Wanted: a 21st-century version of the cowboy code for Silicon Valley and a cautionary popup for Facebook screens
[ Note to readers on mobile devices on 30 April: the site should be working normally again, thanks to kind ‘happiness engineers’ at WordPress. ]
It was once unremarkable to hear the entrepreneurs of Silicon Valley called cowboys — as praise, not condemnation, at least as late as the 1980s. They were innovators, independent-minded risk-lovers who made the suits in big corporations look like cowardly dullards. They were the forerunners of the super-millionaires, then billionaires, that the internet spawned.
Real cowboys — the inspiration for the glamorous mythological kind that enchanted audiences around the world in Hollywood westerns — were typically poor hired hands looking after cattle in round-the-clock workdays, often in conditions no workers’ union would tolerate. They found their moral compass in an unwritten Code of the West. This has been summarised in different ways, some a little dated for the few remaining cattle-herders in America, who must travel not just on horseback but on wheels subject to rules of the road — ‘Always drink your whisky with your gun hand,’ for instance, which must follow ‘Always fill your whisky glass to the brim.’
In the less rambunctious version of the essence of the Code by a poet and scholar, E. Martin Pederson, this is the list of ideals which, he says, was intended to draw a firm line of distinction between cowboys and ‘the easy success of the thief or gambler’:
hospitality and assistance to others, faithfulness to the paternalistic employer (with some exceptions), care and affection for horses, a dislike for bragging or complaining, praise for bravery, and pride in skill with horse, rope and gun.
What could the de facto equivalent be for 21st-century technology cowboys?
After last week’s public interrogation in Washington of Mark Zuckerberg, the most famous entrepreneur in contemporary Silicon Valley, Julia Carrie Wong — an old Harvard classmate of his — said that his performance at that hearing showed how little he has changed from his 19 year-old self. She republished the record he unknowingly created for posterity of his own personal code as a student — in a private text exchange with a friend that was later leaked to Silicon Valley Insider. In this extract from it, he tells his friend about his new-found powers, thanks to the website he had launched a few weeks earlier — the project that would become Facebook:
ZUCK: yea so if you ever need info about anyone at harvard
ZUCK: just ask
ZUCK: i have over 4000 emails, pictures, addresses, sns
FRIEND: what!? how’d you manage that one?
ZUCK: people just submitted it
ZUCK: i don’t know why
ZUCK: they “trust me”
ZUCK: dumb fucks
Wong also reminded us that in 2004, the Facebook leader told the Harvard Crimson that his fledgling social network had ‘pretty intensive privacy options … People have very good control over who can see their information.’ His testimony in Washington did not supply any reason to believe the seemingly ashamed and repentant adult Zuckerberg, answering questions from senators, more than the teenage Zuckerberg, in identical false assurances.
Barely a day had passed after that drama than Facebook broke its promise to regulators in Europe not to use its facial recognition technology over there. This is software that lets the company identify you in photographs, alone or with other people, that you never placed on its platform or gave anyone permission to upload there, and proceed to using data capturing details of your appearance to track your movements across the internet. Your consent to its doing all this is taken for granted unless you sign up for a Facebook account — if you don’t already have one — and follow the steps in its opt-out procedure.
What difference could a code of ethics make to technology companies behaving so rottenly? In a paper written for economists**, Stuart Gilman, an international authority on rooting out corruption in public service has explained how the codification of model conduct can improve the government of countries. He notes:
Ethics codes are as old as antiquity. […] They often capture a vision of excellence, of what individuals and societies should be striving for and what they can achieve. […] Effective codes operate at two levels: Institutional and symbolic. Within institutions codes articulate boundaries of behavior as well as expectations for behavior. That is they provide clear markers as to what behavior is prohibited (bribery) and what behavior is expected (showing impartiality to all citizens). They are also highly symbolic. Subscribing to institutional codes is the way we define a model professional not only as we see ourselves but as we want to be seen by others.
He quotes the practical justification of Adam Smith — a founding father of economics (1723-90) — for setting high ethical standards:
To be amiable and to be meritorious; that is, to deserve love and to deserve reward, are the great characters of virtue; and to be odious and punishable, of vice. But all these characters have an immediate reference to the sentiments of others. Virtue is not said to be amiable, or to be meritorious, because it is the object of its own love, or of its own gratitude; but because it excites those sentiments in other men.
In the neverending Facebook scandals, a truly disruptive technology company would impress us — YEEHA! — by making a radical commitment to behaving well and altruistically without any pressure from governments. It would take too long for legislators and the law to catch up with what these companies are doing and the extent of their incursions into the intimate realms of our lives.
The politicians who did not understand the business model or technologies behind the social media heavyweight were widely mocked for not knowing how to grill Zuckerberg in his appearance before Congress. Facebook reforming itself would have the fastest transformative effect and would change Silicon Valley’s culture for good. How likely is that, on the evidence so far? Fat chance.
It is time to sing this site’s refrain — that Facebook should rightly be owned by its users, to whose data this company has been helping itself liberally for dubious purposes, without the fully-informed permission of those users.
In the meanwhile, we do not expect the US or EU to be capable of much more than slapping a warning on users’ Facebook screens — a popup in the same spirit as the health cautions on bottles of alcohol and cigarette packets. Sadly, government notices are never witty, or we would propose simply borrowing the warning about Facebook’s true terms of service thoughtfully composed by editors in the London offices of Private Eye (above). It should be blown up into a poster plastered everywhere on public transport and, in the company’s home territory in California, where buses and trains are scarce, on extra-large billboards on freeways and interstate highways.
** ‘Ethics Codes And Codes Of Conduct As Tools For Promoting An Ethical And Professional Public Service: Comparative Successes and Lessons’, Stuart C. Gilman, OECD, 2005 https://www.oecd.org/mena/governance/35521418.pdf