When the atomic bomb was being developed during World War II, some scientists wondered if an explosion could ignite the atmosphere. The 2023 movie Oppenheimer highlighted that concern in an exchange between Brigadier General Leslie Groves, director of the Manhattan Project, and J. Robert Oppenheimer, leader of the project’s Los Alamos lab.

“Are you saying there’s a chance that when we push that button we destroy the world?” asks Graves in the movie.

“The chances are near zero,” Oppenheimer replies.

Groves is alarmed. “Near zero?” he says.

“What do you want from theory alone?” says Oppenheimer.

To which Graves says, “Zero would be nice.”

Which leads me to the newly released Burn Book from Simon & Schuster, a chronicle of tech’s major players – Jobs, Gates, Musk, Zuckerberg, Bezos, etc. – by Kara Swisher. She writes how Facebook, Twitter (now X), YouTube and the like “have become the digital arms dealers of the modern age.”

“They have mutated human communication, so that connecting people has too often become about pitting them against one another, and turbocharged that discord to an unprecedented and damaging volume. They have weaponized civic discourse. And they have weaponized, most of all, politics.”

Swisher notes that big tech would say that’s unintended consequences. Here, she offers a comment from Paul Virilio, a French cultural theorist and philosopher known for his critiques of technology. She thinks about this quote of his a lot:

“When you invent the ship, you also invent the shipwreck. When you invent the plane, you also invent the plane crash. And when you invent electricity, you invent electrocution. Every technology carries its own negativity, which is invented at the same time as technical progress.”

Since the 1990s, Swisher has covered the tech industry for the New York Times, Washington Post and Wall Street Journal. She co-founded Recode, a tech news site, and hosted the Recode Decode podcast. So she has been around, and in just the second sentence of the book pinpoints the date when “it all went off the rails for the tech industry”: Saturday, Dec. 10, 2016.

That day, Donald Trump, elected President the month before, invited the heads of the biggest tech firms to meet with him a few days later. Swisher learned of the meeting, and reached out to many of the invitees. “Most had privately derided Trump to me as a buffoon,” she writes.

Yet they quickly prepared to travel to Trump Tower and pay their respects. Swisher writes that the founders of tech firms often transform in a blink from “young, idealistic strivers” to rich, powerful and compromised. She talked to a venture capitalist named Chris Sacca (he now focuses on climate issues), who told her that the invitees were “being used to legitimize a fascist”.

None of the CEOs, writes Swisher, would admit the real reasons they went to kiss Trump’s ring: money. They wanted contracts with the new administration, freedom from regulation, and profits back from “countries where they had been stashing their lucre”.

Burn Book is part memoir, part history and part cautionary tale.

“All these companies began with a gauzy credo to change the world,” Swisher writes. “And they had indeed done that, but in ways they hadn’t imagined at the start, increasingly with troubling consequences from a flood of misinformation to a society becoming isolated.”

“Let me be clear,” she continues. “Hitler didn’t need Instagram. Mussolini didn’t need to tweet. Murderous autocrats did not need to Snapchat their way to infamy. But just imagine if they had those supercharged tools. Today, malevolent actors continue to game the platforms, and there’s still no real solution in sight because these powerful platforms are doing exactly what they were designed to do.”

Any invention has the potential for harm. But what about when destruction is perhaps inherent in the design as a feature and not a bug? How might the damage escalate?

Virilio once talked to an interviewer about the limits of experimenting, referencing the Manhattan Project. “Back in the 19th century,” he said, “if you messed up an experiment your laboratory would explode and you’d come out of it all black. And that was it. When Oppenheimer and the rest of them pressed the ‘on’ button of Trinity [the first nuclear weapon test], they didn’t know how far the disintegration would go. They didn’t know whether space itself would disintegrate.”

Burn Book isn’t an anti-technology screed. In fact, Swisher subtitled the book “A Tech Love Story”. She leans more towards the promise of tech than the pitfalls.

Mostly, I do too. Still, sometimes it pays to press “pause” instead of “on”. There have always been catalysts of chaos, from atoms to algorithms. And whether confronting weapons of mass destruction or mass distraction, we’re all left navigating the fallout.

Stuart Foxman is a Toronto-based freelance writer, who helps clients’ products, services, ideas and organizations to come alive. Follow me on X (formerly Twitter) @StuartFoxman, connect with me here on LinkedIn, or check me out at foxmancommunications.com. I would love to hear from you. More original posts coming regularly about communications, information, motivation, writing, branding, creativity, media, marketing, persuasion, messages, learning, etc.

Feb. 28, 2024

 

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