Josh Hawley pretends to be against big government. He pretends to be against the “nanny state.” But since the second he got into power, nearly everything he’s proposed has been about increasing government control over industry. But just one industry. The internet/tech industry that he has personally decided doesn’t work the way he thinks it should. Beyond trying to get rid of Section 230, Hawley has proposed a bill that literally makes design choices for internet companies. Earlier this year, he introduced another bill that tries to design features for online video sites. He’s made it clear that he doesn’t like internet site because his constituents like them too much, which seems odd.
And, just a week after the Wall Street Journal rightly mocked this approach, and explained that his constant refrain that there is no innovation coming out of Silicon Valley anymore is laughable… the very same Wall Street Journal has allowed Hawley to simply repeat his nonsensical claim that there is no innovation coming out of Silicon Valley (likely behind a paywall):
Men landed on the moon 50 years ago, a tremendous feat of American creativity, courage and, not least, technology. The tech discoveries made in the space race powered innovation for decades. But I wonder, 50 years on, what the tech industry is giving America today.
Nice poetic start… by essentially announcing to the world that you’re totally ignorant of what’s happening in tech and innovation today. That’s one strategy.
Innovation in physics—the world of real things—has slowed, and America is losing its manufacturing process edge in key industries. Meanwhile, the landscapes of our cities and towns look about the same as they did half a century ago.
[Citation needed]. It’s unclear how you decide that “innovation in physics… has slowed,” but one simple point on that is that the easier challenges have been solved, and people are working on much harder stuff. Similarly, it’s unclear how you determine that we’ve “lost our manufacturing process edge.” According to whom? And what? The US is still a massive manufacturing country, neck and neck with China. It is true that fewer jobs are in manufacturing, but much of that is because of process innovations. And I’m not sure what the landscapes of our cities and towns have to do with anything at all.
There’s no question that Silicon Valley and the three or four corporate behemoths that dominate it have made it easier to share information. But the modern smartphone, the search engine and the digital social network were invented more than a decade ago. What passes for innovation by Big Tech today isn’t fundamentally new products or new services, but ever more sophisticated exploitation of people.
It’s totally fair to note that innovation in search engines, smartphones and social networks has slowed down, but to argue that this is the end of innovation and that the only thing Silicon Valley is working on today is “sophisticated exploitation of people” is laughably ignorant. First of all, the smartphone is really only about a dozen years old. That’s still a pretty damn recent innovation. Successful tablets are even younger. That’s pretty recent.
And there’s lots of other amazing innovation still happening — in fact, much of it driven by the revenue successes of those older innovations that Hawley is now mocking: self-driving cars, space exploration, distributed ledger technology, artificial intelligence, health technologies, robotics. Hell, there are even a whole bunch of flying car companies out here these days. You literally have to willfully not look to argue that all anyone is doing out here is working on “exploitation of people.”
To monetize older innovations, the dominant platforms employ behavioral scientists to develop interface designs that keep users online as much as possible. Big Tech calls it “engagement.” Another word would be addiction.
There is some fair criticism hidden within the sneering. It is reasonable to wonder if this is the best use of the time of some people who work on things like engagement (which, it should be noted, is fundamentally different from addiction). But if that work is actually about providing a better product that people find more useful, that’s a good thing, no? I admit that there may be a fine line between building a better product and using tricks to keep people engaged when they shouldn’t be. But it’s still more of a line than Hawley is willing to admit here.
By getting their users to spend more time on their platforms, the social-media giants turn the customer into a data source to be sucked dry. Here’s how it works: The more attention users give the platform, the more personal information the platform extracts from them, recording every click, view and preference. Big Tech then converts this information into advertisements, all targeted with increasing precision—which produces even more advertising dollars for Big Tech.
Yes, that’s the narrative that some people like to push. But here’s the thing: there’s no “sucking” anyone “dry.” Data is not a finite resource. You don’t go dry of data. And, yes, if these systems actually work in giving people more of what they want, then isn’t that the market at work? Isn’t that what people like Hawley always pretended they supported? And if, as I suspect, all this targeting doesn’t work all that well in most use cases, then these efforts will flop and people will learn and move elsewhere.
What “innovation” remains in this space is innovation to keep the treadmill running, longer and faster, drawing more data from users to bombard us with more ads for more stuff.
Again, this ignores nearly every other bit of innovation happening in the Valley today. I hate to spoil this for Hawley — who really seems to be itching for the job of “Product Manager, all of Silicon Valley” — but the “engagement” jobs are not the ones that engineers and techies are excited about these days. It’s all the stuff in the list above. The exciting jobs are in new areas, built on “moonshots” and exciting new technologies.
But here’s the problem. As we spend more time on that digital treadmill, our real-world relationships atrophy, sometimes to disastrous effect. Teen suicide is up. Twenty-two percent of millennials report that they have no friends. More than a few researchers have noticed a connection.
Everyone’s got studies. Just recently we pointed to a pretty comprehensive and rigorous study out of Oxford that found almost no impact of social media on “adolescent life satisfaction.” While there may be a clear correlation between social media use and depression/suicide, to say there’s a causal relationship seems based on little more than speculation. The Oxford study actually tried to dig in and go beyond the correlation, and found that “social media use is not, in and of itself, a strong predictor of life satisfaction across the adolescent population.” That’s not to say it doesn’t have any impact — it clearly does. But, in many cases, social media use actually increased “life satisfaction,” by giving people others they could talk to, often about topics they might not be able to discuss with people who are in the same general location. Focusing narrowly on assumed causation, as Hawley does, likely would mean taking away all of the benefits of social media, and the ability to connect with others in an attempt to weed out what negative effects there are as well.
At the same time, the dominant tech companies’ market concentration is stifling competition that might bring truly new and rewarding innovation. Want to raise money for a venture to challenge Facebook or Google? Good luck. The best pitch for a startup is a pitch for getting purchased by one of the tech giants a few years in. If they won’t buy you, they’ll just copy you.
If this were true, we’d likely see a decline in venture investing. But we don’t. It keeps going up and up. And there are lots of entrepreneurs who want to challenge Facebook and Google. Most entrepreneurs talk about wanting to be “the next” Facebook or Google, just like those before them wanted to be the next Microsoft or Yahoo. It’s kind of a thing that Silicon Valley specializes in. Indeed, I was just talking to a venture capitalist recently who is actively looking for startups to challenge Facebook and Google, because he thought those companies have gotten so big and so cumbersome that they’re ripe for disruption.
Americans shouldn’t settle for this stagnation.
It’s time we demanded more of Big Tech than it demands of us. That’s why I’ve proposed banning the “dark patterns” that feed tech addiction. I’ve introduced legislation to provide consumers a legally enforceable right to browse the internet privately, without data tracking. I’ve advocated stepping up privacy safeguards for children and requiring tech companies to moderate content without political bias as a condition of civil immunity. And I’ve advocated more competition to spur real innovation for real people.
These are all fascinating, if misleading, ways to spin his legislative solutions, that amount to little more than kneecapping how tons of internet services work.
It should be no surprise that the tech companies have fiercely resisted these proposals at every turn, often with hysterical claims about breaking the internet or putting the American economy at a disadvantage to China—as if “autoplay” or “infinite scroll” were powering American productivity. If those are the weapons we’ll marshal in an economic battle with Chinese high-tech manufacturing, the war is already lost.
This is an odd one to point out. No one thinks that prohibiting auto-scroll will lead to China taking advantage. But people do worry about taking away Section 230, or other odd restrictions on every internet company — including startup challengers to the big guys — opening up the space for Chinese startups (who are already taking market share: see TikTok). But, really, the autoscroll thing is so odd to highlight because that’s one of the most egregious examples of Hawley’s nanny state tendencies. Literally telling companies how to design their products.
To the masters of Big Tech, I say: Raise your sights. If you want to be leaders for this country in this century, earn it. Build tools that enrich lives, strengthen society, create good-paying jobs, and improve productive capacity.
Again, if Hawley ever actually bothered to look around, he’d see that all of that is absolutely happening. But Hawley won’t do that.
There was a time when innovation meant something grand and technology meant something hopeful, when we dreamed of going to the stars and beyond, of curing diseases and creating new ways to travel and make things. Those are the dreams that fuel the American future. Those are the dreams we need to dream again.
This is bizarre. Literally the hottest companies in Silicon Valley right now are all ones around “going to the stars and beyond, of curing diseases and creating new ways to travel and make things.” Hawley is either deliberately lying about Silicon Valley or so ignorant as to be in no position to comment on it. The WSJ should have stuck with last week’s op-ed, and rejected this nonsense one.