Readings — From the January 2018 issue

Don’t Be Evil

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From Women, Whistleblowing, WikiLeaks, which was published last month by OR Books. The conversation from which this is excerpted took place in 2016 and was moderated by Joseph Farrell, a journalist. Renata Avila is a human rights lawyer. Sarah Harrison is a journalist and human rights advocate. Angela Richter is a theater director, activist, and writer.

Renata Avila: The intervention of Silicon Valley in not only Washington politics but global politics is seemingly unstoppable. Its scope has moved far beyond facilitating communications. Silicon Valley is pushing hard to take on functions that used to be performed by national governments, but globally and at a cost that local providers cannot compete with. The leaders of the major tech corporations are received by governments with the honors that correspond to a head of state.

It happens the other way around as well. You see politicians stopping by Washington and then flying on to Silicon Valley. The wealth that these companies have is larger than that of many countries put together. It’s a new form of global oligarchy.

Technology is creating a dangerous divide in wider society. Jobs in the most unstable and fragile countries and in the most precarious sectors of all societies are going to disappear soon. So even though they will be able to connect to the internet, the marginalized won’t be able to use it to effect meaningful change in their lives. They will simply be connected to devices that control, measure, monitor, and predict.

Angela Richter: We don’t have government, we have Googlement.

Sarah Harrison: It’s not just that Google is being used by the government or collaborating with the government. Google has actually been integrated with the government in a really frightening way.

Richter: It’s totally in the open. I think that the Silicon Valley ideology is more dangerous than the Islamic State, because, at a global level, it’s so much more powerful.

Avila: The Islamic State wants to occupy territory, control resources, and create a state. Their aim is very concrete and tangible. In the case of Silicon Valley, their domination is in our minds. We have experimented with artificial intelligence but have yet to experiment with superintelligence, and these guys in Silicon Valley will have in their hands the power to control a machine that’s more intelligent than humans. The people who will control this machine have a very specific ideology and set of ethics. How will they govern the machine?

Then there’s the DeepMind project. I met the guy behind DeepMind at a dinner party at Google HQ in London. We had the inventor of the web sitting on one side, parliamentarians from the UK government on the other, some celebrities and musicians, and then Google executives at the rest of the table. The DeepMind guy gave the keynote speech. He was bragging about how efficient his machine was at eliminating targets, and how good combat robots would be for the world because they would reduce civilian casualties. A musician who was listening, horrified, said, “Yes, but this is still a killing machine, right?”

Richter: I read today that Google has stopped using their old motto “Don’t be evil.” Over the past year I started to interpret the motto as referring to the public: “Don’t be evil and you have nothing to fear”—like a directive to the people.

Avila: The problems that we had forty years ago we still have: racism, unequal distribution of wealth, corrupt oligarchies…. Now we are just putting a layer of technology on top of that. It’s not going to fix what’s underneath.

Joseph Farrell Can you give any examples of a potential counterpower to Silicon Valley?

Richter: I think what we really need is to develop new models of utopia. This world is dominated by Silicon Valley’s ideology. At some point this brave new world will be revealed in all its emptiness. Silicon Valley’s ideology tells people that they are superfluous and that machines will rule the world. Is this a utopia? No! It’s just a slap in the face of humanity.

Harrison: People are too comfortable at present. So many of these developments that we and troubling, for 90 percent of people it’s not their problem.

Avila: It is good to dismantle the idea that the technological utopia will benefit all, that the benefits of the digital age will reach everyone. We have to make the exclusion visible and understand how our rights are being progressively eroded. For instance, we need to start educating children to see that data collection is a form of expropriation. We need to think about how we can embed rights in code, about how we can embark on creating a new legal design. At the moment what we have is a situation where those in power—the educators, the judges, the data protection authorities—don’t really understand new tech.

Harrison: You can see it when parliaments debate new surveillance laws.

Farrell: When you look to the next couple of years, how do you see the future?

Harrison: Coming up with answers to the problems faced by twenty-first-century civilization is not easy, but without answers it’s difficult to get the public interested in social movements. There has to be a real promise of a solution for getting involved in the struggle to be worth their while. I think that’s something we should work on within the left: having a concept of what we would like our society to be like, even if it’s not a fully developed utopia or a highly articulated model of a new political system.

Avila: And we shouldn’t sacrifice joy. Joy is a very serious matter. We should have fun while we fight—that’s something missing from our movements.

Harrison: We need to copy the Google concepts of making what we create the best, the most fun, and the easiest to use.

Avila: No, we shouldn’t just imitate Google. We can do better because we are a more diverse crowd. If that bunch of boring dudes in Silicon Valley created something so successful, a collective effort by brilliant people from all corners of the world can do something more powerful, something better.

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