Is Silicon Valley Making Its Own Monsters?
This segment is part of our winter Book Club conversation about Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel Frankenstein. Want to participate? Sign up for our newsletter or call our special voicemail at 567-243-2456.
In Mary Shelley’s book Frankenstein, a scientist creates a being that becomes a murderous, monstrous creature. As a story of unintended consequences run amok, Frankenstein has been used as a metaphor for everything from artificial intelligence to gene editing.
But what about the start-up culture of Silicon Valley? The tech hub brought us everything from Facebook, with its connections to fake news and Russian propaganda, to Theranos, which promised more than it could deliver in medical technology, to widely mocked start-ups like Bodega and Juicero.
Erin Griffith, a senior writer at Wired, says the techies of Silicon Valley don’t realize it, but they’re the bad guys in the public eye now—much like Wall Street bankers in 2009. And Adam Briggle, an associate professor in the University of North Texas’s department of philosophy and religion, explains why our relationship with tech requires a level of ethical scrutiny.
Questions about the Club? Post ‘em in the comments below or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Happy reading!
Erin Griffith is a senior writer at Wired, based in New York, New York.
Adam Briggle is an associate professor of Philosophy & Religion at the University of North Texas in Denton, Texas.
Christie Taylor is an associate producer for Science Friday. Her day involves diligent research, too many phone calls for an introvert, and asking scientists if they have any audio of that narwhal heartbeat.
IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. When I say Frankenstein, my first thought may be a certain pale faced, bolt nick giant from movies or cartoons. Loosely based on a book by 18-year-old Mary Shelley, published 200 years ago today. If you’re reading along with the Sci-fi book club this winter, you might also be thinking about how lonely that monster seems. But does Frankenstein also bring to your mind modern creations? Perhaps artificial intelligence, gene editing technology, algorithms that might be coming monsters in their own right, like Facebook. Yeah Facebook.
It may seem like a stretch, but if you’re looking at well-intended creation, and one of them, Facebook, that seems to have some monstrous unintended consequences, my next guests say look no further than Silicon Valley and companies like Facebook. There’s the Facebook fiasco with fake news and foreign propaganda. Or maybe those more harmless but ridicule-worthy startups, like the now defunct Juicero.
Remember when a $400 juicer was no better than squeezing with your own hands? That’s what we’re going to be talking about this hour. My guests are Erin Griffith, a senior writer at “Wired.” She’s written extensively about startup culture, but also says the techies are quickly becoming the Wall Street bankers of this decade. Welcome, Erin.
ERIN GRIFFITH: Hi. Thanks for having me.
IRA FLATOW: Adam Briggle, associate professor of philosophy and religion at the University of North Texas in Denton, Texas. He wrote a piece for the conversation, listing Silicon Valley as one of the many modern Frankensteins. Welcome, Adam.
ADAM BRIGGLE: Hey, it’s great to be here, thanks.
IRA FLATOW: Let me start with you. In Frankenstein, Victor Frankenstein creates a being that turns into a monster. Is Silicon Valley a fair comparison?
ADAM BRIGGLE: Well, I think that’s a good question. We have to think about, not just what the moral of Frankenstein is, but whether this story which was written 200 years ago can still speak to us. Not just across the industrial age, but now the post-industrial and digital age. And I guess I’d like to start by suggesting the book may be antiquated in some senses for a couple of reasons.
So maybe the answer is no, we can’t learn something from Frankenstein about Silicon Valley. One is Frankenstein’s monster was in a sense, everybody talks about how he was a mishmash of these parts. But he’s actually, in a sense, too pure, because he stayed on the edges of society. Nobody commercialized him. Nobody needed him. Nobody’s livelihood depended on this monster.
Whereas the monsters we’re talking about today have become needs. In fact Silicon Valley I think is a good topic to talk about. Because not just needs, but even addictions. These things are designed to be not repulsive, like Frankenstein’s monster, but all too attractive. Kind of pulling on our strings when we’d rather have them not do that. The other limitation real quick is responsibility.
I mean, Victor Frankenstein was, kind of, the original lone wolf. It was easy to figure out who was responsible for creating this monster. But nowadays we have big science. We have big networks of innovation. And finding a pinch point to localize control and responsibility is much more difficult nowadays.
IRA FLATOW: Who would you say are some of the Victor Frankensteins today?
ADAM BRIGGLE: Well, I would say just in Rosenstein, who was Facebook. My favorite though is Tristan Harris, formerly at Google, who has now started as a company or a project called time well spent. So I think there’s a whole bunch of these people who are involved on the inside, who are now doing the Frankenstein thing. Which is to have a regret, and in a way hunt after their monsters. To try to either kill them, which would be like unplugging I guess nowadays. Or find a way to modify and educate their behavior.
ERIN GRIFFITH: And it’s funny that you bring up Tristan Harris, because you notice that when Mark Zuckerberg last week announced the changes to the Facebook news feed, he actually aped that saying “time well spent.” And that’s now the goal, he says, at Facebook is to optimize for time well spent, which is a very amorphous goal. But at least it shows that they’re listening.
IRA FLATOW: Do you think that the public is catching on that there are monsters?
ERIN GRIFFITH: I mean, there’s two answer to that question. Because on one side, there are surveys that show that in general, the population does not– I mean, the brands haven’t suffered that much from consumers perspectives. I mean, people still use Google every day. People still love their iPhones. People still order from Amazon every day. And the backlash hasn’t quite hit consumer sentiment the way that you might expect if you read things that people like myself from the media are writing.
But on the other side, I think that’s just beginning to bubble up. The fact that we’ve seen an activist shareholder sue Apple, or not sue but attack Apple as a way to, sort of, motivate them to consider the ways that their products could be addictive for children. That’s so unprecedented. And I think we’re going to see a lot more interesting manifestations of this idea.
IRA FLATOW: You say in your writing that techies are the new Wall Street bankers. What do you mean by that?
ERIN GRIFFITH: I mean, I think just like the idea of the movie Wall Street was to criticize capitalism run amok, but of course a lot of people viewed that and took it as a rallying cry that greed is good. I think that we’re starting to see that second guessing now in Silicon Valley, where a lot of techies kind of did have that mercenary idea of, let’s just grow as fast as we can.
We’re the underdogs. We need to make money and turn into the next Google or Facebook and be billion dollar or $100 billion quasi monopolies. I think that is a little bit dangerous. And we’re starting to see some people re-evaluate whether or not they want to be that kind of greed-driven, capitalism run amok mission.
IRA FLATOW: So Adam, if you were in charge of Facebook or another tech company right now, how would you be grappling with the ethics of that business?
ADAM BRIGGLE: Well that’s a great question. I think I would take a tax similar to what Tristan Harris is doing, which is to think about– think about this question as one about freedom and agency. You know, I think what I’d want to do is get the Silicon Valley to rethink a myth, I think they have about freedom in agency.
I think what these people think they are doing is creating like a buffet of new things that were all either free to choose or decline, but it just doesn’t work that way. You know, I can unplug from my phone, but the world gets built around expectations that people are plugged in and tuned in.
ERIN GRIFFITH: Especially when many of them have monopolies essentially.
ADAM BRIGGLE: Exactly.
IRA FLATOW: Well that was one of the points I was going to ask about, is that these are all stock owned companies. They issue stock, and they’re beholden to their stockholders to get the value as high as possible.
ERIN GRIFFITH: I think it will be very interesting to see if, you know, Facebook has said this year that time well-spent is their goal. But does that mean that engagement could go down? That means they have less ad inventory to sell? That means their revenue goes down. Are they willing to actually sacrifice some of their business performance in order to achieve that goal? And so I will be watching that very closely this year.
IRA FLATOW: Matt in South Bend, Indiana. Hi. Welcome to Science Friday.
IRA FLATOW: Hi there, go ahead.
MATT: My question is this. Is it the responsibilities of these companies to teach the public critical thinking skills?
ERIN GRIFFITH: I mean, I think that companies would certainly say that they are not the arbiter of truth. They don’t want to be– they don’t want to be the ones labeling news as real or not. So their answer is no.
ADAM BRIGGLE: Yeah, and I don’t know about– that’s a good question. I’m sitting in a university right now. I think that might be kind of our responsibility. But the problem is, again, that I think we don’t think critically about technology. If you kind of absorb them with an assumption that all means progress. It all means a better life, and we’ve got to revisit some of these foundational myths about the way technology and the good life are, or are not related.
ERIN GRIFFITH: It is a question of can we build this. That’s what they’ve always ask themselves. They’ve never really asked themselves should we build this, and what are the potential negative consequences if we do.
IRA FLATOW: Are any of these things reparable, repairable. You know, I mean like Facebook, and it kind of come out of that reputation is to gain. Or is that it. Is it over with we don’t know it yet. Or is it that, you know, is it going to be this one– this very polarizing site where people like think mostly talk about politics. Either way–
ERIN GRIFFITH: They’re definitely trying to pull away from the presence of news on the platform. Now they want it to be just about friends and sharing and love, and you know–
IRA FLATOW: Can they do it?
ERIN GRIFFITH: All positive things.
IRA FLATOW: Can they remake it?
ERIN GRIFFITH: That is a very challenging question that they’re, I think, you know, grappling with themselves.
IRA FLATOW: Adam, what do you think?
ADAM BRIGGLE: Yeah. I think there’s too much path dependency built into that platform. And the scary part, as Erin mentioned, is that this is monopolist so much of our social sphere. That I think that– I was saying in my piece that Frankenstein may not be, or probably is the best model. Because that’s the story about things being too late. Once the cat is out of the bag, or the genie is out of the bottle, you can’t stuff it back in. I think we’re in that situation with Facebook.
ERIN GRIFFITH: I think one important thing is that other companies that are the next Facebook should be looking at this and learning from it. So that when they– because startups scale extremely fast. Facebook is only is less than, or just over a decade old. Companies that are on their way to becoming the next Facebook or Google or Amazon or Twitter, or any of these companies should look at this and consider, maybe we should build ourselves in a different way. Maybe we should have a different kind of mission, or have different incentives in place other than just hypergrowth at all costs.
ADAM BRIGGLE: Yeah. But the problem is that there are probably going to get absorbed by these giants that are out there. I think the monopolist problem is a real one that we’ve got here.
ERIN GRIFFITH: Yeah. That is a very good point.
IRA FLATOW: You know the 60s in me remembers the phrase from the 60s, that growth for the sake of growth is the philosophy of a cancer cell. So if you don’t have any direction that you’re growing, you just want to grow.
ERIN GRIFFITH: That is certainly the mentality.
ADAM BRIGGLE: It’s a philosophy of capitalism. But what’s also weird, if you look at the transhumanist, which are kind of like the distilled essence of Silicon Valley. In a weird way, these guys are all Marxists. Because what they’re really talking about is not individuals, they’re talking about the human species. They want to improve humanity, and not necessarily your or my life. They have this sort of [INAUDIBLE] species essence, Marxist project going on, which I think is really bizarre.
IRA FLATOW: So who’s the next, who do you think is going to be next up in social communities? You mentioned a few. You rattled off Amazon and these other. Could somebody come out, and let me just rephrase that. You talk about Facebook, but Twitter, I mean, Twitter now has become so polarizing. You talk about that they are trying to pull news back from Facebook.
ERIN GRIFFITH: Yes.
IRA FLATOW: That’s all you see on Twitter.
ERIN GRIFFITH: Yeah, Twitter is essentially a news site. And they more than anyone are grappling with this issue. Because they have changed their policies a lot, and there’s a lot of harassment and hate on that platform.
IRA FLATOW: All right. We’re going to end it there, because there’s a lot more to talk about later on. Thank you both.
ERIN GRIFFITH: Thanks so much for having us.
IRA FLATOW: Erin Griffith, senior writer at Wire. And Adam Briggle, professor of philosophy and religion at the University of North Texas. We were just talking about modern Frankensteins in Silicon Valley. Why Frankenstein? Well that’s because that’s the book we’re reading for this month Science Friday book club. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, published 200, almost exactly 200 years ago. CHRISTIE Taylor, radio producer at Science Friday is here with an update, and to encourage you to join the fun, join in the fun. Welcome back CHRISTIE.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Hey Ira. How’s it going?
IRA FLATOW: How’s it going with Frankenstein?
MATT: I finished reading it for the second time in my life at this point. And I got to tell you, it’s not like the Frankenstein story that I remember from the movies and pop culture. There’s romance. There’s mystery. There is a lot of moral dilemma going on there just throughout the book. A lot of fainting, and I’m excited to hear from our sci-fi listeners who have been following along these last couple of weeks. We just had a fascinating conversation about the idea that Silicon Valley might have some parallels going on there. Churning out modern monsters. We’ve had some listeners thinking about this as well. Here is a call from a listener who had another idea for modern Frankensteins.
– I believe that there’s definitely a parallel in the new AI technologies that are coming out like Siri, Google assistant, the Amazon Alexa. Monster eventually matured and became almost just as smart as his creator. Humans won’t be able to comprehend what they’ve created.
IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday from PRI, Public Radio International. CHRISTIE, they won’t be able to comprehend what they’ve created.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Yeah. I really liked that insight from that listener, and we really want people to keep calling in with their own insights and thoughts as they’re reading the book. We have an after hours voicemail ready and waiting for you, and you should call. 567-243-2456. And again, this week we want to know, besides maybe Silicon Valley, if you’ve been thinking about that. What are some other modern Frankensteins out there? What other science or technology does this story remind you of? And again, that at 567-243-2456.
IRA FLATOW: I’ll admit, I’m only about halfway through Frankenstein so far. I should have finished it by now, but I have a lot of reading going on. But I’m also trying to read the– we have a special edition of Frankenstein. Trying to read the annotations that are just terrific.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Yeah. I really appreciate a lot of the insights from that. It’s that special MIT Press copy of Frankenstein, that has all those annotations from thinkers, scientists, philosophers, bioethicists. And then they have a lot of great thoughts on the time Mary Shelley was writing from, 200 years ago this year. And some of the technology and science that was on her mind at that time.
IRA FLATOW: What strikes me most about reading Frankenstein now as an adult so to speak, is that it is so– as you’ve mentioned before, it is so different than Boris or any of the other Frankenstein. This is an intelligent creature. And not like the– just hobbles around like he doesn’t know what he’s doing.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Yeah. He’s an autodidact. He teaches himself to read. He teaches himself French and Arabic actually. Two languages. He befriends people, or he tries to. He’s really trying to live this autonomous, independent life out in the world. And as you might see as you finish up reading. Ira, it’s OK that you’re not finished yet. You’ll find out that maybe it’s a bit of a tragedy for him more than maybe Victor Frankenstein. I might have a side here.
IRA FLATOW: I got one already, one of the deaths in there. Well what if I want to read more stuff if I’m a really fast reader.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: If you’re really fast reader, we have more stuff for you to read. And that is our newsletter that we’re putting out every Monday. You can go to our web site sciencefriday.com/bookclub and join our newsletter. That’s going out until February 9th when we have our wrap up conversation with author Elizabeth Barr, bioethicist Josephine Johnston. We’re going to talk about all the various things that we’ve thought about in the last five weeks. That’s February 9th on our show.
In the meantime, that newsletter is coming for you, or you can come for it. Sciencefriday.com/bookclub. We, this week, are going to have some highlights from the Silicon Valley conversation out there. We’re also going to have an educational resource that our fabulous team put together. Where you can do your own case study of a modern bioethics thought process basically. And then, of course, there’s Twitter, which you may or may not want to be on after that conversation. Science or hashtag for the book club is #scifibookclub.
IRA FLATOW: Now we also want to hear from you if you have any comments. You can phone in your comments, right.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Correct. That’s again, our off air after hours voice mail. 567-243-2456.
IRA FLATOW: And one of the great things about this book is that it is now in the public domain, so you don’t have to buy it. You can just download it from the internet.
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: And we have several links for you, again on our website at sciencefriday.com/bookclub. That annotated version, that we were just singing the praises of is up there as well. And that’s at Frankenbook.org as well if you want to go directly to the source.
IRA FLATOW: And we’ll all wrap it up when?
CHRISTIE TAYLOR: February 9th.
IRA FLATOW: February 9th, thank you. Thank Christie Taylor, radio producer for Science Friday. And our Frankenstein Maven. On this book club.