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They meant well (or, why it matters who gets to be seen as a “tech critic”)

“We need technology to live, as we need food to live. But, of course, if we eat too much food, or eat food that has no nutritional value, or eat food that is infected with disease, we turn a means of survival into its opposite. The same is true for technology.” – Neil Postman

Here is a question: why does it matter who gets to be seen as a prominent “tech critic”?

Here is an answer: because those who get to be seen as prominent “tech critics” get called to testify before the Senate.

This was on full display on the morning of Tuesday, April 27, 2021 in a hearing before the Senate’s subcommittee on Privacy, Technology, and the Law titled “Algorithms and Amplification: How Social Media Platforms’ Design Choices Shape Our Discourse and Our Minds.” As has become common for such meetings there were numerous witnesses from the actual tech companies (Monika Bickert from Facebook, Lauren Culbertson from Twitter, Alexandra Veitch from YouTube [which is owned by Google]) as well as the brilliant academic expert (Dr. Joan Donovan from the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy), but what made the list of witnesses rather odd is the inclusion of one individual whose qualification seemed to mainly be “tech critic.” And that individual was none other than Tristan Harris—the co-founder and president of the Center for Humane Technology and the star of the documentary The Social Dilemma. While Bickert, Culbertson, and Veitch were there to speak on behalf of the companies for which they work, and while Donovan was there presenting the informed opinions of an expert scholar, Harris was there because he has achieved a level of recognition as a critical voice. And while Harris burnished his bonafides by noting that he had once worked for Google, and that he was friends with the guys who started Instagram, he repeatedly emphasized that his qualification for being present as a witness is that he was the star of The Social Dilemma.

Though it does not always happen, it is not unheard of for Congressional committees to invite someone to testify in the role of a critic. Such meetings regularly feature the well-paid and skillfully prepared representatives of powerful companies, and at times these corporate employees have no choice but to share a panel with someone who is there to skewer them. Thus, at first glance, and even at second glance, it is easy to interpret Harris’s presence as being all about countering the techno-utopian blather being issued by the defendants of the tech companies. If the representatives from the tech companies were going to, predictably, opine about everything they are doing to resolve the many issues they would be questioned about, Harris was there to say they weren’t doing enough.

Yet, big tech could not have asked for a better person to serve as their critical foil than Harris. For though Harris skillfully performs the role of critic, he ultimately does more to defend the tech companies than their actual employees. Which, to return to the original question, is why it matters who gets to be seen as a prominent “tech critic.”

Congressional hearings are strange affairs. Controlled by time-keeping strictures and arcane traditions, what gets said and how it gets said is an equal mixture of performance and an attempt to make serious points. And having to balance between performing a role and actually getting particular things across is a challenge for the elected officials and the witnesses testifying. All of which is to say that Harris did not get to speak all that much at the hearing; however, much can still be gleaned from his responses to questions and by his opening statement. Though it is essential to note that Harris’s prepared (written) opening statement differs in many respects from the opening statement he actually delivered (this is a very common thing at such hearings).

After establishing his credibility as the star of The Social Dilemma, Harris launched into a brief frontal assault against the tech companies. Decrying the ways in which the tech companies thrive on keeping us “addicted, outraged, polarized, narcissistic, [and] misinformed,” Harris warned that the tech companies’ are destabilizing our democratic society by creating a state of affairs in which the demos view many of their neighbors as demonic. Speaking with fervor, Harris quipped that “what a canon was to a castle, social media is to the nation state,” with the implication clearly being that canons brought a speedy end to the massive stone walls of yore, and social media is going to do the same to today’s democratic socities. Though Harris was largely sketching out a conflict between the tech companies and the broader society he couched this consistently in a larger looming clash between the United States and “the rise of China.” With Harris repeatedly warning of the dangers of China’s technological developments as he spoke up in defense of “Western digital infrastructure.” Ominously, Harris warned that at the moment the US has a choice before it: either it can “install a Chinese ‘Orwellian’ brain implant…with authoritarian controls, censorship and mass behavior modification” or have “U.S./Western ‘Huxleyan’ societal brain implant that saturates us in distractions, outrage, trivia, and amusing ourselves to death.” Though, of course, Harris was arguing for “a humane, clean ‘Wester digital infrastructure’ worth wanting” as a necessary third alternative.

Throughout his opening remarks, and his responses throughout the session, Harris remained focused on reiterating three points over and over to the assembled Senators. First: the tech companies have locked themselves into an economic model that is all about engagement (and outrage leads to good engagement); second: that the world is in a new digital war in which China (and its “Orwellain” technologies) is the adversary; and third: that the tech companies are not evil and that they do not mean to really be sowing the havoc that they are. In terms of performance and public communication, it seems that much of the goal was to keep the focus on the first part, for this is what makes Harris appear like a dogged critic. And, to be fair, when attacking the economic drivers of the tech companies Harris makes some worthwhile points. Yet in assessing Harris’s comments, it is more important to pay attention to his other points, especially as it seems as though Harris uses the opening he creates for himself with his critical commentary to drive home the much more problematic latter two points.

“The rise of China”

Big tech is in trouble. And it knows it. True, it remains to be seen exactly what kind of problems this trouble will actually generate for the companies, but these companies know that the mood has shifted somewhat in the US. Facebook and Google and Twitter and Apple are no longer universally hailed as saviors. Thus, these companies have launched a new strategy to reinvigorate their all American status: engage in some heavy-handed techno-nationalism by attacking China. And this Sinophobic, and often flagrantly racist, shift serves to distract from the misdeeds of the tech companies by creating the looming menace of a big foreign other. This is a move that has been made by many of the tech companies, it is one that has been happily parroted by many elected officials, and it is a move which Harris makes as well. To see this in Harris’s testimony it is not sufficient to note that he repeatedly mentions “the rise of China,” one must recognize the way in which he warns of “a Chinese ‘Orwellian’ brain implant” and says “either we beat China at becoming China in a digital way, which we don’t want to do, or we figure out how to be a digital open society.” Of course, Harris does not come out and say “Western technology good, Chinese technology bad,” that would be too blunt, instead he says “Western technology needs improvement, Chinese technology bad.”

This in turn feeds into one of the major pivots that Harris pulls. As Harris lays out the distinction, the Chinese “Orwelliian” technologies are ones of “authoritarian controls, censorship and mass behavior modification” while the Western “Huxleyan” ones are defined by “distractions, outrage, trivia, and amusing ourselves to death.” But in drawing out this literary parallel, Harris performs an impressive bait and switch whereby he effectively acts as though Western technology is not also littered with technologies of surveillance and control. By warning about how “Orwell” is over there, Harris effectively provides the tech companies with cover from the recognition that there are plenty of “Orwellian” technologies over here as well.

In the invocation of Orwell and Huxley and the line “amusing ourselves to death,” Harris seems to be making reference to the social critic Neil Postman, whose book Amusing Ourselves to Death concludes with a discussion of Orwell and Huxley. Yet in Harris’s Sinophobic comments about “the rise of China” one can detect the thinking of two fairly forgotten writers on technology: Oswald Spengler and Ernst Jünger. Writing in interwar Germany, these reactionary modernist thinkers, wrote at length about the ways that technology was changing the world. And what Spengler and Jünger both argued was that technology could only be properly harnessed, could only be effectively controlled, if it was done so by “Western” societies. With open xenophobia dripping from their words, Spengler and Jünger warned that “Western” societies needed to master technology lest it should be deployed against them by foreign others.

Of course, Silicon Valley knows better than to openly speak in the odious racism of Spengler and Jünger, but it is that xenophobic approach to technology that one sees in so much of big tech’s recent attacks on China. It serves to create a “clash of civilizations” mindset wherein the “open” West is seen as being in combat with the “closed” East—and it involves big tech simply reviving one of the old racist tropes of colonial and imperial thinking wherein the West, and the West alone, is seen as the steward of technology. The point here is not to defend the uses of surveillance technology in China, the point is to emphasize that when big tech talks about China they are stoking Sinophobia in order to distract from their own malfeasance. By screeching with nationalistic panic “look what they’re doing over there!” the tech companies shift the conversation from what they themselves are doing over here.

And, sadly, Harris was only too willing to give voice to this techno-nationalism.

“not because they’re evil”

In the film The Social Dilemma, Harris shares the screen with a legion of former tech company employees who now worry that some of the things they created have had deleterious social impacts. And yet a message that the film drives home again and again and again and again and again (and again), is that everyone meant well. Yes, it can now be seen that harm has been done, but nobody intended for that to happen! And this is a message that Harris made repeatedly in his testimony before Congress, as he put it in his opening remarks:

“none of the people who are here with us today are intentionally causing any harm, neither do I believe that the tech companies who created these systems have intentionally wanted any of these harms to happen”

Over and over again, Harris repeated some version of the words

“it’s not because these people are evil”

And thus Harris provided a service to the tech companies of unquantifiable value, and provided a service which the tech companies could not provide for themselves: he gives them cover. After all, at this point the paid representatives of the tech companies can’t really come out and say “we aren’t evil” – that is exactly what the villain in every movie declares. Similarly, the representatives from tech companies will be met with derisive scoffs if they should say “we meant well.” What the tech companies need is for this defense to be offered by someone who has some distance from the tech companies, someone whose reputation as a critic provides them with authority to deliver the catechism of Silicon Valley: someone like Tristan Harris. There were moments in their testimony when the representatives from Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube gave glib and unsatisfactory answers that only seemed to raise the ire of the Senators on the committee, but whenever the tech reps faltered Harris was there to provide them with cover by reminding the Senators that these companies are not evil and that the people who work for them are good people who mean well.

In Harris’s argument (and in The Social Dilemma), the tech companies and their executives, appear akin to the heroes of Greek tragedies. They are figures who pursue greatness believing that their cause is just only to find themselves brought low by their own hubris. Granted, the tech companies are not interested in confronting their own hubris. After all, they meant well! What the tech companies need to get out of hearings such as this one, and what they need to reestablish, is some of the trust that has been lost in recent years. To rebuild this trust will certainly be a slow process, and it is a process that is slowed whenever another story breaks about the irresponsible acts of these tech companies, but the first step towards rebuilding that trust is to convince people of two key things: that these companies are not evil, and that the people who work for them mean well. And this is why Harris must devote so much attention to critiquing the economic model that has so trapped these tech companies, because talking about the business model makes it seem as though these tech companies (and their employees) are helpless leaves being buffeted about by the strong winds of an economic model that they are powerless to change. It is not so much that Harris’s argument tries to redeem the tech companies, but that it argues that the tech companies don’t need to be redeemed, because they never really did anything wrong—they meant well.  

If Mark Zuckerberg told Senators “I meant well” the clip would play on every late-night comedy show and would become a social media meme, as everyone heaped deserving scorn on him. For, at this point, who really still believes that Zuckerberg means (or meant) well? We are long past the point at which an argument could be made that the tech companies are new and they deserve the benefit of the doubt. We have seen the tech companies exacerbating harm for years, we have seen the proof that they can do something but choose not to, and we have become accustomed to an almost daily deluge of more stories about the harm that these tech companies know they are doing but which they keep doing anyway. It’s hard to say that you “mean well” when you keep doing the things that you have said you are going to stop doing.

Mark Zuckerberg can’t say “we meant well” without being laughed at. Monika Bickert, Facebook’s VP for Content Policy who also testified at the hearing, can’t say “we meant well” without her words being dismissed as a corporate talking point. But when a prominent tech critic who was the star of a Netflix documentary (and who is friends with the guys who started Instagram) says “they meant well” those words can get through, and they carry an extra level of weight. If the critic is willing to say that these companies meant well, than it must be true!

Throughout his testimony, Harris delivered some solid observations about big tech, and he landed some pithy one-liners; however, beneath the critical veneer was the steady repetition of Silicon Valley’s basic articles of faith.

Tech companies like Facebook and Google need you to believe that they aren’t evil, they need you to believe that they mean well, and they know that they are no longer the best parties to deliver their message.

Luckily for them, they have “critics” like Tristan Harris.

“what a canon was to a castle”

When the Center for Humane Technology was launched in 2018, and when The Social Dilemma came out in 2020, I wrote that it seemed as though one of the purposes of the organization (and the film) was to seize the public space that was opening for criticism of technology and make sure that it would be dominated by those who could speak in the language of critique while ultimately protecting the interests of big tech. Big tech knew that it could not escape having critics, but it knew that it could be satisfied with having that space controlled by former employees who still believe that their former companies (and former co-workers) mean well. Big tech can patiently sit through some zingers about their business model, as long as the person delivering those one-liners comes around to repeating big tech’s latest Sinophobic talking point while repeating the “they meant well” myth.

In 2018 it was a hypothesis, in 2020 there was more evidence to support the hypothesis, but with Harris’s testimony before Congress it seems pretty clear that big tech has been successful in elevating one of its own into the role of official critic. And it’s easy to imagine that the tech executives will have no real qualms with anything Harris said at the hearing: he effectively made them out to be the victims of an economic model, shifted attention off of them by attacking China, and rounded it all out by saying the thing that the tech companies want said but cannot say themselves “they’re not evil” and “they mean well.” Harris is a sort of reverse Moses, he promises to lead those who will follow him to the promised land, but his message simply leads his followers back into captivity. For what lies beneath the surface veneer of Harris’s critique is the same ideology that got us into this mess.  

The tech companies have not deserved the benefit of the doubt in years, and it is hard to believe that these companies “mean well” when they so consistently make it obvious that they do not.

Harris is the co-founder and president of the Center for Humane Technology, and in his testimony he argued that what is needed is “humane technology” or “a humane, clean ‘Western digital infrastructure’ worth wanting.” But “humane technology” is precisely the sort of pleasant sounding but ultimately meaningless idea that we must be watchful for at all times. To be clear, Harris is hardly the first critic to argue for some alternative type of technology, past critics have argued for: “democratic technics,” “appropriate technology,” “convivial tools,” “liberatory technology,” “holistic technology,” and the list could go on. But reading through Harris’s remarks (and perusing the CHT’s website) it can be a bit difficult to really know what makes something a “humane technology.” If anything, it largely seems that a “humane technology” is just a social media app that is 25% less intrusive, and which only feeds you outrageous content 50% of the time. “Humane technology” is what lets the people in those “Huxleyan” societies feel a little bit less depressed, without fundamentally trying to change much in their society. “Humane technology” does not mean that it is more “humane” for the people who mine coltan or lithium, it does not mean that it is more “humane” for the people assembling gadgets in a factory, it does not mean it is more “humane” for the people who live downstream from an e-waste dump, “humane technology” is an attempt to save the tech companies from themselves by making it so that Facebook users are slightly less depressed while they use Facebook, and it’s about having camera ready critics who can come out and issue some comments that sound like criticism even as they echo Silicon Valley talking points.

Which brings us back, once again, to the question with which we began: why does it matter who gets to be seen as a prominent “tech critic”?

The answer is that it matters because such individuals get to set the bounds for the discussion. As long as a figure like Harris is anointed as the official “tech critic” than it means that any critiques that go above and beyond what he says can be dismissed of as fringe or ridiculous. Harris represents the acceptable “tech critic” which means that everyone else can be denounced as a Luddite, scorned as a technophobe, or shouted down with accusations that they want everyone to go back to living in caves. What’s more it means that Silicon Valley propaganda  that treats these companies as basically good and well meaning wind up being the basic foundation upon which further discussion is built. At risk of belaboring the point, it makes a difference whether the argument made before Congress is “Facebook is bad, cannot reform itself, and is guided by people who know what they’re doing but are doing int anyway—and the company needs to be broken up immediately” or if the argument is “Facebook means well, but it sure would be nice if they could send out fewer notifications and maybe stop recommending so much conspiratorial content.”

Prominence as a critic tends to reinforce itself. The person who appears on news shows is the person who gets to star in a documentary is the person who gets to testify before the Senate is the person who gets invited back onto the news shows, and so forth. At a moment when the boundaries of technological criticism are being redrawn it matters whether the people getting to set those markers are former Google employees resolutely repeating that their former co-workers “meant well” or the people who were warning about what the tech companies were doing back before the stars of The Social Dilemma started to feel pangs of guilt.

This late in the game it is unacceptable for critics to regurgitate big tech’s talking points for them. These companies do not mean well, and we should stop pretending that they do.

Related Content:

Beware Silicon Valley’s Guilty Conscience – on the Center for Humane Technology

Flamethrowers and Fire Extinguishers – a review of “The Social Dilemma”

“Striving to minimize technical and reputational risks” – on Ethical OS

Progress for the Status Quo – on the Chamber of Progress

What Technology Do We Really Need? – on the Personal Democracy Forum

Authoritarian and Democratic Technics Revisited

Neil Postman’s 6 Questions to Ask of New Technology

About Z.M.L

“I do not believe that things will turn out well, but the idea that they might is of decisive importance.” – Max Horkheimer librarianshipwreck.wordpress.com @libshipwreck

4 comments on “They meant well (or, why it matters who gets to be seen as a “tech critic”)

  1. Pingback: Theses on Techno-Optimism | LibrarianShipwreck

  2. Pingback: Balancing Reality and Fear: Why An Alarmist Take on Chinese Influence Operations Is Counterproductive - Just Security - News Black Rock

  3. Pingback: Concerns over China's online influence campaigns overseas, while valid, are often overblown as there is little evidence to show campaigns are actually working (Just Security) | incloudhosting

  4. Pingback: Imagine the End of Facebook | LibrarianShipwreck

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