The online world started to take shape in 1990, when computer scientist Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web, and many people felt that technology would stop the censorship and oppression seen in Soviet Union and prevent another Cold War.
“The internet seemed to make life more efficient, allowed people to connect with their friends and their high school exes,” said Nick Thompson, editor-in-chief of Wired. “It made a lot of people a lot of money. The most sophisticated argument about why the internet was a good thing was that it created the possibility for non-zero (or win-win) human interactions.”
As the ways people can communicate become more complex, he said everyone becomes better off. The internet was seen as the next step of this process, and Moore’s law, which states that the power of computer systems doubles each year and a half, shows how much progress the technology makes.
Thompson is the editor-in-chief of Wired, an editor of newyorker.com, a co-founder of the multi-media publishing company the Atavist, and the author of The Hawk and the Dove: Paul Nitze, George Kennan, and the History of the Cold War. He presented his lecture “The Tech Boom, Backlash, and Boomerang” at 10:45 a.m. EDT Monday, July 20, on the CHQ Assembly Video Platform as the first part of Week Four’s theme of “The Ethics of Tech: Scientific, Corporate and Personal Responsibility.” He discussed the idealized beginning of the internet and how those ideals of promoting democracies have been called into question in recent years, spurring on debates and “reckonings” around issues of privacy, authoritarianism and truth.
Thompson graduated in 1997 from Stanford University and his first job was with CBS, “where I was actually fired within 60 minutes of arriving. The only employee ever to work at CBS for less than an hour, I believe.” He then went to West Africa, where he was kidnapped by drug lords and eventually was released. The third thing Thompson did after college was join an open source software computer company, whose main aim was to combat Microsoft and monopolies.
He started to doubt that the internet was a proponent of liberal democracies and increased moral understanding of society. In the Arab Spring 10 years ago, for example, protestors used Facebook to organize, but the same technology caused rifts in the protests because social media also amplifies the angriest and loudest voices.
“Maybe this is just pushing society, or maybe it is actually amplifying some of our worst tendencies,” Thompson said. “Maybe it is not making places like Egypt better, (maybe) it is actually making authoritarian governments worse.”
Thompson also said people using the internet to subvert democracy was seen in the 2016 presidential election with trolls from Macedonia creating fake news websites for ad money, and the Russian disinformation campaign.
“This has led to the election of someone whose fundamental philosophy of how the world works is the antithesis of the fundamental philosophy of the people who built the platforms of how the world should work,” Thompson said
The 2016 election led to many debates and reckonings about technology, including within companies themselves. Thompson said that people who work at Facebook started to question the platform they had built, the unintended effect of spreading misinformation and what they could do about it.
Another question was if phones, computers and the internet were helping society.
“The smartest people in the world made these with the best technology and the most money,” Thompson said. “But did they make these devices to enrich our lives or just suck away our attention?”
Thompson cited a study which showed that many people regretted using apps, like Facebook or Reddit, for long periods of time, but enjoyed apps that they used for less time, such as Evernote.
He said the third question about the role of technology in democracies was what was real. Thompson said that when people realized how much disinformation and fake accounts existed on Facebook and Twitter, “the internet seemed evermore … a place where you couldn’t really trust who was who.”
“Think about places you’ve been where you can trust, where you can put your suitcase down and you know that it’s not going to be stolen. Where you can buy a ticket to something and know that it will work at the door. Well, those societies work,” Thompson said. “(A society does not work when) we can’t really believe that somebody is who they say they are.”
People also debate artificial intelligence. Thompson said that computers can analyze every chess match in history and create new, creative ways of playing that humans have never considered. But AI’s success is dependent on how much data it has and what’s in the data, which is where problems occur.
“For example, you train an AI system for criminal justice, you train it on historical sentencing data, and it will be racist,” Thompson said. “You train an AI on how it should rearrange things in your home, and you train it on historical photographs, and it will learn to identify women doing one kind of task, and men doing another kind of task.”
Thompson then discussed authoritarianism and privacy in relation to modern technology. China, which he used as an example, has a huge advantage in AI because the biggest technology companies are state-owned and the government can collect any data it wants because there are not many privacy restrictions. Certain cities in China also have a system called a social credit score, which Thompson said is calculated based on whether a person pays fines and bills on time, as well as scores of their friends and their political allegiances. This score can determine whether a person is allowed to buy certain goods, such as bus tickets.
Thompson said that all these recent debates and reckonings have led to deeper conversations about making the tech industry better, “one (in which) the technology is enriching our lives, not making them harder. Where we have trust that the outcomes are fair and just. The data we are collecting leads to artificial intelligence that actually makes us live longer, productive or healthy lives.”
The lecture then shifted to a Q-and-A session with Matt Ewalt, vice president and Emily and Richard Smucker Chair for Education. The first question was if there were any troubling topics or themes that emerged in the last two weeks that relate to Thompson’s talk.
On July 15, many popular verified Twitter accounts were hacked, such as those belonging to Barack Obama, Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos, and tweeted out a Bitcoin scam. He said that the hacker was able to get access through a single control panel.
“We’re very lucky that the person who perpetrated this was seemingly just doing a Bitcoin scam, But what’s interesting about it is why was Twitter security so lax,” Thompson said. “How come to reset Barack Obama’s email, you just needed one person to have access to a control panel? You didn’t need two, or three, or 10?”
Ewalt’s next question was how much screen use was healthy for children, and if eliminating screen time may make children unprepared for a future with a larger emphasis on technology.
Thompson has three boys, ages 12, 10 and 6, and he views technology similar to the food pyramid. Activities at the top are commonly viewed as bad, like using a phone at the dinner table and violent video games. The next level down is more ambiguous, because lessons can be taught there, such as through instructional YouTube videos. Thompson said the base of the pyramid are videos and activities that are “genuinely good.”
“For whatever reason, my 6 year old wants to learn German. Well, not for whatever reason, he’s obsessed with the Barcelona goalie (Marc-Andre) Ter Stegen and it wants to be able to talk to him,” Thompson said. “So we use a German learning app called Memorize which is gamified and we learn German phrases in the morning together, which is hilarious. And no doubt, good for him.”
He said that each parent needs to have a conversation with their children about screen time. His 10-year-old son really wanted a PlayStation, which would be near the top of the pyramid as a platform for violent video games. But his son was also feeling left out of his friend group. Thompson bought his sons a PlayStation and tries to keep limits on how long they can play, has them play games that stretch their imagination and even plays with them himself.
The last question was how Thompson would advise consumers to stay informed, think about their decisions and help shape society.
Thompson said he does not always live up to this, but every word typed and link clicked changes Google’s algorithm in a small way, so he has “the sense of the internet and technology becoming something like a collective global consciousness. In a way, Google is the repository of human thought.”
“I do think that each of us has a certain obligation in how we act. We have a certain obligation to, and how we teach, our children to act, how we talk to our friends about how we act,” Thompson said. “So we all play a role in shaping this sort of phenomenal amazing thing that is (the) digital internet.”