Finally, I figured it out: It’s a feature, not a bug.
That old Silicon Valley bromide was at the center of the finale this week of HBO’s satire “Silicon Valley,” the show that has perfectly and hysterically skewered tech and all its weirdness for six seasons.
“Silicon Valley” — from executive producers Mike Judge and Alec Berg — was always prescient and topical, but the last episode, “Exit Event,” nailed the most important point that the series and its motley crew of geeks has made throughout its run. It’s a point that explains a lot about where we are today with tech: You can’t build a safe internet, even when you try your hardest.
The punch line of the series was the perfect metaphor for today’s real-life digital landscape: A groundbreaking artificial-intelligence platform called Pied Piper (the actual product is called PiperNet) had become potentially dangerous and rats got activated to destroy the creation. (I should mention that I’ve made guest appearances on the show, playing myself.)
So if you want to know why so much of tech has seemed to become ever scarier — whether you read the report out last week from Uber about sexual assaults taking place across its car-hailing business, or the multipart series in The New York Times on how services like gaming or video platforms have become hunting grounds for pedophiles, or listened to numerous Republican politicians spew propaganda online about Ukraine meddling in American elections — let me break it down for you.
Simply put, far too many of the people who have designed the wondrous parts of the internet — thinking up cool new products to make our lives easier, distributing them across the globe and making fortunes doing so — have never felt unsafe a day in their lives.
They’ve never felt a twinge of fear getting into a stranger’s car. They’ve never imagined the pain of privacy violations, because rarely have they been hacked or swatted or doxed. They’ve not been stalked or attacked or zeroed out because of their gender, race or sexual orientation. They’ve never had to think about the consequences of bad choices, because there have been almost no consequences of failure. They have never worried about losing their high-level status, living lives defined by the line on their company growth charts: “up and to the right.”
Literally, up and to the right. Despite all the mishegas over everything from election interference to hate speech to disinformation to screen addiction to President Trump’s toxic tweets, after a tough 2018, tech shares in the S&P 500 are up more than 40 percent as 2019 comes to a close, way above the overall index.
Amazon is up 16 percent. Alphabet has soared close to 29 percent. Microsoft is zeroing in on a 50 percent gain, while Apple is killing it at 70 percent. And Facebook, the social networking giant that has attracted the ire of so many for so much? Up 53 percent.
Big tech includes the most valuable companies on the planet, with two in the trillion-dollar valuation club (Apple and Microsoft), one coming close (Amazon) and another closer (Alphabet).
Which is why I found it striking and laudable that it was Uber — whose shares have plummeted since its I.P.O. in May — that was out front as the year ends by delivering on its promise to publicly reveal all of the unsafe incidents on its platform.
The report the company delivered last week noted that it had more than 3,000 incidents of sexual assault of varying degrees in 2018, a small number compared to the overall ride volume, even though that’s a higher number than reported on other transportation systems.
Among the problems were shoddy background checks. How well — or not — the company vetted its drivers has been a long-running problem that its more recently appointed managers have been trying to fix.
“The numbers are jarring and hard to digest,” said Uber’s chief legal officer, Tony West, in an interview last week in The New York Times. “What it says is that Uber is a reflection of the society it serves.”
While Mr. West has a point — humans often do act like beasts — it’s one that tech companies often rely on as a go-to explanation for misdeeds. When things go wrong, executives often point to the cruel world and say that they cannot control how their inventions are used by the teeming masses and the inevitable malevolents. Also often pointed out: The bad acting is just a tiny sliver of the massive use of their products.
All true, but that’s actually the bug, not the feature. The real problem, which was perfectly depicted on “Silicon Valley,” is that thoughtlessness is a feature, lack of reflection is a feature, a drive to grow at all costs is a feature and, most of all, the sloppy and lazy ways in which tech too often designs and deploys its inventions are the ultimate features.
Uber had been the poster child for this, of course, with its go-go-damn-the-torpedoes ethos under the co-founder and former chief executive Travis Kalanick. While creating a product that hit the bull’s-eye of a market need, it did so by flouting regulations meant to protect customers, like doing those pesky background checks and crowing about how you had to drive fast to win big.
Even now, Uber’s chief executive, Dara Khosrowshahi — who replaced Mr. Kalanick after he was ousted for hit-and-running over a lot of stuff — is still cleaning up the mess and trying to put in place safety features that should have been there in the first place. He’s had to awkwardly bolt them on, of course, because the idea of thinking of safety first has never been at the heart of anything Uber or most of Silicon Valley does.
So, kudos to Uber for at least putting a mirror to the ugly parts of its face and not looking away. Like all of tech — whether it is around issues of privacy, disinformation, hate speech, screen addiction or the abuse of children online — the company probably should have thought of it at the beginning, rather than after damage was done.
“There is no law, regulation or lawsuit that is forcing Uber to make this data available,” Mr. West said to The Times. “We are doing this, frankly, because the public has a right to know.”
The truth is, we always did.
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