Saturday, September 10, 2016

Facebook, Fiefdoms, Privacy and the Potential for Abuse

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“All human beings have three lives: public, private, and secret.” 
Gabriel García Márquez

Let’s start by asking ourselves a simple question; what value does Facebook provide to society?

I can already hear people say 'wait a minute', and start to argue that Facebook informs, entertains, connects, and allows us to stay in touch with family and friends. Facebook is a social sharing platform that connects people. However, unlike a Warby Parker or Unilever, it does not make or sell any tangible products to improve our health or well-being.

It is true that the same can be argued about eBay, Alibaba and Airbnb. They don’t manufacture goods, but merely facilitate transactions between buyers and sellers. However, Alibaba is an online mall where third parties sell products and Airbnb’s service fills a real-world need for accommodation.

With Facebook there is one fundamental difference - you and I are the product.

Without user-generated content and our friends and family engaging with it, Facebook makes and offers nothing. It is entirely powered by our routines, my stories, your creativity, and our combined curation of third party news and articles we post. Facebook is powered by you and me.

And their entire revenue model is based on effectively mining, stealing (through an opaque privacy policy) and selling our personal information to advertisers; arguably they provide no meaningful benefit to society. As for connecting us, we already did all this, through letters, movies, television, travel, newspapers and phone calls, much before Facebook existed.

Technology has certainly made it easier to connect and as a result we have all become lazier about making the effort to stay in touch; but let’s be clear that there is no innovation in terms of how we share, build relationships or create emotional bonds that Facebook has invented.

Consider that the non-technological version of the online platform existed for millennia in the form of Roman marketplaces and even modern day malls where people broke bread, socialised and had the ability shop from multiple vendors, all under one roof.

Facebook says they offer a forum to express ourselves freely and in saying that they pretend to empower us. They claim to be a democratic and open platform designed “to give people the power to share and make the world more open and connected” (source: Facebook Mission), when in reality and behind the scenes, they are doing exactly the opposite.

They have been caught manipulating our newsfeed, by showing overwhelmingly negative or positive posts and using us as lab rats to be “part of a psychological study to examine how emotions can be spread on social media.” (Source: New York Times article).

More recently an employee claimed they routinely censor right-wing content…” (Source: PC Mag article).  Another tech consultant who worked there disclosed that “Facebook collects all content that is typed into its website, even if it is not posted…” (Source: Information Age article).

More worryingly, earlier this year the Wall Street Journal reported that Facebook was starting to spread its tentacles into the personal lives of non-Facebook users; going well beyond the four walls of their own platform by tracking people all over the web under the guise of showing more targeted ads. “Now Facebook plans to collect information about all Internet users, through “like” buttons and other pieces of code present on Web pages across the Internet.(source: Wall Street Journal).

On the heels of this announcement, we found out that WhatsApp, which Facebook bought in 2014, is going to start sharing personal user information that includes your phone number, contact list and status messages with Facebook (Source: Scroll India article). This after WhatsApp had unequivocally promised that it would protect users' privacy when they agreed to be purchased by Facebook. You can read the WhatsApp co-founder Jan Koum’s blog post and 2014 promise about how “Respect for your privacy is coded into our DNA…”

Facebook has also announced that they are going to crack down on ad blockers and click bait headlines to make room for more advertising. They intend to do this by “making its advertisements indistinguishable from the status updates, photo uploads, and other content that appears in your news feed” (Source: PC Mag article). They justified this change with the now all too familiar refrain that because Facebook is a free service, they rely on advertising to keep them going.

A free service that claims unlimited ownership of and rights use every status update, family picture and personal video. A free service that believes it has a right to mine personal data, track people around the web, and then sell all that information to third parties (in non-transparent ways). A free service that stores personal data “…for as long as it is necessary to provide products and services to you and others…” and one that defines their collection of information in the broadest terms possible; “Things you do and information you provide. Things others do and information they provide. Your networks and connections. Information about payments. Device information. Information from websites and apps that use our Services. Information from third-party partners. Facebook companies.” (Source: Facebook Privacy Policy). Free indeed!

I understand that we need to give up some privacy in a digitally connected world, particularly where we expect things for free. But there also need to be rules around what is permissible and what crosses the line. Beyond privacy, the greater issue is that so much information concentrated in the hands of one or two companies makes conditions ripe for abuse.

The point is not whether Mark Zuckerberg is trustworthy or if he truly has noble intentions. Nor am I suggesting that Facebook is an evil corporation run by hobbit in a hoodie. Facebook has already been caught abusing their power numerous times from manipulating the newsfeed to using sophisticated algorithms to pick, choose and limit news, articles, politics, entertainment and information we are able to see and share.

Like every other global corporation in history, they are not immune from the temptation to abuse power in the search for growth, expansion and profits. Their misleading and altruistically packaged attempt to create a walled off internet, with a Facebook monopoly, in the developing world is yet another example of business intentions gone totally awry. You can read my piece about it here “How Facebook Can Fix”.

Think about the fact that, with 1.7 billion active users (a number that continues to grow), they have greater influence than any government or news organisation has ever had over our worldview. They have more personal information and greater power than the Soviet Union had on its people at the height of communism. This should concern all of us.

The point is that no single company should hold this kind of power and influence over so many people. It will not end well; human beings are corrupted by absolute power. We cannot change the nature of the beast.

Sunday, July 31, 2016

Why the Rise of Donald Trump is our Collective Failure

“There are seven things that will destroy us: Wealth without work; Pleasure without conscience; Knowledge without character; Religion without sacrifice; Politics without principle; Science without humanity; Business without ethics.”
Mahatma Gandhi

There is a reason why we are suddenly seeing extreme voices gain political footholds and their support grows across every western democracy. The rise of Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen, Nigel Farage, Geert Wilders, to name a few, can only be explained by a failure of our societies.

I don’t just mean the politicians and captains of industry, but each one of us must accept the blame. Divisive and extreme people never rise up in a vacuum in stable democracies. They need oxygen in order to rear their ugly heads, and unless we provide this oxygen they cannot exist.

For me there is not a single moment or event that led to their rise, but a cumulative effect of years of small abdications in personal responsibility, erosion of principles, a loosening work ethic, misplaced priorities and deteriorating culture and values that have led to a social chasm that we see today.

Unlike generations before us, who were willing to roll up their sleeves and get involved when they saw something wrong in neighborhoods, childrens' schools, communities, governments and countries, I fear we have become so distracted with finding ways to personally get ahead that we have forgotten the basic social bonds and community relationships that are vital to keeping us healthy, empathetic, tolerant and happy human beings. 
I think there are big and small things that have changed, in terms of how we behave, interact and function, that have resulted in an erosion of the social glue that used to bond us more tightly together, and these have contributed to the rise the Trumps of the world.

When America invades a sovereign nation without provocation and the media and all of us stand by watching silently even when we know it is wrong, we create room for Trump.

When kids use chalk to desecrate a public monument and we say nothing to the parents because we think it is not our place to say something, we create room for Trump.

When we are not outraged by our country ignoring the Geneva Convention and circumventing the constitution to detain enemy combatants without evidence or due process, we create room for Trump. 
When we tune in to reality TV, knowing it glorifies the ills of society and turns people who contribute nothing into celebrities but excuse it as guilty pleasure, we create room for Trump.

When we sue doctors, police and our own families for accidents or well-intended mistakes, not willful negligence, and suing becomes a way to make a quick buck, we create room for Trump.

When we ignore professional courtesies, in business, like refusing to get back to people when we have bad news to share because we want to avoid confrontation, we create room for Trump.

When we stop going to Church, not for religious worship but to connect with our neighbours, get involved in their lives and in our community, and replace it with nothing, we make room for Trump.

When we become numb to the fact that there are two active wars, and we stop honoring the sacrifice of those serving, ignore rising military suicides and do nothing about the growing number of homeless vets, we create room for Trump.

When we see someone being wronged or treated unfairly and we look the other way because we do not want to get involved, we create room for Trump.

When we force people to stop saying Merry Christmas because we are worried about offending people, where no offense is meant, we create room for Trump.

When we tell curious young college-going minds that their feelings are more important than broadening their minds, by challenging their worldviews and offending them in the pursuit of knowledge and creativity, we create room for Trump.

When we desecrate works of literature and art because we deem them offensive, we do a great disservice to humanity because you cannot fix history by whitewashing it, but you do ensure that we learn nothing from our past, and we create room for Trump.

When our President draws a red line for the use of chemical weapons on civilian populations and does nothing when that line is crossed, we create room for Trump.

When we allow legislation with far-reaching consequences to be written by lobbyists and corporations and pass it without knowing what thousands of pages contain, we create room for Trump.

When politicians spew vitriol, attack each other personally, forego decorum, stop talking about the issues and we simply laugh, take sides or join in, we create room for Trump.

When we get our news from the Daily Show and 24 hour cable news that deliver information without objectivity, depth or a well-rounded perspective and we also stop doing our own research, we create room for Trump.

When we complain about the broken education system and our child’s teacher but expect that the government should fix these problems rather than that we get involved, we create room for Trump.

When educated people start to debunk sound scientific and medical evidence using unverified articles and citing dubious sources with previously discredited facts, we create room for Trump.

When we decide that the best way to compensate for the excessive discipline our parents instilled and the constant no’s we heard growing up is by over-indulging, mollycoddling and never saying no to our kids (rather than finding the balance between those two extremes), we create room for Trump.

When we start to see complex issues through a simple black and white lens like GMO’s are good or bad and paint all cops with a single brush, we lose sight of complexity and nuance and we create room for Trump.

When we rename Tug of War to “Tug of Love” and stop keeping score to portray a false sense that everyone is a winner, rather than teach our kids that hard work, participation and effort count most (not just winning) and explain that losing does not make you a loser, we create room for Trump.

When we feel like we have performed a social service and done some good in the world by simply LIKING a cause on Facebook or creating a hashtag, we create room for Trump. 
When we go to the polls and vote blindly for the party we have always supported rather than research candidates, study their positions and understand their stances, we abdicate our most basic democratic duty and we create room for Trump.

When we think live and let live means we should stay silent when we see something wrong or disagree with someone, for fear of being seen to judge or hurt their feelings, we create room for Trump.

People often ask me how America got here.

How has a man like Donald Trump been able to upend a one hundred and sixty year old political party without a coup and managed to garner much popular support along the way?

My answer is that he exists only because we have given him the room to exist by retreating from our greater societal responsibility.

We live in neighborhoods with like-minded people from similar backgrounds, education levels, jobs and basic interests. In doing so, we have shrunk our world so dramatically that we no longer listen or have the ability to appreciate or understand any view that does not fit neatly into our own little worldview. Even online and in social media we retreat and find comfort only in our own echo chambers.

Think about the mix of people you grew up around, even in your own family; it was a broad swathe of lower to upper middle class, blue collar and white collar. Our neighborhoods had everyone from post office workers and handymen to mid-level executives at IBM and AT&T. This is no longer true.

Today, it has become easier for us to forget large segments of people in our society as we have become more isolated and divided based on income, education, skill level and race.

We have stopped learning and growing, and most importantly we have stopped building empathy for people and alternate views outside of our small, safe and like-minded worlds.

This has been our collective failure and until we fix our broken social divides and start to fill the local and community voids again we will continue to see men like Trump thrive in the vacuum we have created.

Thursday, June 30, 2016

The Vicious Cycle of Stupid Capitalism

“To live fully, we must learn to use things and love people, and not love things and use people.” 
John Powell 

Work. Earn. Buy. Work harder. Earn more. Buy more. Want more. Work even harder. Wages stagnate. Prices go up. Use credit. Want more. Use more credit. Buy even more. Prices rise. Wages stay stagnant. Start giving up essentials; use more credit to buy more stuff. Get deeper and deeper in debt. Repeat.

Therein lies the vicious cycle of the stupid, wasteful, excessive consumptive capitalism that we have become trapped in. One in which companies are driven purely by profiteering based on selling us more stuff; no longer innovating or solving real problems but simply updating existing products with more memory, larger screen sizes or higher definition. We in turn want to keep up with the Joneses and even though there is absolutely no reason to discard your iPhone 5, ROKU 1 or 2009 model 40” LG flat screen TV, we want the newest gadgets and products because everyone else has them.

Even if you try to resist the urge to constantly consume (like our family does), companies have started to ensure that we have no choice. Many now make products with shorter lifespans, that fall apart in a less than a couple of years. I still remember when all white goods and even clothes and furniture from my parents’ generation lasted for decades. My father’s shoes and shirts lasted him more than twenty years; mine last less than two. My mother’s fridge stayed with us for more than a decade; our last one broke in one year. My last laptop died two years after I bought it. I had to buy a new one after Lenovo told me that the cost of replacing the broken part would be more than I paid for the laptop. In fact, it has gotten so out of hand that leading up to the financial crisis people were buying and selling homes as regularly as people upgrade iPhones.

Today, it is as if companies exist purely for profit at all costs. Consumption and consumerism has reached a fever pitch and are now bordering on insanity. Amazon just introduced a DASH button that allows you to re-order household products the moment you start to run low (Source: TechCrunch article). God forbid we ever run out of paper towels or washing detergent, the world might end; toilet paper is another matter entirely.

Perhaps, it started with Wall Street’s introduction of quarterly earnings results which were presumably designed to gauge the health of public companies and create greater transparency. Somewhere along the way it became a measure of profits, with growth expected every quarter. Shareholders started to expect their piece of this pie via an always rising share price and dividends every quarter. 

The problem with this model is that companies realistically cannot grow at such a frenetic pace. Such rapid rate of growth is neither realistic nor feasible and leads to putting the kinds of pressure on management that always lead to ill-conceived and myopic decisions at best and totally dishonest, illegal and fraudulent ones at worst. Essentially, we have created a system where we reward short-term success, at any cost, and penalize long-term or strategic thinking, the type that leads to real and sustainable growth.

This is not a viable model of capitalism and more importantly it is based largely on false premises and unrealistic expectations. It is not the fundamentals of capitalist theory that are in question but the people applying them who seem to have become increasingly devoid of ethics, morals, principles and personal responsibility. We have created a system where winner takes all, at the expense of everyone else. If we continue down this path we are putting the wonderful system of capitalism on a path to failure and also creating conditions for major social unrest across the world.

It seems that all sins are permissible as long as companies continue to produce profits. And when senior leadership fails, they simply move on to the next job with a golden parachute, instead of into management oblivion or jail where they really belong. After Enron, every senior executive learned to never leave an email or paper trail; when topics broached sensitive territory in e-mails, they would often write ‘LDL’—let’s discuss live.” (Source: New Yorker). It used to take generations to amass substantial wealth. Today, between Wall Street hedge funds and Silicon Valley startups Rockefeller and Vanderbilt-like wealth is being created in a matter of years, and is often based on valuations pulled out of blue sky or based on misleading small investors.

Even the world of academia has succumbed to this growing greed and worship of money. Colleges, whose critical role was to broaden minds beyond traditional spheres of influence and thinking and to encourage generations to discover, are busy peddling sophisticated financial models that help companies evaluate ‘risk.’ Professors have become advisers to large corporations, showing up on company boards and espousing ‘financial and economic’ expertise via regular columns in newspapers or appearances on television and basking under the bright lights of six and seven figure celebrity. 

There are numerous reports of how talk of becoming a doctor, public servant, poet or teacher has long disappeared from the modern day dorm rooms. Today, it is all about how kids can make their first million dollars before starting their sophomore year in college. 

We have moved away from the notion of steady, honest hard work as the key recipes for success to a model that supports fast, easy, reality-TV-type do-nothing success. Everything is about an exit and not about building companies that span generations. Bluster wins the day while substance, it seems, is considered old-fashioned and outdated.

With this approach to success we have washed away the fundamental human values and principles that used to govern our inner consciences. We are looking out for ourselves (in much larger numbers than generations before us) and worried less about improving the lives of our employees, communities and children.

So we can blame our politicians, the business elites, media and everyone else for our woes and push for stricter laws and more stringent regulation, but I don’t believe this will solve the deeper underlying problem we are facing; we have made money our new God. It is this greed that we need to tackle; one that forgoes ethics, principles and decency in a bid to get ahead. 

Until we remember that each of us has a greater responsibility to society and to the generations that follow, we will remain plagued by this imbalance in our lives and in our little global village.