The official theme of this year’s TED conference is “The Age of Amazement.” But the unofficial theme may well be “Ugh, Facebook.” The first two days of TED’s polished, elite gathering of technofuturists overlapped with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s painful-to-watch congressional hearing. That awkward timing only added fuel to the general air of anti-Facebook sentiment that’s been bubbling up in power corridors of Silicon Valley for the past year.
Facebook and Zuckerberg’s testimony loomed large in conversations at dinner parties. Venture capitalists rolled their eyes at Congress’s inability to land many solid blows against the executive. Some expressed surprise or frustration that Facebook is being so aggressively scapegoated; others added their own flavors of well-trod criticisms. (“How could they be so naïve?” “This is a long time coming.” “The arrogance is unbelievable.”)
But there was little disagreement that the world that TED embodies had markedly changed. It used to be a given that technology was leading humanity to a better place. Now, most at TED and throughout Silicon Valley acknowledge that the digital revolution also has enormous downsides. “If we’ve learned one thing in the last two years it’s that the technology that we’ve created can have unintended consequences,” said Chris Anderson, TED’s organizer and curator since 2002. “The future is amazing. There’s good, and there is also terrifying.”
From the TED stage, Jaron Lanier, a technologist credited with creating virtual reality, unleashed a rapid-fire critique of Facebook, Google, and the digital advertising industry.
Digital advertising started out innocent enough, he explained. Technologists wanted the internet to be democratic, accessible to everyone, and free. Advertising was the best way to build a business on a free product. “In the beginning it was cute,” Lanier said. The audience chuckled. But things became more sinister as the software tools and data collection became more sophisticated. “What started out as advertising can’t be called advertising anymore. It turned into behavior modification,” he said.
Lanier went a step further: “I don’t call them social networks anymore. I call them behavior modification empires.” The audience exploded with applause. “It’s not an empire of evil,” he clarified, noting that he has sold a company to Google. “Just a mistake.”
Lanier’s solution? Charge users money for services like search and social networking. His favorite theoretical model would require most people to pay a small fee, while others receive a subsidy to access the services, and still others are paid for giving the companies access to their data.
In Lanier’s view, the stakes are pretty high: “I don’t believe our species can survive unless we fix this,” he said.
Lanier’s critique served as an upgrade to the less-than-sophisticated questioning that Zuckerberg endured from many members of Congress. Lanier received eager applause throughout his talk, but some audience members grumbled that his ideas were not original in a time when it’s cool to pile on against big tech.
Indeed, Lanier acknowledged he’s been making the same criticism on the TED stage for years, which says as much about the influence of the TED audience as it does about his consistency. “In the meantime, if the companies won’t change, delete your accounts,” he concluded. The audience responded with a standing ovation.
Other speakers took similar digs. Yuval Noah Harari, an author and historian who appeared in hologram form, blamed Silicon Valley for creating tools for fascists. Tech companies pioneered methods of manipulation in order to sell us things, he said. “But now, the enemies of democracy are using this very method to sell us fear and hate and vanity. They cannot create these feelings out of nothing, so they get to know our own existing weaknesses and then use those against us,” he said.
Harari painted a bleak picture of the future, where dictatorships use data to control populations. What about when big corporations control all the data? Anderson asked him at the end of his talk. He didn’t mention Facebook, or Google—as if they were Lord Voldemort. But he didn’t have to. “In the end there isn’t such a big difference between corporations and governments,” Harari said.
Will humanity find a way to scrape through? Anderson asked. Harari was optimistic in the most depressing way possible. “As a historian, I know you should never underestimate human stupidity,” he said. “It’s the most powerful force that has shaped human history.”