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So I had that computer, and then my first real Windows computer, which had a Pentium chip in it, I remember, I spent like a year researching it convince my parents to buy it, got this computer, I wanna say, when I was twelve or thirteen, so 1991, 1992, and I did something then because I had become a real computer nerd that was bold, which was that rather than use AOL or Prodigy or any of the other online services that were available at the time, I convinced my parents to sign up for what I think at the time was called Netcom, which was TCPIP protocol, whereby you got the actual raw Internet, meaning you could use Usenet, which were message boards, and you could use a browser, which was Mosaic, to browse what was called the World Wide Web, before Mosaic, there was an all-text browser called Lynx that I used to use and I can still see myself in that room, it was a small room in my parents’ house, at that computer, booting up the Internet, I think for the first time. I think I can recall it, and pulling up the all-text browser of Lynx and going to the New York Public Library, which had a website, because at the time, not many organizations had websites, and there it was. It was the public library and I could look at what books were in the public library.
And then I started looking at bulletin boards, which were these sort of groups that were kept by individuals and you would get the actual phone number and you go to that bulletin board and there were hobby boards and then Usenet news groups that were on everything from politics to comic books, and I became obsessed. I was an obsessive Internet enthusiast and user at the age of 13 or 14, all through high school, and I learned so much about the world. I learned so much about the world from the Internet, and I was also, I subscribed to Wired, I took computer programming, I thought I was gonna be a programmer, I was also a techno utopian. I mean, I was a techno optimist. I thought this thing is gonna change the world for the better, this thing is the vector of history that will point us in the direction of the global community coming together, the age-old dream of human civilization, the Tower of Babel before it fell. Like, this was it.
And now, it’s 25 years later, I’m 39 years old, I’m on the internet all day, and I hate it. I fricking hate it. I can’t stop and I f***ing hate it. I hate the Internet, and it’s not just me. I mean, this story that I just told you, my own personal trajectory, as fascinating, I’m sure, it is to you, is not just me, because if you pull out your smartphone and you go to the New York Times app, or the Washington Post app, or your browser and you read the news, what you read is one headline after another about the kind of insidious dystopic surveillance state that has been built on the Internet. This world in which Cambridge Analytica scrapes your data off Facebook to be used to manipulate American political opinion, in which Facebook has access to every bit of information about you, including phone calls you didn’t know they had. Where ads follow you everywhere you go on the Internet, where you find yourself falling down these holes of social media, compulsive usage, where you track things like likes and metrics and numbers about who you are in the world and how many people gave a thumbs-up to what post about your very, very cute kid who is objectively awesome and doesn’t need thumbs-up to convince you of that.
And yet, here we are as users, as humans, as people that use the Internet, and here’s where we are as a society, at which, at the point where there’s a real question about whether we have built a doomsday machine. Have we constructed this thing that we no longer can control, that Facebook doesn’t even know what its own product is doing and what it’s being used for, that Google doesn’t always know what its product’s being used for, that who knows what uses will be made of all the words Alexa hears in my fricking kitchen every morning. Good God.
And so what was this utopian vision, this beautiful, elevated, collective, cooperative undertaking, has become something so ominous and corporate and bizarre and scary. And that’s the conversation I’m gonna have today. And I’m gonna have it with a guy who is, I think, the best person to have this conversation with, and there’s a lot of people I wanna have this conversation with. I think this’ll be a conversation we keep having about who broke the internet, but the conversation today is with a guy named Tim Wu. Tim Wu is a fascinating dude, he’s had a bunch of different jobs and lives. He coined the term net neutrality, you’ve heard the term net neutrality, that was Tim Wu’s coinage. He has worked for the Obama administration, he’s worked for tech firms, he’s a law professor at Columbia, he writes articles and he writes books, and he’s written two books about the Internet and technology that are particularly important, I think.
One of them is called “The Master Switch,” which is a history of other previous media technologies – television, radio, film – and the way in which they went from utopian collective cooperative undertakings to monopolistic corporate enterprises. It’s an incredibly profound and prescient book that you should go get right now and allow your mind to be blown about how much he saw everything coming.
And then his most recent book, which is called “The Attention Merchants,” which is a book about what the internet has become and why it has become that. And so I wanted to talk to Tim Wu because I wanna know why the internet got so bad. That’s it. It’s a very simple question. Who broke it, why is it broken, what can we do to fix it, because I wanna go back in time. I mean, we all do, there’s some sort of nostalgic Proustian madeleine thing here happening, I will admit, which is that I wanna go back to being in the room at that age on the frontiers of discovery, pulling up the New York Public Library website with my all-text browser.
So I get that there’s something specific about that nostalgia happening there, but I wanna also go back, I think a lot of us wanna go back to the world in which the internet felt thrilling and welcoming and not ominous, and Tim Wu has as good a story as anyone I know about how we got to where we are.
CHRIS HAYES: There’s two things that make me feel super old. One is rappers with face tattoos, which makes me feel super protective and parental, and I just wanna be like, don’t, just don’t, don’t get a face tattoo, and also, like, now a lot of people are gonna have face tattoos because you’re popular and I just wanna pull people aside and be like, don’t, just don’t do it, it’s really, that’s a real intense choice to make for the rest of your life.
And the other thing that makes me feel really old is how much I wanna complain about the internet.
TIM WU: Yeah.
CHRIS HAYES: I just, I wanna complain about the internet all the time.
TIM WU: Yeah.
CHRIS HAYES: Am I wrong?
TIM WU: You’re not wrong. It’s funny because people who are sort of internet idealists, I think, sometimes find themselves grasping and finding reasons to defend the internet now. Twenty years ago, it was so different. It was so self-evidently a miracle of human connection. You know, the Esperanto, that was gonna unite the world, and now you’re like, well, I did look up a recipe the other day and that was awesome.
CHRIS HAYES: I did, actually, I had one of those moments the other day where I was like, Alexa, what’s in a Manhattan again, the other day, because I couldn’t remember it, and then Alexa told me what was in a Manhattan, that was nice.
TIM WU: Sweet vermouth and bourbon or rye and bitters.
CHRIS HAYES: Yeah, well, look at you.
TIM WU: Uh-huh. I like Manhattans.
CHRIS HAYES: Mister Know-It-All.
TIM WU: I like Manhattans.
CHRIS HAYES: Mister Wikipedia In His Head over there, Tim Wu.
TIM WU: Well, no, I’m not, I’ve lost my memory, but I feel like we’re struggling for reasons. It’s been this way for a couple years now, where, as opposed to, you know, counting up the miracles, oh, you know, I went on a chat room and I talked to a total stranger and we had this sort of intimacy and knew each other. That was common in the 90s, as opposed to, now I’ve got a thousand spams a day or, you know, I went on a forum or wrote an article and the comments are full of Nazis and threats to rape my children and so on.
TIM WU: You know, it certainly completely shifted, so I don’t think it’s just that you’re old, although we’re both older, but that there’s a truth to it, that the cycle has turned.
CHRIS HAYES: Yeah, well, let’s talk about that a little bit, because there’s a moment of very regulated corporate control of the sphere in which the internet’s happening, which is like, I go on America Online and I put in keyword “garden”, I go on Prodigy and I, you know, use Prodigy’s services, and then that gives way to, largely with the World Wide Web, this incredible explosion of this miraculous world civilizational means of connecting.
TIM WU: That was the first miracle of the internet. The amazing moment where, as you just said, these kind of more cynical built things like Prodigy, Prodigy was a joint venture of Sears and CBS, I think IBM, a bunch of companies, they’re like, this is what people want, and that somehow was upended by a government-funded public interest network with no real organization at all, and no experience, you know, coupled with some open protocols, written by these hippie dudes in California, and it was just somehow so compelling, plus the Web, which is designed, actually, in Europe by Tim Berners-Lee, just to kind of, with these ridiculous ideals. Like, we wanna reorganize information and we want everyone to be able to connect with each other, and you know, as you and I know, most organizations that make that as their mission, you know, maybe have a couple big sales and that’s it. Like, this doesn’t go anywhere, but somehow that works, and yet, I think that’s the founding miracle of the internet and sort of the magic that everybody felt in the beginning. You know, things could be different.
TIM WU: And it led, at the time, to a sense, well, you know, if Prodigy and AOL are being displaced, sort of the old giants, maybe everything that’s bad about television or mainstream media or anything about our world that is lacking, you know, the internet can fix it. There was the idea, maybe we’ll even make it more dramatic, that there was this other space that you went to, you know, and it went by its own rules and it was a better space, cyberspace, then the one we lived in.
TIM WU: And I think there were a couple things that were gonna be different. Like foundational ideas, maybe I’ll name three of them. You know, one of them was that things like borders and laws were not gonna matter, that those were the old days and government, that kind of thing was over. There was a possibility of a different kind of intimacy with other people, you know, you would get to know people not based on how you looked or where you live, they’re neighbors that you would bond in this deep way over your interests, like you were both passionate collectors of antique clocks or something and that would really bring people together, that we would no longer be defined by appearance or geography, and third, that as you already said, the fundamental governance structure would be the opposite, that it would be a real democracy, that there was nobody in charge, that self-organizing governance would take care of everything, and you know, those were pretty amazing, beautiful ideas. They even exceeded, in some ways, and I’m sort of a historian of media. People thought the same things about radio, but with the internet, it went even further, towards kind of a utopic global community.
CHRIS HAYES: When you talk about these broad, this broad vision, it sounds maybe kind of a little ridiculous, in retrospect, but I felt that way too. I felt it as an experience and, to me, the one testament to that era of what that looks like concretely is Wikipedia.
TIM WU: Yeah, I agree. I mean, Wikipedia, the founding miracle was the internet succeeding and beating up things like AOL and Prodigy. Projects like Wikipedia actually working were just astonishing, astonishing.
CHRIS HAYES: I mean, just millions of free labor hours of people coordinating to try to categorize, organize, and check all the information and facts in the world.
TIM WU: Yes. It’s still miraculous.
CHRIS HAYES: I agree.
TIM WU: It’s never not been miraculous to me. You know, someone will have a major life event or something and their Wikipedia entry’s updated, you know, immediately.
CHRIS HAYES: I have a friend, Nick Revel who has worked in activism around net neutrality and a bunch of digital battles and he always had this line that has stuck with me, that how miraculous libraries are, and that if libraries didn’t already exist, there’s no way you could bring them into existence today, right? So you couldn’t go to Congress and be like, listen, publishers of America, we have a bill to publicly fund a place where people just loan out your product, and then they get it and they bring it back and that, are you cool with that? They’re like, of course, no one would be cool with that. They’d absolutely destroy it. They’d kill it, and yet we all understand how essential libraries are to democracy, civilization.
CHRIS HAYES: And I feel that way kind of about Wikipedia, which is that if Wikipedia didn’t exist now, do you think you can make Wikipedia today in the Web as it currently is?
TIM WU: No way. You know, there was some shift. I mean, maybe, there’s almost like a group mojo or something. Like everyone agreed that they would dedicate themselves to this kind of universal human project, at least for five and ten years, and Wikipedia was born, actually, frankly, early YouTube is pretty incredible, inspiring, as well. Now, look, a lot of it was just copy, pirated stuff. Still, there was people throwing up videos, and even getting the wherewithal to put up commercials in the 60s or something. You know, it’s funny, you can find, let’s say, Pepsi ads from the late 60s. Pepsi ads in the late 60s are amazing, because they went all counter-cultural, and no one drinks Pepsi, but they’re just like hippies hanging out in water and riding horses and playing with children. You’ve gotta see them, and they sort of had a soundtrack like Sesame Street and it’s, yeah, they bring tears to your eyes if you were born during that generation.
TIM WU: But you can find the craziest stuff, it takes a lot of work, on YouTube, to put it up there. And suddenly it was all there. Another thing that was kind of miraculous at the time was the beginning of blogging, suddenly the news and opinion was no longer just gonna be a couple self-appointed journalists or commentators, but it was broader than that. It was almost like everyone was gonna have a blog or a journal and you could kind of like get inside everybody’s thoughts and just be there, and that’s how we would exist, you know? Kind of forever. It was amazing.
CHRIS HAYES: And there was no, I mean, the blogging, blogging’s a great example, that blogging moment which really takes 2002, 2003, particularly in the run-up to the Iraq War, where there’s no central authority, right? So it’s like, I remember the way that you would find blogs is you would be reading blogs and they’d start linking to other ones, and then you’d start being like, oh, that one’s good, and then you start reading that, and there’s this kind of, you know, this flattening. Now, you know, there’s all kinds of hierarchies of social structure in terms of race and gender and the way that gender authority works, particularly the way the racial authority works, like all that stuff was there to a certain extent, but what there wasn’t was a central controlling authority, which is to say, there wasn’t a team of coders on the Facebook algorithm feed that just decided what you were gonna read.
TIM WU: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Another thing that was amazing about that era, I really think, I’m glad we’re talking about this, because I think the early aughts is kind of one of these moments that historians look back on, like, that was crazy times, because on top of everything you say, the little guys keep beating the big guys, so you know, these blogs would come out and suddenly a blog, some random blog, like Instant Pundit, I don’t know if you remember him.
CHRIS HAYES: Yup.
TIM WU: He’s suddenly, he’s still around, and you know, he would suddenly have more traffic than CNN’s website. I was like, wait, how did that happen, and it would just happen, or you know, there were efforts in the more kind of corporate big efforts to try to create the internet medium of the future. A very famous set of efforts were Microsoft in the very late 90s, when it started saying, okay, we’re, Microsoft’s now a media company. I don’t know if you remember this. There is obviously a punchline, which is it leads to MSNBC, among other things.
CHRIS HAYES: I was about to say, one of the things they did was partner with NBC and came up with this incredibly brilliant name, which was MSNBC.
TIM WU: That was the good, Slate was another positive spin-off of that, but they did a whole bunch of other stuff, which were kind of their efforts to figure out what blogging would be or be what unique internet content would be, all of it sucked. It was terrible, unwatchable, and they spent hundreds of millions of dollars on it, just all these kind of efforts, and they all failed, and what was amazing is just like, Wikipedia, blogs, these random things were beating up, it was an amazing thing to see that.
CHRIS HAYES: So here is where your book “The Master Switch” comes into play, and that’s a book that, to me, is one of the most, it’s honestly one of the most important books, non-fiction books I’ve read in the last, say, ten years. It’s a book I think about all the time, it structures the way I think about all of this, because what that book is about is about the fact that we thought, if you’re around the sort of, the birth of the internet thinking, this technology is new and different and what [inaudible 00:19:53] to this technology is the openness and the democratic-ness, and it’s gonna slay the old bad tightly-controlled technologies and mediums, and your book is a history of how that’s kind of the way it always goes.
TIM WU: Yeah, that’s a good way of putting it, that in so many media industries, they have these kind of moments. I mentioned radio earlier, maybe it’s one of the best, in the 1920s, people spoke of radio in liberating spiritual terms, you know, God has come among us, He’s speaking, it allows us to really use the airwaves themselves to unite humanity, and you know, as with the internet, or with the Web, the problem of governance will be solved when the President can address the citizens like a father to his children, and they really understand the President, he’s not this distant figure anymore. Actually, I’d prefer if he was a distant figure.
TIM WU: Anyway. He’s not this distant figure who you just are supposed to believe in or his authority, no, he’s like, he’s with the people, and I guess the lesson of “The Master Switch” is that those periods, while they should be treasured and, you know, they’re really important in terms of cultural development and almost potential, moving to a better future, they don’t tend to last.
CHRIS HAYES: Yeah, in fact, what happens is consolidation, corporate control, the movie industry was maybe one of my favorite examples in the book because you, I think you use the term the first YouTube era.
TIM WU: Right.
CHRIS HAYES: And it turns out that before the studio system, people are just making movies all over the place. Like, thousands of people have cameras, and they’re just making little shorts and showing them in their town.
TIM WU: Yeah, that’s right. I can’t remember the number, but I think there was like 4000-something movies made a year in the 1920s, like massive numbers, and now it’s like, you know, hundreds.
CHRIS HAYES: And what happens is, that small-d democratic technology, people are out and, you know, you’re in Grand Forks, North Dakota or you’re in Mobile, Alabama and you’re making a little thing in a barn, that gets consolidated and you get the studio system, you know, the major studios figure out what movies are gonna make, and that’s what all America’s gonna see.
TIM WU: Yeah, that’s right.
CHRIS HAYES: Is that what’s happened to the internet?
TIM WU: In a word, yes. So when I wrote that book, 2008 or 9 or something, a lot of people were like, you gotta be kidding me. The internet’s not gonna consolidate in just three or four or five big players. You know, Google’s big now, but they’re gonna be knocked down by somebody and I wouldn’t bet on Facebook lasting more than a couple years. The idea, monopoly, you gotta be kidding. That’s impossible. And I was also, Apple, in terms of prominence, and they’d be like, Apple? Those guys? They’re just closed or their loss, they’re from the 70s, but it happened. The cycle turned and, you know, we see an internet space which, not unlike movie studios, consolidated, particularly the big, say, five firms that are kind of where everything happens, and all the other stuff is kind of all squeezed to the edges.
TIM WU: And kind of, sometimes it’s there in some form, but it’s very different than the early 2000s. Certainly, it doesn’t feel miraculous, I’ll say that much.
CHRIS HAYES: Why does the visceral experience of the internet feel so bad?
TIM WU: I give more than one reason. I think there’s a little bit of the fading of what I talked earlier about that sort of collective, almost global effort of well-intentioned people to do do their best. You know, it’s a little bit like a commune that broke down. There’s a little bit, like people, I think, were trying their best for the first ten years, and the bloggers were sort of doing it out of their hearts’ interest, and you know, there were bad actors, but they didn’t predominate. I think a lot of those people got tired or moved on to other things or didn’t, and I think the experience, if you sort of wander randomly around now, here’s a good way of looking at it. What does a random walk look like 2000 on the Web versus now? You know, random walk in those days was kind of this inspirational thing. It was like wandering through a wonderful forest of delights where you would, oh, look at this, here’s a guy who care about old Honda motorcycles. Oh, look, here’s someone talking about the challenge of suffering with knee-cap surgery or something. Oh here, you know, and we kind of go from, it’s all kind of interesting –
CHRIS HAYES: And you follow these links. I mean, the link was the thing. That was the, you would find yourself far afield in reading a guide about bird-watching in Central Park. I remember this, because there was a guy who published a book on bird-watching in Central Park named Chris Hayes, and I remember, you know, vanity Googling myself, searching myself, searching my name and coming up, and then, next thing I know, I’m reading that and then I follow that, and then to another link and, all of a sudden, I’m sort of immersed in some world I hadn’t thought to be curious about.
TIM WU: And you know, the old days, links were seen as treasures. Imagine that.
CHRIS HAYES: So true.
TIM WU: So like, someone, Yahoo, its basic idea is, here are some good links to go to. You know, a whole business was built on that premise. It was like, we’re a bunch of guys who hang on the internet and here are the coolest links.
CHRIS HAYES: Here are some links.
TIM WU: Yeah, so now, so that’s the experience back then. Today, you wander off the safe paths of the internet and it’s like a trap. You know, you click on the wrong thing, suddenly fifty pop-ups come up, something says, hey, you’ve been infected with a virus, click here to fix it, which of course, if you do click on it, it does infect you with a virus, it’s teeming with weird listicles and crazy things like, reason number four and how you can increase your sperm count or something, and you have to kind of constantly control yourself. You have to be on guard, it’s worse than, it’s a mixture of being in a bad neighborhood and a used car sales place and a casino and a infectious disease ward, all combined into one, and that is not relaxing. Yeah, let’s just put it that way.
CHRIS HAYES: I think the casino metaphor’s really, that really clicks something in my head, because I’ve had occasion, you know, I don’t really enjoy casinos that much. I’ve been in Vegas a number of times for work, and I just would, I find myself just like, this real visceral illness/melancholy of being in a casino. It is actually a kind of a similar feeling I feel if I’m on the internet too much.
TIM WU: Oh, absolutely.
CHRIS HAYES:That feeling.
TIM WU:And the difference, I don’t know how your gambling tendencies are, or whether you get sucked in, you’re like, oh, maybe I’ll just put one bet on this, I don’t know if you have that.
CHRIS HAYES: Yeah, I don’t really.
TIM WU: You don’t have that.
CHRIS HAYES: Yeah.
TIM WU: I don’t really have that, but I can get a little sucked in.
CHRIS HAYES: Yeah.
TIM WU: And then be like, oh man, that was a waste of a hundred dollars, and what happens on the internet, instead, or especially on the Web, is I’m like, well, I wanna look up this one recipe or something, and all of a sudden, I say, who were the stars from the 90s who are living in trailer parks or something like, and then I click on that, and then all of a sudden, three hours go by and as opposed to three hours of feeling like, oh, I’ve done something useful, I feel like the casino. As opposed to losing hundreds of dollars, I feel like I’ve lost mental cycles, you know, attention, to use my other book. You know, I feel like my attention has been stolen from me.
CHRIS HAYES: And it also feels guilty, in a way. I feel regret often on the internet. I have this feeling, why did I, why can’t I put Twitter down and read a book like a human being, like a searching, curious human being in the world, and not piss away time being obsessively searching for some endorphin hit that has been engineered for the phone to give me through the Pavlovian cue of the sound of Twitter refreshing?
TIM WU: You are right, and you know why this topic is so important? It’s because this is our lives.
CHRIS HAYES: Yes. Yes!
TIM WU: I’m a believer that, I mean, just look around the subway or look around, this is how massive amounts of time are spent, and you know, if you believe that life is like a series of mental states, this is a mental state that a lot of your life is spent in. So there’s –
CHRIS HAYES: There’s an argument to be made, and I don’t have the time use data in front of me, but like, I think it’s a mental state that may even occupy a plurality of non-waking hours.
TIM WU: Yeah, it really depends on the person.
CHRIS HAYES: Yeah.
TIM WU: Because people watch a lot of TV.
CHRIS HAYES: Yes. And thank God for that, America. Keep it up.
TIM WU: Yes. So I’m gonna be a bit of a tech guy and say it’s not really fair to blame the internet for this.
CHRIS HAYES: I know, I feel like I’m talking about, like I have issues, and I’m like, the internet is the problem.
TIM WU: No, no. Don’t blame yourself. That’s wrong. That’s not the American way.
CHRIS HAYES: Thank you, Tim.
TIM WU: No, that is the Canadian way. That’s not the American way. No, I wanna say that the internet itself is just a way of moving information. It’s the stuff built on top of it.
CHRIS HAYES: Yep.
TIM WU: Right? So like the casino you were saying, yeah, you can blame the casino, but you shouldn’t blame the ground under the casino.
CHRIS HAYES: Yeah.
TIM WU: And in some ways, the internet can be better. In fact, it can be used for a lot, I mean, I think podcasts are amazing. I listen to great podcasts –
CHRIS HAYES: Totally.
TIM WU: – and it’s enlightening, it’s vindicating, I love it. It almost gives you a reason to wanna have a daily commute, and that is the internet too, and some TV’s also internet too. It’s really what we’re talking about is parts of the Web and certain apps which really have been engineered to destroy our willpower, overcome your resistance, and keep you clicking away like some kind of pigeon in a box. That’s what we need to be fighting.
CHRIS HAYES: So there’s two aspects to that that have produced that, as I understand your argument. So when you combine your last two books, both of which I’ve read and both of which I really love, one is consolidation, so you’ve got a couple big companies are controlling bigger and bigger parts of what’s happening, and then the other is the sort of business model of monetizing eyeballs and monetizing the time that you spend looking at it.
CHRIS HAYES: You know, to me, the two best examples of that are the YouTube algorithm and the Facebook news feed.
TIM WU: Right, yeah, and there’s where we get, I think you’re exactly right. So we had a massive consolidation, as you described, driven mainly by one business model, which was the harvesting of human attention, and basically, frankly, getting people into a state where hours fly by, the ad exposure is maximized, and you see just what you wanna see. Like on Facebook and on YouTube line-up, where’s it sort of basically, I mean, in a pretty sophisticated way, trying to figure you out and push the buttons in your brain that keep you tapping away like a monkey or a pigeon, whatever our analogy is, and you know, that’s a pretty far cry from some of the ideals we talked about. We went from being people hoping for a life on a higher plane to being pigeons in a box, knocking away at stuff, and you know, it wasn’t always like this.
TIM WU: Even early Facebook was mostly about your friends before it became, it was gonna be all about news as well, and then it became about, well, what news do people want? Well, they like fake news better than real stuff, so we’ll give them that, and –
CHRIS HAYES: And that’s because, and again, that gets to this thing, right? It’s the casino logic.
TIM WU: Yes.
CHRIS HAYES: What keeps the person at the table? Well, what keeps a person at the table is we pump a lot of oxygen in and we don’t put any clocks up, and it’s like, well, from the user perspective, I’d kind of like to know what time it is, so I’d love a clock up. That’s why clocks are up in public spaces. People actually want a clock, but from the casino logic, it’s like, no, don’t give them a clock and they’ll spend three hours at the craps table, and that’s the logic that guides everything, every algorithm decision that Facebook means.
TIM WU: Yeah, I think that’s exactly right, and I think it’s what’s led them to their path of severe ethical failures over the last several years, which are finally kind of coming to light in a public way. I mean, I think a lot of critics of Facebook, myself included, have been saying this stuff is coming. Now we’re talking about Cambridge Analytica and the Russian, essentially, hacking of Facebook. I mean, it’s worse than if it bleeds, it leads. If it hooks them, keep socking it at them, and we just don’t care. So people like to read Russian-generated stories about Hilary Clinton being a pedophile? Okay, that’s pretty good. Give them that. They’re, no, just hand it over.
CHRIS HAYES: John Herman, who’s a great tech writer of this piece for the Awl a few years ago that, to me, was very in sync with “The Master Switch,” where he said, the internet’s the new TV. What his point was, everything people talk about in TV where they use a shorthand called ratings, you’re just doing that for ratings is a conversation I have all the time which always what do you think my job is? God, the rating, yeah, it matters, but that the internet became the thing that people criticize TV for, that bleeds, it leads, but engineered to a level of attentional granularity that TV can’t even begin to approach.
TIM WU: Yes, I think it went beyond television. So you know, the classic criticism of television, since the 50s, really, it’s not new, it’s that ratings, the invention of better rating technology started to fundamentally affect things, so they canceled See It Now and all this kind of stuff. Back to the 50s, but in retrospect, the battle for clicks makes the battle for rating look dignified by comparison, and it’s so much more acutely engineered to your weaknesses as a person, you know, little tiny psychological hooks that will just keep you clicking on things or moving objects or things, that’s what I get down to.
TIM WU: And also, as you said, it almost inevitably leads to a business model where you spy on people, figure everything you can about them, and say, okay, what is it that will make this person click? And you know, that goes way beyond what television, not only did they swallow what you might call the original sin of television, but I think took it to an individual extent which TV could only dream of.
CHRIS HAYES: There’s one more aspect to it, as well, which is the trying to get all the benefits of media and content production without any of the responsibility, so NBC, you know, we put something on our show, it’s like we own that thing, we can say, so-and-so reported it, but you know, if we see someone reporting something that’s false, it’s on us a little bit, and we gotta have some responsibility. We have a responsibility. I have a responsibility for what I say on the air.
CHRIS HAYES: Facebook and YouTube and others have this crazy model where it’s like they’re monetizing all this stuff that’s going on, but if you go to YouTube and you search federal reserve, I did this the other day, the top thing that, you’re an eighth grader who’s gotta write a report about federal reserve and you love YouTube, so you go to YouTube and you do federal reserve. At the top of the algorithm is like, basically, something by a 9/11 truther about the Rothschilds, the federal reserve is a Jewish conspiracy. This is the top, you’re an eighth grader who just got an assignment about the federal reserve and you go to YouTube, which you use all the time, and next thing you know, you’re like, you’re chin-deep in anti-Semitic alt-right conspiracy theories, and the reason for that is that’s probably doing something intentionally. Like, that’s performing well, but it’s totally irresponsible. It’s atrociously irresponsible, and yet, they’re gonna monetize all the views that come off this stuff.
TIM WU: Yeah. You know, having been in Silicon Valley, early 2000s, I have to say, there were a couple mental shortcuts that helped people there not deal with these kind of questions. I mean, that’s the basic fault of Silicon Valley, and frankly, it’s the fault of most geeks. I mean, everyone has their blind spot, so they don’t wanna –
CHRIS HAYES: Sure, yeah.
TIM WU: But you know, the blind spot in Silicon Valley is this idea that technology is never responsible for anything, and so if you have these ideas like, we’re just a platform, you know, you somehow absolve yourself of any responsibility, we’re just a tech company, we’re just instruments, it’s a very easy way, we’re just trying to connect the world, there’s a couple slogans that got involved there, we’re just organizing information, that provided a very easy way for the, avoiding an enormous number of serious questions, ethical questions, questions about responsibility.
TIM WU: Look, I think that was maybe okay for a while, maybe. If you build wires, it’s true, maybe you can’t necessarily say that, while you’re responsible for the electric chair or something, but if you’re building guns, I think suddenly you start to be a little more involved than, when you build a platform that is used and profits from hate-speech, you know, suddenly you own it. But there’s kind of a blind spot to all these questions, and also, one other thing I’ll add is, a lot of tech people have this deep belief that any of these problems can always be solved by better code, as opposed to needing to sort of deal with it.
CHRIS HAYES: Mark Zuckerberg went up before the Senate and was like, yeah, all the problems we have, we’re gonna get, our AI is getting really good. He literally said this. It was like, no, don’t worry, we’re gonna get robot intelligence to deal with all the human ethical judgment dilemmas that we have been either exploiting or avoiding. Like we’re gonna build a better AI software, and I was just like, he actually believes that.
TIM WU: And the original sin, I mean, a lot of this, we’ve talked about, it’s created by the model where they spy on you and they give you the advertisements, and they’re like, well, no, you don’t understand, that is like giving people what they want. You know what I mean? That mythology really held people in its grip for a long time, and yeah, I don’t know, I spent years working in Silicon Valley and I just became more and more painfully aware, I think that’s why a lot of people quit Facebook or quit Google. They can’t stand it anymore. The stories from the insiders are like, we just can’t do this.
CHRIS HAYES: Meaning what? What does that mean?
TIM WU: Engineers being like, the best minds of my generation, they’re not trying to cure cancer, trying to improve the lives, they’re trying to engineer ways to force you to click on things you don’t wanna click on, basically, technological forms of mind control, and also find ways to avoid legal responsibility for that.
TIM WU: You know, and people are fed up. I think that’s why people are leaving, and what’s funny is that because the internet was so idyllic and interesting and commune-like at its beginning, it itself kind of has avoided these hard questions, but the truth is that thinking you’ve prematurely reached some utopic state can blind you a lot of really bad stuff.
CHRIS HAYES: So if the place we’re at right now, which is this centralized control, this crazy surveillance, the casino panopticon, and then also lack of transparency, which is also one more thing that we, which is crazy, there’s no central authority who can just be like, we’re changing the TV viewing algorithm today and your traffic just, your ratings just went down by 80%. That would be insane, that just some coder somewhere flipped a switch and was like, sorry, MSNBC, your whole business model went boom.
CHRIS HAYES: And this happens all the time, you know, in the media, with Facebook. So I guess the question is, there’s all this real airy talk about regulation or regulate Facebook, but I, what I wanna know is can we fix it? Like, what do we need to do? Is there a better internet to be built now that addresses these core problems?
TIM WU: I think the answer is yes, and I think we can do better, and I think, hopefully, we’re at the beginning, you know, we have conversations like this, of understanding, just saying hey, we had an internet revolution, everything’s fixed, is like, no longer an answer. I mean, just look at what we said. The fact that you just randomly wander around the Web is such a terrible experience suggests that something is deeply wrong, and I think it is not something, you know, as much, I’ve worked in government, I am not against government regulation, but I don’t really believe that, you know, it’s up to, let’s say, the FCC or Congress, sort of write one law that fixes the media and the internet.
TIM WU: I think it comes with a rebuilding of some of the core institutions with a different set of ethics and principles that tries to sort of understand where we went wrong and do better.
CHRIS HAYES: Concretely, what’s that mean?
TIM WU: Replacing Facebook. That is a big one. I’m not kidding. I think that’s a big one.
CHRIS HAYES: You mean like, it should not exist.
TIM WU: It could be, everything exists in some form, but it should no longer have the sort of central dominance. You know, it could be more like an old amusement park that people know exists and some people visit, it’s kind of crumbling, that’s where, and it’ll still be around, no, but I think that we need real alternatives to Facebook that are built on very different principles from the outset, and to perform that core function, there’s a very beautiful function at the center of social networking, which is connecting you to other people, seeing what your friends’ children look like, it’s great. You know, communicating with your high school friends, things like that are worthy, in fact, beautiful projects. The only thing is that Facebook has layered all kinds of weird other stuff on top of it, and now is the time for Facebook alternatives to get started.
TIM WU:I don’t know who it’ll be, how it’ll be, exactly, but in the same way that, small example, but that Lyft started to be a replacement for Uber for a lot of people, or even, you talked about libraries starting to supplement bookstores as being a different ideal of what could be, we need that kind of thinking and a kind of return to those kind of values. Like, how can we create a truly public social network that is on our side? That is actually really trying, you know, Facebook likes to say, we’re trying to build community, if it really is trying to build communities, yeah, and is actually doing everything it can to try and strengthen friendships, I think that would be great.
CHRIS HAYES: Someone had a great line when Zuckerberg was testifying and said, community is a hell of a euphemism for a database.
TIM WU: That is a good line.
CHRIS HAYES: That’s all it is, it’s just a bunch of data of people with a bunch of notes and, you know, and a social graph, and that’s what you got.
TIM WU: One thing that is, I think, positive is the ad model itself, other than Facebook and Google, has started to seem a little less attractive, and I think at least some news sources are being, having more success with subscription models and some other things, but you know, obviously, there’s been success in streaming television, so forth, so I think there is hope, but it really does require a concerted effort to do better.
CHRIS HAYES: I guess my last question is, does that mean breaking things up? This is outside my technical expertise, but it just seems to me, you know, Facebook in particular and more broadly, maybe, that it’s just too big. It’s too big and it’s too concentrated and it feels like it’s a Standard Oil problem.
TIM WU: It is, and you’re right. It is far overdue. We are far overdue for some big break-ups. The original idea of the anti-trust laws is that bigness is a curse and, when you let things get too big, bad things happen, and that may sound simple, but I think it’s true, and you know, the original founding purpose of the anti-trust laws was to keep the economy at human scale. One of the problems comes from stuff getting too big, and I think Facebook, who would be crying if we broke Facebook into three pieces? It bought up Instagram, bought up WhatsApp, they should be competing, they should be saying, hey, listen, we’re not gonna spy on you as much as those other guys. The fact that we sort of feel we have to be on Facebook, or that the alternative is Instagram, which is also owned by Facebook, you know, it’s not very reassuring, so I am absolutely of the mind that the time has come for structural remedies for a series of anti-trust actions to break up big tech, and I also think they need to prevent them from merging that way in the first place.
CHRIS HAYES: Tim Wu is a professor of law at Columbia University, he’s the author of “Who Controls The internet,” “The Master Switch,” and “The Attention Merchants,” among many other scholarly articles. He’s worked in government, he’s worked in tech, he coined the phrase network neutrality, and he, this was told to me, he’s referred to by a now retired of the 7th circuit federal appeals judge, who refers to Tim as the Genius Wu. Tim Wu, thanks for being on, man.
TIM WU: Sure, this has been a wonderful conversation.
CHRIS HAYES: “Why Is This Happening” is presented by MSNBC and NBC Think, produced by the All In team, with music by Eddie Cooper.
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