In the first episode of In Reality, co-hosts Eric Schurenberg and Joan Donovan are joined by Rob Reich, Professor of Political Science and Philosophy at Stanford University and Author of System Error: Where Big Tech Went Wrong and How We Can Reboot.
At its birth, social media promised to be a tool to promote democracy. Instead, it has become the accelerant to a firestorm of lies and, far from democratizing power has concentrated it among a few social media giants.
“Mark Zuckerberg is now the unelected mayor of three billion people,” says Rob Reich. “That is unacceptable.” How did things go so wrong? Reich blames, what he calls, the “engineering mindset” of social media’s inventors and the financial ecosystem that supports them. Along with co-authors Mehran Sahami and Jeremy M. Weinstein, Reich teaches a class on technology and ethics at Stanford University, the high temple of the engineering mindset. He knows what he is talking about!
Engineers seek to “optimize” for a specific, measurable outcome without regard to social ramifications. Thus, for example, algorithms designed to give social media users engaging content to wind uploading news feeds or search results with content that triggers outrage, hatred or fear. Engagement—measured by clicks or time spent on the site climbs exponentially as a result--but at an enormous social cost.
Reich believes that the solutions lie in tempering the optimization mindset with regulations that weigh a technology’s social costs against its effectiveness, much as stop signs moderate optimal traffic flow in the interests of safety.
Listen and judge for yourself. His ideas require political resolve to execute, to be sure. But the need is urgent. Democracy is at stake.