instrumental in Microsoft’s early success was that they were very developer friendly. So people who wanted to make software, they didn’t charge you for development tools, or they charged much lower prices. So if you wanted to become a computer programmer in the eighties or the nineties, there were other companies out there that sold programming languages, compilers, but they were expensive, and Microsoft stuff wasn’t. And it was in some cases free, it was very well-documented.

And so, that was a huge part of why they succeeded. But then I would say you could even go back to look at really the first mass market computers for people were the early home arcade systems, the Ataris, the Intellivision, ColecoVision, and all of those. This problem keeps manifesting itself over and over in terms of that openness for the longest time, openness in terms of a platform vendor was an advantage that you could have. But now, things have become so big and so massive, that the openness is now becoming a disadvantage for some people and some companies, I would say.

ADAMS: The downside to openness from the point of view of a consumer is the amount of chaos that it can potentially bring into your user experience.

So, one other reason why Apple computers have typically been a little bit more friendly for consumers to use, is the fact that the ecosystem is more controlled. The computers are only made by one vendor, there’s a limited number of hardware components inside those computers that you need special device drivers for. And so, the likelihood that you’re going to plug in a new device to your computer, or that you’re going to install a new program and that it’s going to cause some other component of the system to break down, that’s always been less of a danger on an Apple computer than it has been on a Windows computer.

And that’s mostly because the Windows computer, the Intel platform is open to hundreds, thousands, hundreds of thousands of different hardware suppliers that are all providing computer components that you can use. And the Windows operating system is set up to support all of them.

And so, you’ll install a video card, or you’ll install a Bluetooth card or something like that in your computer and sometimes it’ll just work. Other times you might have to go and download a device driver or something, and you can run into lots of different troubles. Things can go wrong because there’s so many different moving parts that are controlled by different people.

So that’s been the traditional downside of the more open platform, sometimes it can be a little bit less user-friendly, it can be a little bit less tolerant. But the other downside to the more open platform is malicious actors can take advantage of the openness in order to, in order to create malware that you can accidentally install on your machines.

More open platforms have a bigger surface for attack. And it’s astounding. There’s a sub economy out there of scammers and thieves and ne’er do wells that are out there, trying to steal your money trying to trick you into doing things that you shouldn’t do.

And one of the reasons that consumers have gravitated toward, or have begrudgingly accepted the limitations of a more closed ecosystem for their computing devices, is that it does provide you with a level of safety. It is much, much harder to end up installing something onto your iPhone that’s going to, that’s going to harm you, or is going to harm your platform in some way, than it is on a Windows PC.

SHEFFIELD: Or Android even.

ADAMS: Or Android. And that’s because Apple has both designed their operating system and has this very controlled ecosystem for apps in the app store that it just makes it, it makes it harder to develop a malware app and actually get it through the controls to where somebody can go and install it on their iOS device.

SHEFFIELD: So the advantage of a closed ecosystem, some people have really seen it as that. But open or closed in any case, an ecosystem, your computing ecosystem. The rise of ecosystem computing that really took a negative impact on companies trying to enter the market. First, we could see that with the smartphones where you had multiple different vendors have now, with lots and lots of money, have tried to get into the mobile space and tried and failed.

Blackberry tried to revamp their antique operating system and come out with a new one, and that went nowhere. And you had Microsoft did two different, or actually three, different attempts at that. And even they couldn’t pull it off.

ADAMS: Yeah, and then you had Nokia that absolutely dominated cell phones in the eighties and early nineties. They made some very good smartphone operating system moves, but weren’t able to really penetrate.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. And then you had Palm tried to reconfigure itself, and couldn’t do it. I still have a soft spot in my heart for webOS, although the screens on those things were so small, people just couldn’t take it (laughs) and the keyboards were as well.

But the thing that they all lacked, it wasn’t that they didn’t have good hardware necessarily. Like in the case of the Nokia devices, they had some great hardware and the Microsoft devices, were using the exact same chips and screens and processors as the Android ones.

But they didn’t have, they didn’t have the developer mindshare and they couldn’t build the ecosystem on their own and—

ADAMS: Yeah.

SHEFFIELD: It collapsed.

ADAMS: It’s all about the apps. And it’s about whether the third party apps that consumers want are going to be available on that platform. I mean, that was the thing that almost killed Apple in the nineties.

SHEFFIELD: It was actually Microsoft that saved them, ironically.

ADAMS: Yeah. I think the thing that almost killed Apple in the nineties was that app developers looked at the cost of developing a Windows version and a Mac version of their app. And they increasingly said: ‘Eh, maybe we’ll just get by with a Windows version.’ And so, the apps that you wanted to use weren’t always available on the Mac.

And if they were, sometimes they weren’t that good. And you’re absolutely right. One of the things that saved the Mac platform was Microsoft supporting the Mac with Microsoft office, which was always, and continues to be one of the most important apps or suite of apps in the personal computer. And—

SHEFFIELD: Well, they also gave them money too, if you remember.

ADAMS: And made an investment. And it wasn’t out of the goodness of Bill Gates’s heart. It was because Microsoft was under an incredible amount of antitrust scrutiny at the time. And they’re like: ‘Okay, if we can keep a weakened Apple on life support, then that’s gonna keep us from getting broken up by the government.

And it worked, it got the feds off of Microsoft’s case. And it enabled Apple to become one of the most valuable and successful companies of all time. But Microsoft is also as big and as profitable as it ever has been. So it worked out for both of them.

The thing that ended up really saving Apple though, was a combination of a re-invigorated MacOS market. After Steve Jobs came back, they made the operating system better. They had some very appealing computer designs that really resonated with people, like the iMac and the PowerBooks, the MacBooks, that started getting really good. So when their platform ended up being invigorated, then that brought the app developers back. And so you no longer had to make that terrible decision: ‘Oh, if I’m going to use this platform, are there going to be apps?’

SHEFFIELD: And then also, yeah, sorry. Also it did, by basing it on Unix, it also made them compatible with a lot more software then they had.

ADAMS: Yeah, that’s right. But, honestly, I think the thing that was probably more important than that, not only for the reinvigoration of the Mac— but also that allowed the new mobile operating systems to rise up both from Apple and Android and allowed Linux to become more relevant as an everyday personal computer platform— was that native apps for PCs became less important with the rise of the internet, with the rise of software as a service. It used to be that, if you wanted to run a spreadsheet, then you better be running an operating system that you can run a spreadsheet on. Nowadays, if you want a spreadsheet, you can sign up for innumerable different web-based spreadsheets, from Google Sheets to, lots of others.

And you don’t have to install spreadsheet software on your computer at all. You could run it in the cloud. And even a lot of the everyday apps that we run on our computers, the actual app that you install on your system is really just a frame, it’s a framework around which a web service runs.

So for example, if you’re running Slack— a lot of people in the business world are running Slack, they have it open all day. They’re using it for chatting with their business colleagues. You can install an app for Slack on your computer, or you can run it through your browser. But if you install the Slack app, it’s basically just a little web browser that the Slack service runs on. And so it’s much less— running apps natively on your device, it’s less common, it’s less important than it used to be. Because so many of these services are really, they’re a hybrid service. They run on your device, but they wouldn’t operate at all without being connected to the cloud-based software as a service framework upon which the entire thing is dependent.

That’s a blessing, that’s a blessing and a curse, because it does actually make it easier for you to run the software that you want to do without paying that much attention to which computer you’re using or which operating system it’s running on. But again, it’s putting a lot of power into the vendor of that software.

For example, if Slack were to cease existing, if they were to stop running their services, it wouldn’t work anymore. Just because you paid for it and had it installed on your computer, it wouldn’t do anything. And a lot of our software is like that. Microsoft, now they still do have old-fashioned versions of Word, and PowerPoint, and Excel that will run on a computer that’s not connected to the internet, but increasingly people are running the versions of those apps on the cloud and, there’s benefits to it. But, there’s also costs and dangers and it puts a lot more power, it puts a lot more power on the vendor to gatekeep your control of it. And to surveil you. It gives them a lot of power to data mine your everyday activity and use that to to sell advertising.

SHEFFIELD: Or do other things.

And then also, this network dependency, people don’t often think about computing history or technology history as being something that exists, or is even worth existing if they might think of it. But if I somehow got my hands on— we were talking about an Apple Newton before on the pre-show here. If I go and go downstairs and get my Apple Newton, which I have, and put some batteries in and turn it on. I can still use that software. I can transport myself back to the mid nineties in that system and see how it really was, to see how people used things at that moment.

But, let’s say 30 years from now and somebody, let’s say they read a novel where somebody mentions Slack, or somebody mentions Twitter, or something. And those things don’t exist. There is no way for a person in the future to experience something the way that it was.

ADAMS: You can a lot go back and use America Online like it was in 1996. Can’t be done.

SHEFFIELD: That’s right, yeah.

ADAMS: It’s lost. It’s lost in the ether.

SHEFFIELD: It is. And for companies that are large enough to afford it, I think that’s something that they should, all of them, should be keeping in mind to try to preserve a historical record for the future societies so that people can see how things were. Because as we become more network dependent on our computing needs, this is a history that’s being lost in a sense. And it’s worth remarking that.

ADAMS: Yeah. Yeah. It occurs to me, you said something to the effect of everything old is new again, it occurs to me that, in a way, we have come full circle with the computing user experience, because for the first couple of decades of computers, the computer was a giant appliance that was installed in some data center somewhere.

And you would access it via some kind of a terminal, and multiple people would access the same computer. And that’s how computers were. One of the reasons why Bill Gates became Bill Gates, was because he came from a relatively privileged family. And he, as a young person, actually had access to a computer. He had access to a computer terminal, like during off hours. And that enabled him to learn how to be a programmer. And at that time, it was very, very difficult to get yourself, as a young person, into a circumstance where you had access to a computer and you could learn to program. So he was in a very small priesthood of people that was able to have that knowledge that enabled him to be successful.

And so, in the eighties, this era of the personal computer emerged where you could have your own computer on your table, and you would have exclusive access to that computer. And that was amazing. But people realized that one of the advantages of the computer, the previous sort of shared notion of computers, was that there was actually some benefits to sharing a single computer with multiple people. You could send messages to them. You could send them an email back in the seventies. You could send emails to other people that were on the same computer system as you. And that was handy, because you didn’t have to walk over to the other building where they were in. And you could you could set up communities, and you could chat with people.

And so now, we had the situation in the eighties where you have personal computers and you can do certain things on those computers. You can play games by yourself, you can write, you can do word processing by yourself. You can use the spreadsheet by yourself, but it didn’t take people long to realize: ‘Wow, we’ve lost something.’

And so didn’t take long for people to start hooking those personal computers up to networks. And at first, a lot of these were private networks in offices, or they were private networks like CompuServe, and eventually America Online. And then eventually putting personal computers on the internet which— that was the thing that, that really made personal computers relevant for the masses.

It was the combination of having the capabilities of the personal computer, plus the communication abilities of the network. And from there, it was about taking that, the magic of those two things and going through iterations of improvement where the computers are getting better, the computers are getting easier to use. They’re getting smaller, they’re getting less expensive. Eventually they’re getting smaller and smaller until you can hold them in your hand. And you’ve got wireless networking and all of these other things.

But it really has just been a progression, an uninterrupted progression of gradual improvements that have gotten us from there to here.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah, it was, it was a regression to the network. A return to the mother in a sense you could argue. And a lot of the dynamics that exist now with social media and disinformation, and trolling, and abusive behavior. These are problems that, they existed in the eighties.

To this day, there is a— people who are into computing know about it— but most people don’t know about there’s this protocol called Internet Relay Chat, IRC, and that’s based on technologies that date to 1988. And then there were things that go back earlier, this idea of multi-user chats and things like that.

So, at the same time though, that the mass return to the network took place because the worldwide web was open standards-based. It was based on protocols that were public information that were a hundred percent documented. And did not require you to have a license, did not require you to have permission. And you could use them. And that really set up this explosion of activity, businesses, nonprofits everybody, threw up a website in the nineties. We were both there. I made my first website in 1996. I was in college at the time. One of the first student newspaper websites out there, college paper websites at the University of Missouri, Kansas City. And we saw so much promise in all this openness, everybody who was there. I’m sure you, you probably did as well.

ADAMS: This dichotomy between the promises of openness, and the dangers of openness have always existed. And I’m going to tell a little bit of an anecdote. So when I first started using the internet, this was pre-web, so been like 1993, 94. One of the things that I really liked to do was to go onto newsgroups, and you could buy and sell things on newsgroups. So they had newsgroups that were,alt.forsale.something, right? And you could go on there. And it was basically Craigslist before there was Craigslist.

And I would go on and buy some parts for my mountain bike, or I would buy some computer components from people. It was, it was like eBay, people selling things to one another. But unlike eBay, there was no PayPal, and people didn’t take credit cards.

And what was pretty common would be that somebody would mail you something through the mail. And if you got it, then you would send them a check. And the network was built on trust, but it wasn’t actually a hundred percent trust, because one of the hallmarks of using the internet prior to dot-com boom, was that there, there actually, wasn’t a huge amount of anonymity on the internet back then, because you usually got your access to the internet through an institution.

So when I bought a pair of pedals for my mountain bike from a guy in Boston, I knew who he was. He was a professor at MIT. It was right there in his email address. And so if that professor at MIT, if I sold something to a professor at MIT and he didn’t give me the money, I could call up MIT and be like: ‘Hey, do you know, you have a guy who’s like stealing stuff on the internet from people?’

And so the fact that there was a lack of anonymity and there were institutions involved that had their own— people had their own reputation to consider when they were interacting with people on the internet, actually prevented a huge amount of abuse that happened once everybody started joining the internet. And once people got much more anonymous.

Now, there is a lot more abuse. And so now you’re seeing— and again, we’re coming back full circle— we’re seeing that one of the ways that we can prevent abuse is by getting rid of anonymity and getting institutions involved that are going to act as some sort of gatekeeper, or that are going to act as some sort of a break on certain types of abuses.

So if you’re not playing nice on the internet, there’s some authority that’s going to shut you down. And in some ways that would be like going back to what I consider the good old days, because it was just a much, was a much smaller group of people that interacted with each other in a more collegial manner.

But I think that we would consider losing the freedom, losing the freedom to be anonymous. It’s not necessarily a good thing. So there’s always this tension between the freedom and openness. The costs that we pay for existing in this free and open environment. And the cost is fraud. The cost is malware. The cost is bullying and abuse. People being able to say what they want with impunity. It has its positives and it has its negatives. Spreading misinformation.

And there’s no easy answer. There are some powerful entities out there that have incentives to try to promote themselves as being the authorities that ought to be in charge of fixing this: Apple, Google, Facebook, the U.S. government, the European Union.

SHEFFIELD: The Chinese government.

ADAMS: The Chinese government, they’ve got their ideas about what to do, and it has a lot to do with locking things down and putting themselves up as the gatekeepers. And the truth is, all of these players, they want to promote themselves as the natural gatekeepers, as the natural provider of solutions to these various social ills that are coming from the openness.

But we have to be extremely skeptical about what it is that they propose. What’s their angle? Apple’s angle for being the arbiter of it is that—

SHEFFIELD: Before you get into it though, maybe just say what you’re referring to before you talk about why they’re doing it. So what are they doing? Just for people who don’t know.

ADAMS: So when it comes to the big tech firms, a lot of their idea of what they want done to address these social ills is more around what they don’t want to have happen, which is they don’t want the government to come in with a regulatory approach to solve these problems. And so they’re saying—

SHEFFIELD: Or to break them up.

ADAMS: To break them up or to create a series of laws that restrict what they can do, that can restrict the kind of surveillance that they can do on their users, that can restrict the kind of data that they can collect, that can restrict what they can do with that data, who they can share it with, who they can sell it to.

Most of the big tech firms, their point of view is, we’re going to come up with a grab bag of different approaches to what we can do to solve these social problems. And it’s not so much that we think that these solutions that we’re coming up with are so great, but that they’re good enough to forestall the government coming in and doing some.

SHEFFIELD: What are they doing?

ADAMS: Yeah. So Apple, Apple is a little bit of a different case because they don’t have, they don’t have a business that’s built on selling advertising to anybody. They don’t have a business that’s really heavily dependent on collecting information about their users and then selling it to other people.

Their business is on the care and maintenance of the ecosystem and getting you to buy their hardware, to use their software and to use apps that are being sold through their app store. And so, Apple’s approach is: ‘Well let’s just let’s heavily restrict the amount of data that can be shared, without your knowledge, from one service to another, or from one app to another.

So you may have noticed if you’ve upgraded recently to a new version of iOS, every time you launch an app for the first time, it brings up a little prompt and it says, this app wants to track your your activity and to share it. Would you like to allow them to do that or not?

And most people are like, that sounds terrible. I don’t want them to track my activity. And so Facebook and Google and all of these other services that have been trying to track you in iOS are now getting shut down and they can’t do it. And so Apple is like: ‘You know, we can save you from installing malware on your computer. We can save you from having different services tracking your activity.’ And they’re promoting themselves as being champions of privacy. But in exchange, you have to give up the ability to install any app on your iPhone that isn’t vetted by Apple.

You have to sign up for a developer unfriendly ecosystem where if somebody starts to develop an app that competes a little bit too closely with one of the things that Apple does, then they get shut down. Yeah.

SHEFFIELD: And they don’t let you use a different default email program or a different web browser. You can’t do it. They won’t allow you to.

And then the other thing also though is that while they are marketing themselves as being pro- privacy or pro- user, these are promises that they only make to Western users and in democratic societies. So meanwhile, they have no problem working with authoritarian countries like China or Saudi Arabia. If you’re an Apple user in those countries, you don’t have these rights with respect to the Chinese government, or the government of Saudi Arabia.

ADAMS: That’s another huge downside to the ecosystem approach to computing is that you have choke points where, certain private or public entities have access to your whole stream of data.

And if the Chinese government says: ’ Hey, if you’re going to play in China, you have to let us listen in on everything that’s happening or else, you can’t do it.

And we can hear that. And we’re like: ‘Oh yeah, that’s terrible. China sucks.’ well, newsflash, the U.S. government is doing the same thing. There have been numerous revelations about the United States government using its powers to get access to internet service providers and other choke points. And both the federal government and state and local governments have been in a cat and mouse game with Apple about being able to unlock your phone, if they confiscate it from you and get it and get at your data. Apple has been claiming that it is fighting those attempts, that it’s trying to fight the government to keep them from being able to unlock your phones. But it’s not entirely certain that your rights, that Apple is actually 100% standing up for your privacy in all cases.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. But let’s say the companies all were officially. The problem of network computing is that you still have individuals within the companies. There was one case I’m thinking of Twitter had, there was an employee who worked at a network level for them that was secretly on the payroll of the government of Saudi Arabia. And he was getting in their private messages,

ADAMS: Right. Helping to de-anonymize some—

SHEFFIELD: Yeah, that’s right, yeah. And the problem is that the allure of free is so great that it’s hard for people to want to give that up. The idea that you can get free email from Google in exchange for that they will scan all of your messages and see what things you like so that they can more effectively market, that’s creepy. But they got a lot of people sign up for it because they were giving out gigabytes and gigabytes of storage, and nobody else when Gmail got started on that had anywhere near that kind of storage, was letting people have it.

And it’s not just Google, but like Facebook of course, wants everyone to put all their photos in there, and have all their group messages, and their family messages. And there are so many downsides to that. Even in those own specific trends, let’s say you get banned from Facebook or you decided to delete your account for whatever reason, or, something happens to your account. You’ve lost all that stuff that you had, unless you specifically went in and downloaded it.

ADAMS: One of the real dangers of too much centralization is people build a livelihoods on online services. If you’re a video creator, and you get shut down by YouTube, then you’re done. If you’re an influencer, and they shut down your Instagram, or your Twitter, you’re in big trouble, you’ve lost your platform.

But then on the other hand, there are a lot of people who are like ‘that’s good,’ because there are people who are influencers on social media that are up to no good. They’re spreading misinformation. They’re encouraging their followers to engage in violence. They should be shut down. And look at all these people that should be shut down that haven’t been shut down.

So it’s, on the one hand, you can see it both ways. And again, it’s that tension between are the benefits that you get from a more decentralized and more free network are they worth the downsides, right?

The internet in general is free. And so, because of that, people are going to post things to the internet that you find of abhorrent, that you wish didn’t exist. And I think part of the difficulty of being a proponent of freedom in general is always knowing that there are going to be people who are using that freedom to do things that you wish that they didn’t do or that they couldn’t do. But you have to accept the fact that’s part of the cost of living in a free society or participating in a free medium is that there’s going to be people out there who are perpetrating fraud or spewing out hate speech or all of the other things that they can do.

SHEFFIELD: Well and deciding where you draw the line. But these are complicated questions. They’re very complicated. Philosophically, but then also in terms the way it actually works.

They don’t disclose their algorithms, but Facebook, Google, Twitter, whatever, if you were to see them, they would, it would be probably, thousands of pages of programming statements and formulae. And so as platforms have become computing and computing has become platforms, the ability of other entities that are supposed to bring accountability to those systems has declined.

So you see a lot of politicians, congressional Facebook hearings and Twitter hearings. They’re just infamous for people getting up there: ’ I turned my phone off one time and I thought it was spying on me when I was in the bathroom.’ (laughter)

That’s the type of stuff. Or: ‘My grandson told me he tried to send a picture, but he couldn’t do it.’ Like the level of stuff that you hear on these hearings. And. It’s a real problem. In terms of that the politicians have no idea what’s going on.

But then there’s other levels. A lot of government agencies are in what people have called “regulatory capture,” that the people who are supposed to oversee these industries are, by and large, entirely comprised of people in those industries, or formerly of them. And who very likely would like to return back to that industry if they somehow lost their job for whatever reason, or got a better salary.

And then on the media side, so much of technology journalism such as it was, was mostly business- centric or consumer product- centric. And so you had this boosterism of particular companies. So even now there’s, some journalists who are complete shills for Apple, for instance, or shills for Google et cetera. And so they encourage people not to be aware of the larger issues, and they themselves have no idea. So it’s like there are all these layers that are stopping the rest of society from understanding the problems of platform computing. What’s your thought on all that?

ADAMS: My, my personal ideology is that I would welcome the government finding a way be a counterbalance for some of the frankly incredible power that big tech firms have been able to accumulate for themselves. However, I’m very skeptical of the frail humans that are actually involved in the government being able to come up with some sort of regulatory environment that’s actually going to do more good than harm.

Partially because of what you were saying. I mean, it’s very unlikely that any regulation of the social media ecosystem, for example, it’s very likely that anything that comes out of a regulatory process is probably going to end up being very carefully designed to bolster and reinforce the power of the incumbent players and make it more difficult for new players to come up and displace them.

If you put an incredibly onerous regulatory framework around how people can interact with a social network, it’s probably, it’s almost certain that’s going to exist so that it doesn’t immediately put Facebook and Google out of business. That’s a no go.

So if it doesn’t immediately kill Facebook, then what it’s going to do is, it’s going to enable Facebook with its vast war chest to tailor its service so that it complies with what are bound to be extremely complicated and convoluted methods of complying with these regulations.

But what that’s also going to mean is that an upstart social network service is probably going to find it impossible to comply with those regulations. And so it will never exist. And so what it’ll mean is Facebook becomes the very last social network to ever exist. In a world where a very onerous regulatory framework is put around social networks, and I don’t think anybody wants that to happen.

I think that over time, as the understanding of these— the understanding of this general computing environment and this new sort of virtual world that we live in, over time, I think the government will probably have a better understanding. Some of the older people will retire and they’ll be replaced by younger people. And we’ll be in a better situation.

I mean, if you go back a hundred years ago, a hundred years ago, the government had no idea what to do with the automobile. You basically had cities and roads that were built around horse based transportation, and all of a sudden, you’ve got dozens of companies that are building these crazy contraptions that are driving around at high speeds and running people over.

And, the government who was like: ‘What do we do about this?’ And there were all sorts of weird and, in retrospect, sort of silly attempts at regulating the automobile that happened 110, 105 years ago. But eventually the government figured out: ‘Okay, here’s how our world is changing. Here’s how the automobile has changed the world. And we’re gonna figure out how to regulate drivers. We’re gonna figure out how to hold car companies to account. And now it’s not so much of a misunderstood technology. And maybe we’ll get to that point with the internet at some point in the coming decades.

SHEFFIELD: Maybe, I mean, I don’t know. I do think, there’s the saying “hell is other people.” Well, Facebook is other people. (laughter) That is the temptation, I think, when people talk about manifestations of social problems in a technological way, that these are still human tendencies, group tendencies. A tendency to believe falsehoods that are convenient.

These are natural human tendencies, and it’s likely that the best, long-term solution for these things is better education and getting people to understand how to think properly. Understanding what the scientific method means, why empiricism is good, why tolerance is good. Why pluralism is good.

Our educational system doesn’t really touch on a lot of those topics. They do on scientific method, but not really. I’ve talked to professors, actually, Melanie Trecek-King, one of the members of our Flux Media network, she teaches science and she originally was hired to teach biology and she realized: ‘These students, they don’t know anything about science and how it works and why it’s good.’ And so she completely restructured her course in that way. But we need a lot more of that because things that people think as technical problems are not in many cases.

ADAMS: Certainly. If you look at, if you look at a lot of the real social problems that are being facilitated by technology, it’s not necessarily the technology itself that’s creating the problem.

When my mother-in-law gets some kind of a pop-up message on her computer that scares her because somebody is stealing her data, and she needs to call this phone number. And she gets connected to a call center in India somewhere, where they try to scam her out of her money.

Where the rubber meets the road. It’s not the computer that’s trying to steal my mother-in-law’s money. It’s a human being. And it’s it’s a network of human beings that have put together a playbook for stealing money from old American ladies that—

SHEFFIELD: And they know it to work.

ADAMS: Yeah. And they do it because it gets results. And when people are going on, when people are using the power of Facebook, the Facebook algorithm, to promote some extremist political agenda, or to sell some phony baloney miracle cure, or all of these things that they’re doing, the Facebook algorithm and Facebook advertising, and the various failures of Facebook to combat these kinds of things, it’s just a medium for scams and abuses that are as old as time. I mean, is there a scam any older than somebody coming in to your community with some kind of miracle cure and trying to get everybody to buy it? 6,000 years ago, somebody wrote into, or Rook on a donkey and tried to sell people a miracle cure and take their money. These are not new social problems. They’re the same old social problems. They’re just being perpetrated through a new media.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. Although I guess the only thing that is different is that it is allowed to be at a greater scale. And that’s where the danger comes in, I think. Because there’ve always been people who have paranoid beliefs about vaccines, for instance. That’s always been an attitude that’s existed, but if go back and look at attitudes toward vaccines among far right Americans in the 1970s, for instance, and compare them now. They were more supportive of them then than they are now.

The other thing is that, from a regulatory standpoint, having systems be smaller, that may be the only real effective way for that to happen. So like making Facebook not be allowed to own WhatsApp or forcing them to divest Instagram. Those are things that we know could be positive for society, but in terms of getting specific regulations, those will be very difficult to get correct, and to be not harmful.

And then at the same time, I think one of the other things, and this is a societal thing, is that we have to have a, more of a public spiritedness in business culture in the United States. And that’s something that did exist earlier when things were more physical oriented. They had so many employees at their plants and whatnot , and they were, unionized and whatnot. So they had to not run them into the ground and treat them like crap.

Whereas now, in the technology world, there’s this fetish for achieving scale with as little human interaction as possible. ’ We want to have millions of users and only five employees,’ or something like that. That’s a fantasy, that’s not just something that is a practice. It is a goal of a lot of companies.

ADAMS: Yeah. If you look at Instagram, Instagram’s probably the best example. When Instagram was acquired by Facebook for a billion dollars or whatever it was, I think they only had 80 employees.

And that was considered in the technology entrepreneur circles, in which I run, that was considered a tremendous accomplishment. To have a company that’s generating that much value with so few people.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. And that’s what’s missing from a lot of the discussion. An algorithm just simply cannot understand the vagaries of human language. An ISIS sympathizer posting a meme of George Clooney but it’s meant to support ISIS. A computer is never going to understand that. And whereas a human, who speaks whatever that language is, going to understand what the point of that was.

ADAMS: And it’s worse than that, because the algorithms are written for a purpose. Famously, the Facebook algorithms, their purpose, and YouTube also. YouTube and Facebook both built algorithms that their purpose was increased engagement. And so what we’ve learned about the downside of building, what’s essentially an incredibly powerful AI. Let’s just say AI, you build an incredibly powerful AI, and powerful in that because it has the power to influence so many people, and you give it this single-minded determination to increase engagement. And what did we find that did? What it did is it drove people toward extremist content.

It poisoned their minds. And turned them into fearful, angry mobs. And the AI didn’t care or know what it was doing. All it knew was that: ‘If I do this thing, it drives people to engage more.’ And neither of the people who created that algorithm nor the algorithm itself had any notion that this was going to create a circumstance with all of these negative externalities, that’s ruining the world. You can make a pretty good case that, actually, it made the world worse. And so there’s some real danger there.

SHEFFIELD: The people who have these deranged viewpoints, so they think they’re God’s servant in Christianity or Allah’s servant, that they have to do violence on their God’s behalf. The mentality that makes you have those ideas makes it hard for you to build out a large- scale network, because you’re deranged. You can’t get along with others, you don’t play well with the other kids.

And so they never really had an ability to build out large scale network of suicide bombers, let’s say. It’s difficult. It’s very hard. And now, these algorithms and companies that act without public spirit in mind, they are basically giving them the platforms.

The only thing that they were missing, they were giving them the method of spreading their hateful and awful message. And they couldn’t have built it themselves .

ADAMS: I said something a few minutes ago in the context of regulation and talking about the government not really figuring out what to do about the automobile. And on that topic, I think that you can make a very good case that the world that we ended up creating, partially through the private enterprise of people promoting the automobile and promoting its benefits, with the freedom of being able to travel long distances on your own.

But the government had to be involved in order to bring that world to fruition, right? If the government weren’t involved by building roads, making laws about where cars can go and where they can’t, and how cities should interact with cars, and whether businesses should be required to to make parking lots. All of these innumerable individual decisions about how our society is going to relate to the automobile has arguably created a world that’s worse than the one that we could have had, had the government been like: ‘Wait, we’re not allowing cars into our cities?’

If in 1920, the government of the United States, or individual state or local governments had been like: ‘No cars, we’ve got our trolleys, we’ve got our trains. And we want to live in a different world where the streets in our cities belong to pedestrians and not to death machines.’

We would live in a very different world now, and arguably a better world than the one where we gave our cities over to cars and we gave our suburbs over to parking lots. So there were a lot of decisions that were made and decisions that were made by default. And we ended up, we now live in the world that we live in. And I think that we can cast ourselves forward a hundred years from now, and we can ask some of those same questions. Are the values that we’re espousing as a society and are the laws and the regulatory framework that we’re putting together in the face of this technological change around these social networks and these communication media and these computing devices that we’re carrying around that are becoming more and more ubiquitous and more useful.

The world that we’re going to live in a hundred years from now is going to be very different depending on some of these decisions that we make.

SHEFFIELD: And not to make a decision is a decision. We’re not gonna solve all the world’s problems here in one podcast.

But my goal here in talking about all this today though, was just that there are a lot of things that, that we, as a society, have to start thinking about more. And more people need to be involved in the discussion of our future. And the public needs to care about it.

These are difficult topics. They can be complicated. They can be annoying. But they are the things that matter today. And even more so tomorrow. So thank you for being here today, David Adams.

ADAMS: It’s been a lot of fun. Thank you for having me.

SHEFFIELD: We’ve been speaking today with David Adams, the founder and publisher of OSNews.com. He’s on Twitter at David_Adams.

About This Podcast

Lots of people want to change the world. But how does change happen? History is filled with stories of people and institutions that spent big and devoted many resources to effect change but have little to show for it. By contrast, many societal developments have happened without forethought from anyone. And of course, change can be negative as well as positive.

In each episode of this weekly program, Theory of Change host Matthew Sheffield delves deep with a solo guest to discuss larger trends in politics, religion, media, and technology.