Part of Hindsight 2070: We asked 15 experts, “What do we do now that will be considered unthinkable in 50 years?” Here’s what they told us.
Roger McNamee has been investing in technology companies since 1982, and has co-founded three successful investment firms. From 2006 to 2009, he was an adviser to Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. He is the author of Zucked: Waking Up to the Facebook Catastrophe.
The internet began as a Department of Defense-funded network to defend America in the event of a nuclear assault. When it evolved towards commercial and consumer applications, early programmers believed the internet embodied a utopian dream, an open network that would connect the world and promote knowledge, democracy, privacy, and other positive values.
From the earliest days, there were signs that these large networks that permitted anonymity might devolve into unpleasant spaces dominated by bullies, but even so, the utopian dream persisted. Businesses and consumers embraced the world wide web in the late ’90s, and for a time it was reasonable to believe that the internet would live up to its promise.
But it’s become more clear than ever that far from giving us an open world, the companies that dominate the internet today — Google and Facebook — and their reluctance to take responsibility for their own power will soon be considered on the wrong side of history.
The second wave of internet companies, of which these tech giants are the leaders, benefited from exceptional timing. They were the first generation that did not have to design around meaningful technology constraints. They inherited 50 years of trust and goodwill earned by earlier generations. And they entered a market where hundreds of millions of users believed the utopian vision of the internet.
The major internet platforms pursued global scale with religious zeal. To avoid the friction of subscription fees, they sold advertising. To make their advertising valuable, they employed a wide range of psychological tricks, some borrowed from slot machines, propaganda, and magic. They manipulated attention. They used surveillance to create user profiles that would be the envy of an intelligence agency. They took advantage of lax regulation to acquire would-be competitors.
By 2016, both companies had become immensely powerful and influential. Thanks to the nature of their services, economic success brought with it massive political influence that was subject to little oversight or regulation. Internet platforms dominated the public square and pretended they were not responsible for the consequences of their actions. They did pathetically little to protect users.
The revelation that Russians had exploited Facebook, Instagram, Google, YouTube, and Twitter to interfere in the 2016 presidential election triggered a reconsideration of the internet giants. Journalists and investigators discovered that the Russians had also interfered in elections in the United Kingdom and many countries in Europe. The United Nations reported that racist speech spread on Facebook led to the deaths of at least 9,000 members of a religious minority in Myanmar.
Hate speech spread over social media and Facebook’s WhatsApp messaging app led to violence in India and Sri Lanka. The governments of the Philippines and Cambodia used Facebook to control their populations. Facebook traded private data to a wide range of third parties without notifying the affected users. Google joined Facebook in mishandling user data, as both companies suffered major hacks.
Over the course of 2018, it became clear that the internet giants had sacrificed their users in the pursuit of profit. Like chemical and energy companies during much of the 20th century, they have managed to avoid paying the economic cost of harms they create. They continue to deny responsibility for the consequences of their actions while simultaneously developing next-generation AI and surveillance technologies that will make the problems worse.
Users love what is good about internet platforms. Unfortunately, the platforms have placed themselves on the wrong side of history by undermining democracy, public health, privacy, and innovation. In 50 years, we’ll be shocked at what they got away with.
When reached for comment, a Facebook spokesperson said: “We take criticism seriously. Over the past two years, we’ve fundamentally changed how we operate to better protect the safety and security of people using Facebook. The reality is Roger McNamee hasn’t been involved with Facebook for a decade.”