On the slippery slope to AI a debate rages these days about whether Facebook and other social media platforms are in fact platforms or publishers.
A platform, like the physical raised stage whence the metaphor derives, it is a completely neutral enabler of communication, like the printing press or telephone.
We don’t blame the podium, the printing press or telephone for the horrors of the Nazi regime, but the Nazis couldn’t have done it without their help.
But unlike Gutenberg and Bell, the inventors of the earlier platforms, Mark Zuckerberg the founder and CEO of Facebook, is being treated by many people as a publisher, responsible for what gets published. It seems reasonable: if lots of people these days seem satisfied to be getting their news from social media, shouldn’t expect of those running the platform what we expect of a newspaper publisher? If people use social media for fake news and hate speech, for the hacking of elections, shouldn’t Zuckerberg do something about it?
All communication platforms have been used on both sides of all conflicts, to enable terrible as well as wonderful things. So why are we holding social media to a higher standard?
Here’s an idea. Is it possible we’ve reached a point in human history of beginning to question the value of new technology. We have a long history of viewing technology as inherently progressive, a servant of mankind. And ridiculing those who resist it as against human progress.
But maybe the very nature of some of the ingenious technologies we’ve come up with in recent times—nuclear power or artificial intelligence– is forcing us to take a more sophisticated look at that kneejerk equivalence of technology and human progress. Looking at the old adage differently: just because people are beating a path to, say, Facebook, doesn’t mean it’s a better mousetrap.
Insofar as the key idea of platform is as a neutral enablers of human expression, the term platform could be broadened to include virtually all our defining technologies, from automobiles and planes to nuclear power and AI all arguably in themselves neutral enablers of human expression. About some of these technologies, all of which have been used on both sides of all conflicts, we have, at least those whose conscience or commonsense have not been skewed by the profit motive, begun to have second thoughts.
Living for the past 70 years with nuclear power has turned many people and certain countries against this ingenious human technology. Yes, there’s the potential for “electricity too cheap to meter”, but on the other hand Chernobyl and Fukushima, and the seemingly inxoluble waste problem. And from the start, the nightmare of nuclear annihilation. On the whole, many feel, a genie we need to get back in the bottle.
After many decades of enjoying better mousetrap status, plastics’ downsides have begun to turn the tide of human opinion.
Guns are sort of a platform, a technology used by good guys and bad guys alike, as the NRA and fellow travellers insist. (It’s not the gun, but the user.) But statistics also suggest that countries which severely restrict access have many fewer homocides than, say, the US.
No doubt the telephone had a large effect on life starting in the late 19th century, but as far as I know, except for some initial griping about its invasion of private life, there was no big protest against its advent.
Requiring Zuckerberg to act as a responsible publisher, a role he clearly can’t play because it seems contrary to the very nature of the platform, is another way of saying that we as a culture have begun to doubt that the overall impact of this particular platform – its Pied Piper addictive effect on on users, the undermining of democracy—may not be in the best interests of human life and prospects.