Silicon Valley Needs Counseling for Its God Complex

Silicon Valley Needs Counseling for Its God Complex

By Mike Elgan

NEWS ANALYSIS: Silicon Valley Internet companies are all too willing to monitor, manipulate and experiment with their customers, displaying God-like indifference to their human rights and privacy.

You heard about the most recent Uber scandal, right? The San Francisco-based ride sharing service has been plagued by accusations of anti-competitiveness, user privacy violations, driver exploitation, sexism and more. The most recent controversy started when Buzzfeed reported that Uber senior vice president Emil Michael was quoted as saying at a Silicon Valley dinner that Uber should hire researchers to investigate journalists in general, and to specifically expose something he claims to know about Pando Daily founder and journalist Sarah Lacy, who had been critical of Uber. His message to journalists was that they could expose “your personal lives, your families” and do to journalists what he believes journalists do to people in the industry.
Michael later said he regretted his comments and that they don’t represent his or the company’s views. He was probably joking or venting and believed the comments to be off the record.

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But then it got interesting. In conveying Michael’s regrets, an Uber spokesperson relayed that it’s against Uber’s company policies to look at journalists’ travel logs, saying that “access to and use of data is permitted only for legitimate business purposes.” That last comment brought the public’s attention to an article written by Forbes’ Kashmir Hill a month earlier. In that piece, Hill exposed Uber CEO Travis Kalanick entertaining tech people at a party with something Uber calls “God View”—a view of all the Uber cars and waiting riders in any city. One attendee says she had seen at one party in 2011 the names of all the customers in God View—she recognized some of them and even texted entrepreneur Peter Sims, telling him she knew where he was. Sims reportedly freaked out and quit using Uber. It also raised questions about the nugget of personal information about Sara Lacy that Michael’s claims to know. Did he learn it by tracking her on Uber’s God View?

I’ll leave accusations of privacy violations and speculation about what else “God View” is being used for to others. In this column, I want to look at the mindset of successful Silicon Valley people. Do they have a God Complex? Since the launch of the app Whisper, hardly anyone thought much about what the startup was doing with information it knew about the location of users. Whisper is an app that lets you send messages to your friends anonymously. They know it came from someone they know, but they don’t know who. A controversial story in The Guardian claimed that Whisper actually tracks users and acts upon that information in ways that should alarm users. The paper also said Whisper developed an in-house mapping tool that enables staff to pinpoint messages to within 500 meters of their send point, and also track an individual’s location over time. Call it “God mode.” Why not?

The publication further revealed that messages are never deleted, and in fact are sometimes shared with the Pentagon, the FBI and MI5. Whisper, in fact, has a news organization that monitors newsworthy users, tracking their movement and activity on the app. They’ve publicized news based on monitoring Whisper users about Gwyneth Paltrow and American Apparel founder Dov Charney. They tracked Israeli soldiers in the Gaza war because they could easily identify them due to their location plus their comments. Whisper defended itself in this Medium post. There’s some disagreement between The Guardian and Whisper about what Whisper actually does, and total disagreement about the ethics of what Whisper does. But it’s clear that Whisper has had an Uber-like God complex for some time, watching users, divining their activities, intervening in life-and-death situations (like war, crime and suicide) and that all the while, users thought their locations were secret, their messages deleted and their behavior invisible. Facebook has always had a God Complex. At an unusual town hall style Q&A session, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg admitted that only about 10 percent of your posts on average are delivered to your family and friends. Likewise, you see only about 10 percent of what they post.

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As people increasingly rely on Facebook to maintain their relationships, Facebook is in the position to decide who you keep up with and who you forget about. Facebook’s criteria for deciding who you’re close with are a tightly held secret. You can’t know why you never hear from your old friend or why that person you barely knew in high school now dominates your News Feed. Those reasons are best left to a higher power (Facebook’s pantheon of engineers). There are many examples of Facebook’s God Complex. One emerged in June when the world learned that Facebook conducted a psychological experiment on about 700,000 users. The experimenters deliberately manipulated News Feeds to make users sad or happy to see if they would post accordingly (they did). Facebook’s God Complex makes them comfortable manipulating people’s personal relationships and mucking with their moods.

Cupid was a God—the Roman god of desire, erotic love, attraction and affection. Now there is a company named OKCupid that behaves as if it was a capricious God of Roman times.
Back in August, OKCupid co-founder Christian Rudder openly bragged that: We experiment on human beings! (OKCupid is a data-driven dating site.) In one experiment, the company deliberately lied to its users and matched people when their own algorithms showed them to be incompatible just to see what would happen. The loves and lives of those little people down below exist to satisfy the curiosity of the Gods on Mount Olympus, apparently. The valley is also turning its God-like attention to replacing nature with new food creations. As I wrote in this space in October, tech entrepreneurs are working on creating “meat grown in a lab from cow stem cells, artificial salt, 3D-printed fruit and beverages that can nutritionally replace all solid foods.”

Google announced last month a project to embed nanoparticles configured to detect diseases in the bloodstream of human beings. They want to heal the sick by upgrading blood itself. The idea is that a pill would contain special nanoparticles, which would bind themselves to bodily cells and scan for problems. A wearable device would collect data from the particles as they coursed through your bloodstream and provide that data to your doctor. It’s clear that Silicon Valley companies have a God Complex, by which I mean they tend to boldly assert a deep influence on, control over or to monitor of the public in a variety of ways without a shred of humility or sense of trespass.

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People are often viewed as mere mortals to be trifled with or exploited with no feeling of obligation to ask permission or inform. But my belief about why they do this is probably the opposite of what it appears to be. Rather than feeling omnipotent, I believe Silicon Valley companies tend to feel small and obsessed with the fear that they may have no lasting impact at all. Every one of these companies began as a startup, one among many with the odds stacked against them. Each laboriously applied huge effort in small teams to discover some idea or set of ideas that could be implemented in a way that would impact people in ways that help them make money. Companies like this can grow big and powerful almost overnight. It all moves so fast that these teams continue to see themselves as scrappy underdogs even as they succeed. They trust themselves or their motives and genuinely feel they have no ill-intent. Meanwhile, they’re pressured from all sides to “push the envelope” in whatever way will give their company an advantage. It all adds up to something that feels to outsiders like a God Complex. So my advice to all tech companies is this: Come down from your illusory Mount Olympus and treat your users, who are sometimes called customers, as fellow mortals who deserve your humility, respect and consideration. Technology may give you God-like power. But the public is the real power. And if you don’t treat users and others with respect, they will smite you.

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