The stunted human development of the high priests of Silicon Valley

John Naughton writes: One of the biggest puzzles about our current predicament with fake news and the weaponisation of social media is why the folks who built this technology are so taken aback by what has happened. Exhibit A is the founder of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg, whose political education I recently chronicled. But he’s not alone. In fact I’d say he is quite representative of many of the biggest movers and shakers in the tech world. We have a burgeoning genre of “OMG, what have we done?” angst coming from former Facebook and Google employees who have begun to realise that the cool stuff they worked on might have had, well, antisocial consequences.

Put simply, what Google and Facebook have built is a pair of amazingly sophisticated, computer-driven engines for extracting users’ personal information and data trails, refining them for sale to advertisers in high-speed data-trading auctions that are entirely unregulated and opaque to everyone except the companies themselves.

The purpose of this infrastructure was to enable companies to target people with carefully customised commercial messages and, as far as we know, they are pretty good at that. (Though some advertisers are beginning to wonder if these systems are quite as good as Google and Facebook claim.) And in doing this, Zuckerberg, Google co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin and co wrote themselves licences to print money and build insanely profitable companies.

It never seems to have occurred to them that their advertising engines could also be used to deliver precisely targeted ideological and political messages to voters. Hence the obvious question: how could such smart people be so stupid? The cynical answer is they knew about the potential dark side all along and didn’t care, because to acknowledge it might have undermined the aforementioned licences to print money. Which is another way of saying that most tech leaders are sociopaths. Personally I think that’s unlikely, although among their number are some very peculiar characters: one thinks, for example, of Paypal co-founder Peter Thiel – Trump’s favourite techie; and Travis Kalanick, the founder of Uber. [Continue reading…]

The technology boom of the 1990s was driven as much by investment as business success. The winners became billionaires and in a nation that equates wealth with success, the Zuckerbergs and Brins could count themselves as supremely successful. Yet anyone who worked in Silicon Valley during this period can attest to the fact that technology companies were (and still are) culturally dysfunctional by virtue of being mostly boys clubs — and I use that phrase in the most literal sense.

The fact that Mark Zuckerberg, now in his 30s, still looks like a 15-year-old is not a function of his ignorance about history and society or his genes — it is very clearly an expression of his emotional and human development.

Teenagers who struggled socially because of their lack of interpersonal skills found that as code warriors they could skip many of the challenges of entering adulthood. Having attained positions of great power in the tech industry, their deficits in the department of human maturity went unchallenged.

To put it most bluntly, the tech leaders don’t just need to have more rounded educations — they need to grow up.

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