Engineering Ethics Blog: 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.

Sources:  Recordings of
the interviews from which the two quotations from Parker and his associate were
taken are available on the website https://relevantradio.com/2018/01/drew-mariani-show-jan-24-hour-1/,
approximately at minutes 16 through 20. 
A web report citing the same interview with Parker can be found at https://www.cnbc.com/2017/11/09/facebooks-sean-parker-on-social-media.html.  The information about Zworykin is from http://ethw.org/Vladimir_Zworykin.  Lee De Forest’s words on radio
broadcasting can be found in the Wikipedia article on him.  I also referred to the Wikipedia
articles on Sean Parker and Harold A. Wheeler.



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