There's One Encouraging Thought Buried In Zuckerberg's 2019 Challenge

from the some-potential dept

Every year Mark Zuckerberg sets a "challenge" for himself for that year, which as many people have noted, Facebook has turned into a big PR vehicle for the company. We usually don't even bother to write about it, because why bother? However, I'm intrigued by this year's "challenge" for a few reasons. The plan sounds fairly simple (and perhaps simplistic): he wants to host a series of public discussions about technology and society -- and about Facebook's role in it going forward:

There are so many big questions about the world we want to live in and technology's place in it. Do we want technology to keep giving more people a voice, or will traditional gatekeepers control what ideas can be expressed? Should we decentralize authority through encryption or other means to put more power in people's hands? In a world where many physical communities are weakening, what role can the internet play in strengthening our social fabric? How do we build an internet that helps people come together to address the world's biggest problems that require global-scale collaboration? How do we build technology that creates more jobs rather than just building AI to automate things people do? What form will this all take now that the smartphone is mature? And how do we keep up the pace of scientific and technological progress across fields?

My challenge for 2019 is to host a series of public discussions about the future of technology in society -- the opportunities, the challenges, the hopes, and the anxieties. Every few weeks I'll talk with leaders, experts, and people in our community from different fields and I'll try different formats to keep it interesting. These will all be public, either on my Facebook or Instagram pages or on other media.

This will be intellectually interesting, but there's a personal challenge for me here too. I'm an engineer, and I used to just build out my ideas and hope they'd mostly speak for themselves. But given the importance of what we do, that doesn't cut it anymore. So I'm going to put myself out there more than I've been comfortable with and engage more in some of these debates about the future, the tradeoffs we face, and where we want to go.

Not surprisingly, there has been plenty of mocking of this announcement, and perhaps some of it is deserved. Facebook had a bad year in 2018 for mostly deserved reasons. As we've discussed, the company tends to be its own worst enemy and many of its stupid decisions have done tremendous harm to the wider internet. Also it certainly appears that incompetent management, and conflicting priorities may very well be to blame for many of these mistakes. It deserves a wider discussion in another post, but one thing I've heard over and over and over again at this week's CES from other internet companies is how furious they all are at Facebook for making so many bad decisions and dragging everyone else down with them.

But, the reason I'm at least moderately encouraged by Zuckerberg's statement is that buried within it, he actually mentions a fairly radical idea that, admittedly, I've personally been pushing for years (including trying to suggest the idea directly to Zuckerberg), and that is that the big internet companies really should be moving to a world of protocols, backed by encryption, rather than being a full platform. The argument there, is that this moves the power and control out to the end users, rather than keeping it locked in a more centralized system. It also (conveniently) gets rid of many of the hard choices and policing requirements that are being lumped on the platforms themselves.

I've talked about this idea with tons of people -- including people at the various big internet platforms. And, frankly, the least receptive to the idea in the past has been Facebook. And, yet, buried in Zuckerberg's announcement was this bit:

Should we decentralize authority through encryption or other means to put more power in people's hands?

That's... exactly what I've been suggesting all these years. Obviously, just asking the question doesn't mean that anyone at Facebook is taking the question seriously. But, at the very least, I'm encouraged that this concept is even on Zuckerberg's radar -- and enough so that it was worth including in his short announcement. I'd still be shocked if Facebook really does go down this road, but it's at least a positive sign that Zuckerberg considers it an idea worth thinking about. And while it may be fun to mock Zuckerberg or make wild claims about his motivations and plans, when he actually suggests something that would put more power in the hands of users and remove that power from Facebook, we should probably be encouraging that kind of thing rather than mocking it.


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  • icon
    Mason Wheeler (profile), 9 Jan 2019 @ 11:47am

    when he actually suggests something that would put more power in the hands of users and remove that power from Facebook, we should probably be encouraging that kind of thing rather than mocking it.

    Yes we should, if we believed that 1) he'd actually do it and 2) he wouldn't find some way to pervert it into something that gives Facebook even more power in some way.

    Given Facebook's track record, this is a pretty big if!

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      James Burkhardt (profile), 9 Jan 2019 @ 12:18pm

      Re:

      But that doesn't mean we don't laud the idea.

      IN criminal Justice, it has long been noted that even the worse recidivists have better chances of turning their life around if people support them in their efforts to change.

      You suggest that we pan a good idea because we just assume it will be bad. We can praise an idea while acknowleging its drawbacks as they become apparent. I mean if you want to just burn all businesses to the ground, I suppose we can try that idea instead.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 9 Jan 2019 @ 12:24pm

        Re: Re:

        I mean if you want to just burn all businesses to the ground, I suppose we can try that idea instead.

        “Americans can always be counted on to do the right thing... after they've tried every other option?”

                  —— source

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        Mason Wheeler (profile), 9 Jan 2019 @ 1:06pm

        Re: Re:

        You suggest that we pan a good idea because we just assume

        that the person presenting it is insincere, based on past actions. As I said, if this is actually sincere, it would be a good idea and should be recognized as such. On the other hand, keep in mind the track record of who we're dealing with.

        "Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me."

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • icon
          James Burkhardt (profile), 9 Jan 2019 @ 2:24pm

          Re: Re: Re:

          Your first post reads "it is not a good idea because Zuckerburg has a terrible track record". The article is saying that we might be seeing what you admit is a good idea, and we should not condem a good idea. Your tone and words suggested that we should condemn him thinking of doing anything other than shutting down, because track record. That was my point. Perhaps it is your writing style that through me off. You don't, in general, seem to like detail.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

          • identicon
            Anonymous Coward, 9 Jan 2019 @ 5:14pm

            Re: Re: Re: Re:

            > Your tone and words suggested that we should condemn him thinking of doing anything

            If he was actually thinking of doing anything, that would be different. This "challenge" is nothing but standard issue transparent PR bullshit, though.

            reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 9 Jan 2019 @ 12:22pm

      Re:

      Zuckerberg only suggested talking/debating about these things, not actually doing them. It's entirely possible he'll take the "con" position when debating—but more likely he'll take no position, because he doesn't have to.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Roy (profile), 9 Jan 2019 @ 12:44pm

    he needs an easy year

    Poor Zuck needs to toss himself a softball this year. After all, he's still trying to make any progress at all on his 2018 "challenge" https://www.facebook.com/zuck/posts/10104380170714571

    I'm not sure it can be considered moving backwards, but headway is definitely in short supply there.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it
      identicon
      Hammond Fromage Seigle, 9 Jan 2019 @ 1:50pm

      Re: he needs an easy year -- Really, "Roy"?

      First undeniable Zombie of 2019.

      You crawl out after mere 30 months this time, AFTER 36 AND 32 month gaps, which is your WHOLE history since Sep 1st, 2011.

      Oh, and the user name: "cancon"? Real subtle, Zombie Master. But yes, you CAN CON the Techdirt fanboys ALL the time.


      Someone new may drift in, so just know that this is not the only "account" with ODD LONG gaps. The obvious, indeed only possible, conclusion is that Techdirt astro-turfs.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Bamboo Harvester (profile), 9 Jan 2019 @ 12:45pm

    They're taking it very seriously...

    ...just like the oil companies did in the seventies when they hosted all kinds of "alternative power" "fairs".

    And bought all rights to every feasible exhibit.

    Same here. They're looking for items that users want so they can add them or work around them. And items that users don't want to see so they can hide them if they implement them.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it
    identicon
    Hammond Fromage Seigle, 9 Jan 2019 @ 2:03pm

    A question is not a suggestion.

    [Zuck] Should we decentralize authority through encryption or other means to put more power in people's hands?

    [Masnick] That's... exactly what I've been suggesting all these years.

    This is just more of your (and Zuckerberg's) characteristic trick of quoting / raising questions to pretend have dealt with a topic and reasonably, when in fact behind the scenes it's -- not "wild conspiracy theories" as you try to dismiss up there -- but actual practical details to implement an agenda that I don't want.

    Zuckerberg's interest is "world's biggest problems that require global-scale collaboration" -- which is globalism. Exactly none of what Facebook does will be in my interests.

    when he actually suggests something that would put more power in the hands of users and remove that power from Facebook

    WHEN HE DOES -- which he won't. Don't know why you'd even write this, Masnick, except are pushing globalism TOO.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Chris-Mouse (profile), 9 Jan 2019 @ 2:45pm

    > moving to a world of protocols, backed by encryption, rather than being a full platform.

    That's not going to happen, and for one simple reason. If the power is moved away from the platform and out to the end user, the platform won't be able to suck up all the private information they make their money from. This undermines the business model of pretty much every internet platform out there.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Thad (profile), 9 Jan 2019 @ 2:51pm

      Re:

      It could be that Zuckerberg's current value calculation is that he needs to give up some control or risk losing all of it.

      He may not see "keep doing what we're doing" as an option. He may think his only choices are whether to cede some ground voluntarily and weaken his position, or to wait for a mass exodus of users or government regulation to put him in an even weaker position.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 9 Jan 2019 @ 4:46pm

    Oblivious Narcissist Billionaire Award.

    This really needs to be a thing.

    Determined by the most obliviously inept usage of the word "We"...

    Obviously Fuckerburg is a serious contender, but Who would win!???

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Darkness Of Course (profile), 9 Jan 2019 @ 10:32pm

    This is the default management mode in tech.

    Management is driven to not spend money, it cuts their bonuses. This observation is mostly from tech, which was my experience.

    To get management to accept the new idea, it must be repeated. See above 'for years'. Also, there exists a period of time when management can determine that this idea was indeed their own. This can happen during the length of a thirty minute meeting, as I have witnessed. I also saw a year long delay, but I printed out my email to the manager in question, and his latest proposal. Then I offered them to my friends, yep. Same idea, different acronym.

    Acknowledging that something could be improved indicates that the "something" is actually not perfect. Odds are very high that there is some actual personal investment to the old way by the existing management. Thus, they are not open to the new way.

    Besides, it might cost money.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 10 Jan 2019 @ 12:04am

    Should we decentralize authority through encryption or other means to put more power in people's hands?

    Translation:

    How can we pretend that we support what Berners-Lee is trying to do whilst actually undermining it and continuing on with our abominable business model forever?

    https://www.fastcompany.com/90243936/exclusive-tim-berners-lee-tells-us-his-radical-new-pl an-to-upend-the-world-wide-web

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Mason Wheeler (profile), 10 Jan 2019 @ 8:31am

      Re:

      Wasn't the Web originally pitched to us all as a decentralized system? But as things got bigger, they consolidated.

      There are both advantages and disadvantages to both centralization and decentralization, but history has shown that at large scale, economies of scale (one of the advantages of centralization) will always win out. What makes Tim Berners-Lee (or anyone else) think it will be different this time around?

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        Thad (profile), 10 Jan 2019 @ 9:18am

        Re: Re:

        Wasn't the Web originally pitched to us all as a decentralized system? But as things got bigger, they consolidated.

        That's true, but it's only part of the story.

        In the '80s up through the mid-'90s, there were competing, siloed private networks -- AOL, CompuServe, Prodigy, GEnie. Eventually, the open Web won out; the silos went away. I think this is because the open Web was objectively better: more choice, more interoperability.

        But in the years that followed, we've seen users kind of coalesce around a handful of providers again. There's a pretty good argument to be made that Facebook in 2019 is what AOL was in 1999 -- except instead of a monthly subscription fee, the cost is your personal information.

        It could be that this process is cyclical and people will abandon Facebook and similar silos for open alternatives again. Maybe.

        There are both advantages and disadvantages to both centralization and decentralization, but history has shown that at large scale, economies of scale (one of the advantages of centralization) will always win out.

        Not always. How's AOL doing these days?

        What makes Tim Berners-Lee (or anyone else) think it will be different this time around?

        Per the article, Berners-Lee seems mostly to be focusing on the developer's perspective: this will happen because it's what software developers want.

        I'm skeptical of that "if you build it, he will come" line of thinking. But at the very least, developer interest means that decentralization and user control of data becomes an option, even if it's not an option most users choose.

        There does seem to be some general dissatisfaction brewing against Facebook and Twitter, particularly following the 2016 election. I'm not ready to predict their deaths just yet, but they are vulnerable. The problem, I think, is that even if they were to collapse, it's entirely possible that some other silo would just take their place. (Possibly a silo owned by the same company -- what good does it do if people quit Facebook and go to Instagram?)

        There's another possibility: Facebook, Twitter, and the rest of the silos continue to exist, and continue to dominate the market, but a sizable portion of their userbase begins to choose other, decentralized alternatives instead. I think of this as analogous to, say, the beer industry: Anheuser-Busch Inbev isn't going anywhere, but a sizable minority of people prefer microbrews. It's good to have options.

        Berners-Lee may not achieve his goal of world domination, but if he builds a viable framework where users, not platforms, control the release of their personal information, then that's still a win.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • icon
          Mason Wheeler (profile), 11 Jan 2019 @ 9:25am

          Re: Re: Re:

          The Web was not another AOL or CompuServe, it was a new thing, and it's not valid to directly equate the two like that. The Web was a new system that started out highly decentralized, then (inevitably) consolidated over the next couple decades.

          > Per the article, Berners-Lee seems mostly to be focusing on the developer's perspective: this will happen because it's what software developers want.

          Which would be great if they were the decision makers. As a professional software developer myself, though, I know exactly how far removed that notion is from reality. The vast majority of the time, we follow The Boss's decisions and desires, even if we think they're dumb, because he's the one paying our salary and putting food on our tables.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

          • icon
            Thad (profile), 11 Jan 2019 @ 10:36am

            Re: Re: Re: Re:

            The Web was not another AOL or CompuServe, it was a new thing, and it's not valid to directly equate the two like that.

            That's a fair criticism, but I'm not sure the distinction mattered to most users (whether we're talking about end users or companies doing business through those providers). The draw of the Web wasn't "new" versus "old"; a new siloed, privately-owned service in the same vein as the incumbents wouldn't have succeeded the way the Web did. The benefits of the Web were the openness and decentralization, though most users wouldn't have put it in those terms; all they knew was that it gave them more freedom to do things their way instead of the incumbent providers'.

            Which would be great if they were the decision makers. As a professional software developer myself, though, I know exactly how far removed that notion is from reality. The vast majority of the time, we follow The Boss's decisions and desires, even if we think they're dumb, because he's the one paying our salary and putting food on our tables.

            Sure, but that's not the only circumstance where software gets developed. There's also academia, people developing in their spare time -- or starting their own businesses.

            I think "decentralization" is going to become the next big buzzword among SV startups (assuming it isn't already -- trying to build a "new internet" based on principles of user control and decentralization is already a popular enough idea that it's been the story arc over the past few seasons of Silicon Valley, the TV series). In addition to Inrupt, I think we're going to see a lot of other companies sprout up and raise VC capital on the same premise.

            That's no guarantee of success, obviously; most companies that chase a trend end up flaming out (blockchain/cryptocurrency is the latest object example, but not the first and it won't be the last). And even for developers who succeed at building quality software, that's no guarantee that anybody is actually going to use it.

            But again, even a small userbase switching from the silos to decentralized alternatives is still a win in my book.

            reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 10 Jan 2019 @ 7:03am

    Fight the Urge

    "We usually don't even bother to write about it, because why bother?"

    Zuck no longer deserves any forward credit. If he actually accomplishes something important, applaud post facto. Beforehand, treat all Zuckish statements as self-serving windbaggery.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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