So what’s the problem with Facebook?

Interesting NYT piece by Kevin Roose in which he points out that the key question about regulating Facebook is not that lawmakers know very little about how it works, but whether they have the political will to regulate it. My hunch is that they don’t, but if they did then the first thing to do would be fix on some clear ideas about what’s wrong with the company.

Here’s the list of possibilities cited by Roose:

  • Is it that Facebook is too cavalier about sharing user data with outside organizations?
  • Is it that Facebook collects too much data about users in the first place?
  • Is it that Facebook is promoting addictive messaging products to children?
  • Is it that Facebook’s news feed is polarizing society, pushing people to ideological fringes?
  • Is it that Facebook is too easy for political operatives to exploit, or that it does not do enough to keep false news and hate speech off users’ feeds?
  • Is it that Facebook is simply too big, or a monopoly that needs to be broken up?

How about: all of the above?

Zuckerberg’s monster

My Observer review of Siva Vaidhyanathan’s Anti-social Media: How Facebook Disconnects Us and Undermines Democracy:

The best metaphor for Facebook is the monster created by Dr Frankenstein. Mary Shelley’s story shows how, as Fiona Sampson put it in a recent Guardian article, “aspiration and progress are indistinguishable from hubris – until something goes wrong, when suddenly we see all too clearly what was reasonable endeavour and what overreaching”. There are clear echoes of this in the evolution of Facebook. “It’s a story”, writes Siva Vaidhyanathan in this excellent critique, “of the hubris of good intentions, a missionary spirit and an ideology that sees computer code as the universal solvent for all human problems. And it’s an indictment of how social media has fostered the deterioration of democratic and intellectual culture around the world.”

Facebook was founded by an undergraduate with good intentions but little understanding of human nature. He thought that by creating a machine for “connecting” people he might do some good for the world while also making himself some money. He wound up creating a corporate monster that is failing spectacularly at the former but succeeding brilliantly at the latter. Facebook is undermining democracy at the same time as it is making Mark Zuckerberg richer than Croesus. And it is now clear that this monster, like Dr Frankenstein’s, is beyond its creator’s control…

Read on

In the bleak midwinter, droning on

This morning’s Observer column:

Well, Black Friday has come and gone and this columnist has missed the boat – again. But if the marketing mythology is to be believed, countless millions of our better-organised fellow citizens have been dutifully clicking and purchasing.

This year, however, is slightly different because something new will have appeared on the wishlists of tech-savvy shoppers: drones. A quick search for them on Amazon.co.uk brought up 46 different models before I got tired of scrolling, ranging in price from under £20 to over £1,200. And over at the Apple store, they’re selling the Parrot AR.Drone 2.0 Power Edition Quadricopter, a snip at £299.95.

And that’s just the amateur/hobbyist end of the market. At the “serious” end, things rapidly get expensive…

Read on

LATER And you thought I was joking.

Well, see here: