We like to think of “technology” as only computing, but technology is much more than that. Refrigerators, airplanes, and firearms are all forms of technology. Any tool that gives us leverage is a form of technology. A pulley that allows a human to lift a bucket of water from their well is technology. The narrowing of what constitutes technology to computing alone has artificially limited debate on how to regulate the social media products destroying reason in society.
We have laws that limit the use of technology because that technology provides too much leverage to any one human being to potentially harm the rest of society. We have laws prohibiting the average citizen from owning and operating landmines and hellfire missiles. We have laws prohibiting the use of dangerous ingredients, such as chloroform and vinyl chloride, in cosmetics and food.
What other technologies are destructive to our society that we allow to exist without restrictions? I would argue the social media products, specifically those whose structure and governing algorithms incentivize outrage, fit the bill.
If you had the power of Christof, the omnipotent producer of The Truman Show, and you were to observe the effects of the social media outrage machines from afar — would you allow them to operate as is? Or would you add governors that slow or stop outrage online? From first principles the answer seems clear, their effect on debate has become cancerous.
To be clear, this is not an argument for censorship. There are no strange bedfellows here. This argument is about the plumbing, the pipes. Free speech is the bedrock of a free and democratic society, it is perhaps the most precious freedom known to man. It must be protected at all costs.
The solution to the outage problem lies not in dismantling social media products, but in restructuring them.
For example, de-emphasizing likes and favorites in the structure of a product would be akin to requiring pedestrian firearms are not fully automatic. Society agrees you can still have a gun, but you can’t have an M1 Abrams Tank. Growth and engagement algos can and should be changed too — they’re the materials inside the bombs that drive their disproportionate impact.
When you think about banning the aforementioned technologies of destruction you probably don’t think about them in terms of their ability to create leverage. We don’t say we’re banning a harmful technology, we say we’re banning a weapon. We say we’re banning a chemical. We say we’re banning a pollutant. We are only comfortable regulating technologies that we don’t consider to be technologies at first glance.
The computing revolution is a miracle whose potential we’ve only begun to realize. But in rewiring our interpretation of technology, that revolution has saddled us with blinders.
Our freedoms lie downstream of our information. Our information lies downstream our distribution. Absent a new technological paradigm, the only way to preserve those freedoms is to tame division downstream outrage. A reconfiguration of client layer technologies - Facebook, Google, and most importantly — Twitter will only be possible when they’re no longer given special status inside the broader framing of technologies in society. Unlocking the ability to apply the same standards of societal cost-benefit we do every other technology.
First published on March 6, 2021