I watched the Congressional Hearing over misinformation from last week - 5 hours and 40 minutes, the whole damned thing. Here is what I’ve learned.
These types of hearings (there were a few in the past) are not being held to gain knowledge or to regulate Big Tech. These hearings serve mostly as a shouting match and an opportunity for politicians to show off, to demonstrate to the public that they are in control, when in fact they are not.
The tech CEOs seem to be getting more and more annoyed with every hearing while mastering the art of dodging questions. They learned how to play along and not letting themselves being tricked into highly presumptuos and overpacked yes or no questions by the congressmen and women.
“I don’t think we should be the arbiters of truth and I don’t think the government should be either” - Jack Dorsey
Of all the CEOs, Jack Dorsey seemed to be the most honest one. Not only he was the only one amongst the three, who admitted that his platform (Twitter), at least in part, was responsible for what has happened on January 6 this year. He was also the only one, who acknowledged the problem of algorithms and that they need to be made transparent to the public.
Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, Messenger) and Sundar Pichai (Google, YouTube) played it safe and relied on prepared talking points. They hid patiently behind their well trained corporate masks, especially Pichai, who remained calm at all times while speaking softly and in a ZEN-like tone.
“Any system can make mistakes” - Mark Zuckerberg
Amongst the three, Facebook seems to be the most elaborate to trying to prevent unwanted regulation, by presenting its own ideas of counter-regulations. For instance Zuckerberg demanded explictly higher standards for content moderation on internet platforms with exceptions for smaller companies (a concession and smart move, regarding the dwelling antitrust actions towards Big Tech).
Neither of the CEOs acknowledged their platforms to be media companies and therefore would be willing to give up Section 230 from the Communications Decency Act, that “jail free card” for illegal content published on internet platforms.
The more I watch media events like the latest Big Tech Congressional hearing, the more worried I become about the future of our democracies. My worries are not so much grounded in the fear of Marvel-like Big-Tech villans who are deliberatly burning down the world by turning societies against each other. My worries go deeper than that.
I get the feeling Zuckerberg himself doesn’t know better. That the tech bosses are as clueless and surprised as we were over what has happened in the recent years in the US, in Europe and around the world. Yet they are clearly sitting in the drivers seat of these developments promising over and over to do better, when their priorities clearly lie somewhere else. Which brings me to my second conclusion, the role of the regulators.
Being a journalist talking to politicians myself, there is a growing feeling that they are mostly overwhelmed by the technological revolution. That most of our current elected members of parliament, even if they are well briefed by their younger staff members, don’t fully get the deep and complex underlying problems that come along with the digitization and the network effects of our world.
Most of all, and this might be the most inconveniant truth that I realized after watching the hearing, is that we can not longer rely on either side of the acting parties to solve these issues for us. I believe that the transformation of our society is and will become more so over the coming years our very own responsibility to deal with. That we, as the in-between-generation, a generation that is not analog any longer but not fully digitalized yet, must reclaim responsibility for our own doing, and play a more active part in dealing with all the good but also the bad that comes with these shiny tech gadgets and toys, that can easily turn into weapons.
That doesn’t mean we should not hold Mark Zuckerberg or Susan Wojcicki for that matter, the CEO of YouTube, personally responsible for the poisonous wells that they are running and that we all drink from (Google speak: “Only a fraction of the content on our platform is harmful…”).
But in times when we have access to all the information that once was only accessable to the elite, in times when the powers of the middlemen orgaizations, the parties and the elected representatives fade due to the internet and our smartphones, we are all directly connected to eachother, we must acknowledge that in such a “brave new world” we all play a bigger role in what is happening to us and our society as we’d like to think.
We must educate and guide our politicians, we must watch our corporations carefully and regulate them if they don’t serve us as a society. And yes, all of that applies also to ourselves. As we approach technologies like AR, VR and AI, we must not stop being willing to learn and to adopt new skills. To understand that it is not only our computers, our smartphones and may be soon our smart glasses that require constantly software updates.
My greatest fear is, that one day in a dystopian future of tribal and civil wars, my grand-children will ask me why we have not seen this coming, why we have not acted when there was time. My greatest hope is that we will figure it out and that we will do our homework and that we will have found a way how to tackle this generational burden that lays upon our shoulders.
It’s up to us.