Who’s Fault Is It That Congress Doesn’t Understand Tech?

Since some of the people in the US Congress who grilled Facebooks’ Mark Zuckerberg a few weeks ago don’t “get” social media, they have no business questioning it?

“You need to experience the platform to understand what you’re talking about if you do want to challenge the validity of what the company’s doing,” said a former bureaucrat on CNET, while other voices concurred at Fast Company, Vox, and Reason.

The CEO of the PR agency behind Microsoft explained that the politicos would have done better had they listened “…to the people who actually use the tools…[and] often have a much more nuanced, deeper understanding of that intersection of technology and ethics.”

Granted, some of the questions were so stupid to be outright embarrassing. When Utah’s Orrin Hatch asked how Facebook makes money when it gives its services away for free, you can imagine cringing when Zuckerberg answered “Senator, we run ads.”

But that wasn’t an answer as much as it was a smug dismissal, since Facebook isn’t really in the business of running ads as much as capturing and keeping users’ attention.

Those activities raise other simple questions, only the answers are more complex.

Does Facebook record and save phone call and text data? Well, sort of, but not the actual contents, and it doesn’t use it for anything (yet). Does it collect data from non-users? That’s a bit more complicated, involving sites that use Facebook’s ad pixel or social APIs linking back to it; it also deletes it after 10 days of inactivity, but since most people are on the Internet somewhat regularly, it means it has info indefinitely.

How is content selected for display in individual news feeds? Well, that’s really kinda obscure, involving what you’ve looked at in the past, your interaction with friends, the popularity of stories themselves, and lots of math to predict how likely you are to view, like, comment on, and/or share it.

But since Senator Hatch didn’t pose his question properly, the answer he got sounded like it came from a cunning lawyer or glib dickhead.

Many of us have been similarly dismissed, because lots of tech is complicated. But it’s also not new; airplanes are complicated, as are nuclear reactors. How is it possible that government was able to regulate those activities…and everyone else could sort of understand them, too?

Back in the old days, it was the responsibility of innovators and their promoters to explain their activities to The Uninitiated. It wasn’t perfect — I’d bet there are a few folks sitting in congress right now who don’t know how planes stay in the air — but there was an underlying and shared assumption that better understanding would yield more effective and fair regulatory outcomes.

It was the responsbility of those in-the-know to explain things to the rest of us.

Today, what’s different is that many tech experts, and their hired apologists, don’t really want us to understand what they’re doing (or they’re unaware of the need, or unable to see beyond their in-the-know bubbles).

Trust us is a comfortable default answer when the questions stay too ignorant to merit replies.

It’s also a diversion when the truth might be too frightening or threatening to contemplate, and it amounts to an active lie to all those younger users whose “deeper, nuanced understanding” is really blind obediance, not enlightenment.

Tolerating…no, actively encouraging this lack of understanding has worked up until now, but we of the Great Unwashed may be tiring of it, as it’s becoming more obvious that the negatives of social tech that we’ve been told were unanticipated side effects are, in fact, features of the same systems that give us funny videos and targeted ads.

The EU’s GDPR could be setting standards for the US, and there’s probably more to come. Technology companies in general, not just Facebook, have a vested interest in enabling these long-overdue conversations.

If I had to make a prediction, soon there’ll be similarly ill-worded but necessary inquiries into the effects of smart city tech and A.I.

Providing truly illuminating and transparent answers might be a better strategy than belittling the questions and questioners.