Thursday, April 14, 2022

This article caused me an "Oh crap" moment after 40 years worrying about advocating computer tech; Elon Musk's Twitter offer magnifies the anguish

I had just placed in perspective my worries after reading the above article a few days ago when Elon Musk's offer to buy Twitter made the headlines. Today at the livestreamed TED 2022: A New Era conference Musk explained that he hopes to “open source the algorithm” to try and improve trust in the platform.

“Twitter has become kind of the de facto town square, so it is just really important that people have the reality and the perception that they are able to speak freely within the bounds of the law,” Musk noted.

He added: “This is not a way to make money, my strong intuitive sense is that having a public platform that is maximally trusted and broadly inclusive is extremely important to the future of civilization, I don’t care about the economics at all.”

It is unclear what Musk thinks "the bounds of the law" are when free speech is the issue. But one thing is certain - Musk feels no constraints and given his economic resources has no constraints. 

Much of the world's population is constrained and feels frustration and anger regarding the constraints. Technology has evolved to the point that the one thing that has become nearly totally unconstrained is the ability of that population to express that frustration and anger to literally everyone else, instantly, to amplify that frustration and anger.

As a member of the "Silent Generation" I feel troubled by even the small, but active role I played in my early unconstrained embrace of computer technology evolution.

In December 1980 my wife and I started a business providing computer services, computerization studies and computer sales to businesses and government.

We were using Tandy Model II's, adding Model 100's (both of which would be considered primitive today), writing and rewriting software. These were early commercially successful computers offered by Radio Shack. By early, I mean they were preceded by the Model I, and the Model 100 was a laptop, maybe the first commercially successful true laptop.

From the beginning we noticed that - contrary to the propaganda - we were generating more paper than ever, not reducing the paper load as was one of the early arguments for computer use. 

But we forged ahead with a future of using computers, though still troubled by the symbol of a lot of results not quite like we anticipated - printouts piling up in and on filing cabinets, desks, etc., which now are huge files stored in the clouds - to what end is unclear.

By the late 1990's we were using Motorola second generation handheld mobile phones. Understand that these were phones, just using radio frequencies to connect to other folks using their wired phones in their businesses and homes, though we could talk to each other and to a few others directly via those radio frequencies.

In the mid-2000's we observed another troubling phenomenon. We had a grandchild that never lived a life that did not include watching screens - TV screens of course, but tablet-shaped toys with screens, and then computers and cell phones with screens which came to be referred to as "devices."

We worried about this, but couldn't quite pin down the broad societal "why" of that worry.

As we all now know, the most socially significant result of this technological evolution is today's social media, as explained in the article linked to the image above:

    Social scientists have identified at least three major forces that collectively bind together successful democracies: social capital (extensive social networks with high levels of trust), strong institutions, and shared stories. Social media has weakened all three. To see how, we must understand how social media changed over time—and especially in the several years following 2009.

It is a long, well-written article that offers a warning about the future:

    ...The newly tweaked platforms were almost perfectly designed to bring out our most moralistic and least reflective selves. The volume of outrage was shocking.
    It was just this kind of twitchy and explosive spread of anger that James Madison had tried to protect us from as he was drafting the U.S. Constitution. The Framers of the Constitution were excellent social psychologists. They knew that democracy had an Achilles’ heel because it depended on the collective judgment of the people, and democratic communities are subject to “the turbulency and weakness of unruly passions.” The key to designing a sustainable republic, therefore, was to build in mechanisms to slow things down, cool passions, require compromise, and give leaders some insulation from the mania of the moment while still holding them accountable to the people periodically, on Election Day.
    The tech companies that enhanced virality from 2009 to 2012 brought us deep into Madison’s nightmare. Many authors quote his comments in “Federalist No. 10” on the innate human proclivity toward “faction,” by which he meant our tendency to divide ourselves into teams or parties that are so inflamed with “mutual animosity” that they are “much more disposed to vex and oppress each other than to cooperate for their common good.”
    But that essay continues on to a less quoted yet equally important insight, about democracy’s vulnerability to triviality. Madison notes that people are so prone to factionalism that “where no substantial occasion presents itself, the most frivolous and fanciful distinctions have been sufficient to kindle their unfriendly passions and excite their most violent conflicts.”
    Social media has both magnified and weaponized the frivolous....

Today we understand that worry we had, the "why" that troubled.

As early as 1996 the widening use of mobile phones in law enforcement caused one writer to note that "all these covert horizontal exchanges are potential breeding grounds for autonomous subgroups and informal organization as well as for various kinds of deviant behavior, because the participants can easily agree to attenuate or circumvent prescribed rulings."

At that time the mobile phone was still only a means of voice communications, not the primary visual and audio access to interact with the world for the vast majority of individuals. And it needs to be understood that the current level of interaction is without societal constraint.

Exactly how this means to create a nearly instantaneous "twitchy and explosive spread of anger" could be constrained in a democratic society fully committed to unconstrained communications is difficult to imagine. 

But it will be critical to the survival of democratic forms of government to deal with the shift of the concept of "free speech" from an environment of the "founding fathers" time that essentially limited communications between individuals to those physically present in a common space to a reality that almost anyone, almost anywhere in the world, at any time can communicate speech and images privately to anyone anywhere else in the world.

As I am very old and will not see the outcome of this, I can only hope that younger people such as Jonathan Haidt, the author of the article can guide a process towards an outcome consistent with the beliefs of James Madison. Otherwise the Chinese have a better chance of maintaining their society than we do ours.

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