These three books embrace all the important issues for asset managers with portfolios, index funds and ETFs based on or including IT giants: Amazon (AMZN), Facebook (FB), Google (GOOG) (GOOGL), Twitter (TWTR), Microsoft (MSFT), LinkedIn and companies dependent on internet platforms and network effects for their market share and valuation. Recent Congressional hearings and the new EU law General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) are now in effect in the European Union, as well as the struggle over Internet governance at the International Telecommunications Union between competing US, Russian and Chinese models. These battles are all about how humanity is learning to govern our relationships with all our exploding information technologies and their unanticipated consequences for our privacy, our jobs and our democratic forms of government.
Musician philosopher and Microsoft consulting scientist Jaron Lanier addresses the runaway monopolistic, colonizing capabilities of US giants Facebook, Twitter, Google and Amazon that dominate our social media worldwide. Lanier targets their business models based on advertising and behavior modification as unsustainable and offers immediate remedies for those users now fearful for privacy, personal autonomy and safety: Opt out! His 10 arguments are somewhat ungrammatical but fundamental:
I resonate most with 2, 4 and 9, since I avoid Facebook, Google, Twitter, LinkedIn and keep an iPhone in my desk drawer, only in case of emergency use in a power outage. Our two recent TV shows with NASA Chief Scientist Dennis Bushnell at Langley - "Future of the Internet" and forthcoming "Social Media in the Crosshairs" - explain all these issues and our opt outs, at least until the EU’s GDPR becomes a worldwide standard.
Behind Jaron Lanier’s call to unplug are his lucid explanations of the whys of each of his 10 arguments. They all relate to their business models and their drive to exploit the winner-take-all and network effects of the Internet, all focused on profit maximization. He shows how users are recruited in the early "honeymoon phase" and then become hooked by algorithms designed for "engagement." These Lanier translates as manipulation (with clickbait, stories, conspiracy theories) inducing outrage, fear, anger and victimization, which high-priced staff psychologists find work better than positive stories for keeping users’ attention. This is what I describe as the "attention economies" of all societies as this stage which become "mediocracies" - whatever their ostensible forms of government.
Lanier points out that this behavior manipulation produces a form of mild depression called "anhedonia" which is the way that users are delivered to advertisers. He cites how these business models gather users’ information to drive big data models and algorithms that contain cognitive biases, as also researched by mathematician Cathy O’Neal in"Weapons of Math Destruction" (2017). These big data models slice and dice population cohorts with targeted psychographics that advertisers want. These have now exploited divisions and polarized societies in western Europe and the US.
Lanier in his "Who Owns The Future" (2014) showed how the tide of digitization of post-industrial societies demeans individual production by copying this output and feeding it into machine learning. For example, in taking human translators' output and co-opting these language skills into automated systems that then compete with these humans. Thus, digitization on these profit-driven models drives inequality and the exploitive gig economy, while a few moguls like Zuckerberg amass fortunes. Author Douglas Rushkoff describes in "Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus" (2017) the desperation of those disemployed who work several jobs in this gig economy. Lanier’s practical advice: Only use email (but not Gmail) and wean yourself cold turkey off addiction to smartphones which are tracking you and all other social media - with the possible exception of LinkedIn, to which Lanier is an occasional advisor.
Some government officials with high security clearances go further: Get off the internet, disable IoT devices and communicate by secure landline, fax, snail mail or face-to-face. This level of alarm is echoed by Henry Kissinger in his "How the Enlightenment Ends" in the Atlantic Monthly, May 15, 2018.
Physicist Amir Husain, CEO of SparkCognition, which specializes in cognitive computing, begs to differ in his The Sentient Machine" (2017). Husain sees artificial intelligence as an evolutionary capability of humans but also is concerned with many of the same ethical and moral issues that worry Jaron Lanier. However, Husain thinks we can learn to steer these new technologies in optimal ways if we are willing to address our current fears and the longer term social impacts. He addresses how human intelligence differs from machines with their mathematically-based logic and decision making. Humans still must exercise ethical choices and moral judgment. However, when all this innovation is being driven largely by private companies and for-profit or government surveillance motives it is all too easy to see how these societal issues and choices get left out.
The speedy "hare" of commercial innovation always outruns the "tortoise" of public debate, political action and government regulation. I witnessed these dynamics up close as a science-policy wonk in Washington at the National Science Foundation, the National Academy of Engineering and on the Technology Assessment Advisory Council to the US Office of Technology Assessment (OTA), charged with building future models and scenarios projecting the possible wider social and environmental impacts of science and technology and policy choices in all sectors. Canada has launched Algorithmic Impact Assessment. Congress shut down OTA in 1996 citing the free market as the best assessor of all these choices.
Yet the issues we are facing today in IoT, automation, big data, the Internet and unemployment might well benefit from consulting technology assessors in all our major universities and think tanks whom OTA contracted. Market failures now abound: From water pollution and toxic waste to climate change. Miraculously all of OTA’s path-breaking studies: Predicting climate change effects, the end of petroleum-driven cars, changes in healthcare, environment, education and the growth of renewable energy are all available online at the University of Florida Press Digital Library, including the 1980 report "Assessing Technology for Local Development" co-published with Ethical Markets in 2014, a free download, which forecast community-owned windfarms, solar rooftops, co-housing, micro-grids, community-supported agriculture and farmers’ markets we see today.
Author Husain sees less of these grounded innovations and focuses more theoretically on the future of machine-learning and AI, while voicing concern over unemployment, privacy and whether we need to install guaranteed minimum incomes, as many such experiments continue around the world. Husain’s erudite and highly philosophical approach is welcome, in contrast to the general venality of Silicon Valley, as described by Bloomberg’s Emily Chang in Brotopia (2018). Husain looks at humanity’s future and recommends Yuval Harari’s famous "Sapiens," also author of "Homo Deus" (2017).
Saving the best for last is Oxford University researcher at the Said Business School, Rachel Botsman’s "Who Can You Trust?" She examines how all these digital technologies: The internet, social media, blockchain, big data, algorithms, cryptocurrencies, are evolving. Many of these technologies brought people together with huge promise for democracy, expansion of human knowledge, and how they gradually altered the fundamental glue underlying all human societies: trust. This book is the most practical overview of all these innovations and trends in the digitization of industrial economies, a fitting sequel to Don Tapscott’s Blockchain Revolution (2016). Botsman updates the issues emerging in blockchain, distributed automated organizations (DAOs), smart contracts, as well as the cognitive biases and trust issues still unresolved. She covers the proliferation of cryptocurrencies and ICOs and the social media business models segmenting markets for advertisers and still driving societies apart.
Author Botsman has garnered rave reviews from luminaries Sherry Turkle of MIT, Andy Haldane of the Bank of England, Geoff Mulgan CEO of Britain’s National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts, Don Tapscott, author of Wikinomics (2010) and Blockchain Revolution. Botsman cautions us to slow down, pause and consider how to preserve society’s most precious and fragile asset: Trust.
Perhaps we should re-fund the still-dormant OTA to perform technology assessments on all these innovations, as former US congressman Rush Holt advocates from his new perch as President of the venerable American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). The new GDPR now in effect has raised the stakes for all internet users. The global struggle over its governance still rages between the US, Russia and China at the International Telecommunications Union in Geneva, part of the United Nations, as discussed by Alexander Klimburg in "The Darkening Web" (2016).
These three books will keep asset managers up to date on how all these issues may affect the valuation of their portfolios.
This article was written by
Disclosure: I/we have no positions in any stocks mentioned, and no plans to initiate any positions within the next 72 hours. I wrote this article myself, and it expresses my own opinions. I am not receiving compensation for it (other than from Seeking Alpha). I have no business relationship with any company whose stock is mentioned in this article.