Sunday 24 March 2019

John McGee: 'Time to wake up to the dystopian technology future'

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John McGee

Hardly a week goes by without some controversy cascading into the public domain involving social media platforms and tales of tasteless videos, inappropriate ad placements or data breaches.

While some of this triggers mild outrage for all of 10 seconds in the minds of those who are the most fervent users of social media, it is interesting to note there appears to be a growing backlash from within the tech industry itself.

One prominent figure who has joined the so-called 'techlash' chorus is Roger McNamee, a 60-something veteran of the venture capital industry, who has turned his guns on Facebook, a company in which he invested and gave some of his time to mentor a young Mark Zuckerberg.

McNamee's recently published book, Zucked: Waking Up to the Facebook Catastrophe (Harper Collins, €23.80), traces the often thorny path one of the world's most successful ever brands has taken since it first started shaking the Silicon Valley money trees 13 years ago in its quest for investors, advisers and ways of monetising its new platform, right through to the many controversial and scandalous cock-ups in recent years.

As an early stage investor and adviser, McNamee is also credited with introducing Sheryl Sandberg to the company.

Well-known and liked in Silicon Valley, he also set up Elevation with U2 front man Bono. Elevation was a $1.9bn private equity firm which took a punt on companies straddling the fertile ground where technology intersected with media. Apart from Facebook, Elevation made a number of other investments in companies such as video-game developer BioWare/Pandemic Studios (later acquired by Electronic Arts), Yelp, Forbes Media and Palm.

But it was Facebook which provided Elevation with its most successful punt and McNamee was an early member of the Facebook cheerleaders club, which also included Bono and his guitar-playing fellow band member The Edge.

This was also at a time when Silicon Valley was thriving in a laissez-faire legislative environment and when it was acceptable to disrupt and break things like there was no tomorrow or, for that matter, consequences.

Saccharine-sweet platitudes about engagement and connecting the world were never questioned, yet they soon morphed into euphemisms for taking your personal data and flogging it to any advertiser who wanted to bid for it.

As McNamee witnessed the growth of Facebook, how personal data was being used and abused by tech companies and the impact social media platforms were having on the mental health of society, he started to question himself, his judgment and of course Facebook. His Damascene conversion was complete by the time the US presidential election came about in 2016 and when it emerged Russia may have influenced the outcome by using Facebook to get to voters.

For McNamee, this threat to democracy was the last straw. As he noted in the book: "Facebook has managed to connect 2.2 billion people and drive them apart at the same time."

The solution? For a start, McNamee believes it is imperative people are given complete control and ownership of their data and it should not be sold to advertisers without their permission. Cue heavy sighs from the investment community.

He also believes it's high time legislators around the world updated competition regulations to deal with the digital age and, in particular, the so-called digital duopoly that is Facebook and Google.

"Normally, I would approach regulation with extreme reluctance, but the ongoing damage to democracy, public health, privacy and competition justifies extraordinary measures," he says.

The book is not without its shortcomings. While it is clear McNamee was an insider in the early days, as the years moved on and as Facebook scaled its operations globally, he no longer enjoyed the same levels of access, and a lot of the insights about the direction of the business were gleaned from the sidelines. In fact, when he wrote that much-publicised letter to Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg in 2017 to express his shock and dismay about how things had panned out for the company, society and the platform's users, they barely acknowledged him.

Readers could be forgiven for thinking that without Bono's and McNamee's dosh, Facebook might never have taken off. The reality is that investors such as Peter Thiel, Accel Partners, Greylock Ventures and Meritech Capital were in there long before they were.

But these are minor distractions and should not dilute the messages McNamee wants us to listen to. As he notes in his concluding chapter, "a dystopian technology future overran our lives before we were ready. As a result, we now face issues for which there are no easy answers and without much time to act".

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