Facebook's Frankenstein effect

The Frankenstein story, as so vividly penned by Mary Shelley in 1820, came at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution which brought the fruits of scientific knowledge to the masses. Victor Frankenstein's sub-creation monster turns against him, and the scientist and inventor rues the day he brought it to life.

At a November 2017 conference in New York City sponsored by the Clinton Foundation, two inventors who were there at the creation of Facebook expressed similar regrets for what they had created. In doing so, they became only the latest in a long series of technical types who have expressed various degrees of regret and guilt for creating new media such as radio, television, and Facebook.

Sean Parker served as the first president of the social-media giant Facebook, and when someone at the conference asked about the effects of Facebook on society, he recalled the thinking that went into the system's design. His reply deserves quotation at length:

"You know, if the thought process that went into building these applications, Facebook being the first of them to really understand it, that process was all about, 'How do we consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible?

That means that we need to sort of give you a little dopamine hit every once in a while, because someone liked or commented on a photo or post or whatever, and that's going to get you to contribute more content, and that's going to get you more likes and comments, you know, it's a social-validation feedback loop . . . It's exactly the kind of thing that a hacker like myself would come up with because you're exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology."

Another speaker at the conference, a former Facebook developer, when asked if he had done some soul-searching concerning his role in the creation of Facebook, said, "I feel tremendous guilt. . . . I think we have created tools that are ripping apart the social fabric of how society works."

Strong words. In deploring what happened to their technically sweet ideas, these inventors and entrepreneurs remind me of the words of Lee De Forest, who invented the vacuum tube which made radio broadcasting possible. In his later years, he became disgusted at what radio had become, and in 1940 wrote an open letter to the National Association of Broadcasters in which he protested, "What have you done with my child, the radio broadcast? You have debased this child . . . "

Vladimir Zworykin, who developed the first practical electronic television system for RCA in the 1930s, had nothing good to say about what it had become by the 1970s, and rarely watched TV himself. And Harold Alden Wheeler, a prolific radio and TV engineer and inventor, was well known for forbidding his family to watch TV at all.

What is it about engineers and software developers that makes them so sensitive to the negative impacts of their successful inventions? After all, Facebook does a lot of good too, in connecting families and friends separated by geography and letting people keep in touch who otherwise might not.

In fact, some who deplore the parlous state of our public discourse in the era of Facebook flaming and Presidential tweets look back with fondness to those good old days when electronic news happened only once a day at 6 PM on only three TV channels, and everybody heard more or less the same thing, carefully filtered through professional media editors. But that was the very same television programming that Zworykin and Wheeler deplored.

People who imagine things before they are created have to believe in them strongly, and believe that their creations will do some good—will do at least themselves good, and also perhaps other people as well. Only Sean Parker knows exactly what was going on in his mind when he cooked up first Napster and then contributed to the beginnings of Facebook.

But by his own testimony, he was basically hacking the human brain—taking advantage of the little squirt of dopamine most people get when they see that someone out there has acknowledged their existence positively, by sending an email, text, or a "like" on Facebook. Multiply those squirts by the millions every day, and there is the psychological engine that drives Facebook and most other social media.

By some standards, Sean Parker has nothing to complain about. He doesn't feel so guilty about Facebook that he has divested himself of the several billion dollars it has earned him. But it is rare to find people who have both devoted years of their lives to becoming technically proficient in a narrow field, and who can also take a wise, broad view of all the potential effects of their technical developments, both positive and negative, before they are developed. So when an idea of theirs takes wings and flies away like Facebook did, and in the natural course of events gets some people into trouble, they are disappointed, because they only imagined the good things that would happen as a result, not the bad things.

Any technology that is used by a large enough number of people is going to be used badly at some point, because the only Christian doctrine that is empirically verifiable is going to come into play: the doctrine of original sin. The culpability of the technology's developers depends on what they were trying to do to begin with. Wanting to connect people, and even getting rich, are not necessarily bad motives.

But once the technical cat is out of the bag, inventors can at least try to do what they can to mitigate the harmful effects of their technologies. After Alfred Nobel learned that what he would mostly be remembered for was the death and destruction wrought by his invention of dynamite, he hastily set up the Nobel Prizes partly as a kind of penance or compensation to humanity for the evil that his invention had done.

In 2015, Parker set up the Parker Foundation, a charitable organization whose focus includes civic engagement. Perhaps by this means, Parker and others like him can try to repair some of the social damage they see Facebook and other social media doing. The Nobel Prizes did not put an end to war, and I don't expect the Parker Foundation is going to lead on its own to a new era of sweetness and light in public discourse. But at least he's trying.

Karl D. Stephan is a professor of electrical engineering at Texas State University in San Marcos, Texas. This article has been republished, with permission, from his blog Engineering Ethics which is a MercatorNet partner site. His ebook Ethical and Otherwise: Engineering In the Headlines is available in Kindle format and also in the iTunes store.  


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