12 Questions for Big Tech
Facebook, Google, and Twitter have been in hearings with government agencies this week over their responsibility in Russia’s hacking of our elections. Here are some questions I would ask them:
1. Please raise your right hand and tell me if you are a media company, and if tobacco is addictive.
2. You appear to have embraced the celebrity, influence, and margins of a media firm, but not the responsibilities. Why?
3. Facebook’s response to the accusation of being a vehicle of foreign interference has progressed from a “crazy idea” to admitting to “millions” of ads, to “hundreds of millions.” How much worse will it get?
4. If a firm, wittingly or unwittingly, becomes weaponized by Russian intelligence, isn’t the responsible thing to do to shut the firm down?
5. The average age of the Cleveland Cavaliers is 29. The Detroit Lions, also 29. A Facebook employee’s average age is 28. Is it possible Facebook management doesn’t have the historical context to understand the important role of the fourth estate in our society?
6. When you claim it’s impossible to ensure no weaponization of your platform, don’t you mean “unprofitable”? It could be stopped, but at substantial detriment to your free cash flow. Haven’t you chosen profits over country?
7. If the New York Times can prevent weaponization with $100M in free cash flow, why can’t Facebook with $16B?
8. Have you unwittingly committed involuntary treason?
9. What does it say to Americans when you send CEOs to book and product launches and panels, but lawyers to discuss our democracy?
10. Isn’t your business model to have a pool with no lifeguard — profits despite the risks?
11. Can you assure us that this will never happen again, as the CEOs of every major newspaper, TV, and digital media company have?
12. If you can’t make the same promise as every other media CEO, shouldn’t your firm warrant additional oversight or regulation?
I never served in the armed forces. When I was 16, Iranian revolutionaries stormed the US embassy in Tehran and took 52 Americans hostage. My mom did her part and began obsessing that if the US went to war, I might get drafted. Her first memories were of living in London during the Blitzkrieg and how all the young men were “off fighting Jerry.” After six months of furious letter writing and form filling, my mom secured me UK citizenship. I was safe. But her relief was short-lived. We received a notice from Her Majesty that I needed to register for conscription in the UK armed forces. The budding Falkland Islands crisis had reminded Britain it needed to buttress its ranks.
When I was 17, my dad took me to Maryland, and we toured Annapolis. He hoped it would pique my interest in the Navy — he had served in the Royal Navy. My father told me if I attended Annapolis, which is free, he would buy me a Trans Am with the funds set aside for college tuition. Suddenly, I began envisioning myself in certified navy twill. The campus was impressive. Later that night we went to the movies and saw Animal House — me, my dad, and 400 midshipmen. I noticed the handsome uniforms, the fitness of the men (still mostly men in the eighties), and how disciplined and well behaved they were. Back in Westwood, a packed theater of 19-year-old men viewing Animal House would have been … an animal house.
During the tour we learned that we’d need to get a letter of recommendation from a senator to apply. That moment I knew this wasn’t going to happen. Coming from an upper lower middle class home, we lacked the confidence to ask a senator for something like this. Being in the lower half creates a mindset that eats at your confidence when you’re a kid. Senators only have time for rich people, I thought, and would never dream of calling and asking. By the way, I’m fairly certain if a kid calls his senator and asks for this type of attention the office would take it seriously. It wasn’t until I began hanging around rich kids in college, on a more level playing field, that I gained the confidence and hunger to reach beyond my grasp. The parties, new friends, and football games fall freshman year softened the blow of not going to Annapolis.
I feel some guilt, but more disappointment that I never served. I like to think of myself as a patriot and register the enormous blessings bestowed on me due to the sacrifice of others. At Stern we have a wonderful program that provides financial aid to veterans. They are impressive young men and women. Disciplined, strong, with a sense of self derived from being a part of something bigger than themselves.
The sacrifice is apparent, and jarring, when you see a kid who has been injured. One of my students has the face of a 16-year-old, but his wheelchair ages him 30 years. Seeing someone who’s been injured in action puts you up-front and personal with not just the sacrifice of these young people, but how little most of us put on the line for our country. We’re able to outsource almost anything if we have the means. Our economy has been optimized on every level for one thing…wealth.
Kids from wealthy households are 77 times more likely than kids from low-income households to go to an Ivy League school. So, the common perception is our military is over-represented by lower-income kids, who have fewer options. This perception is wrong. Enlisted soldiers are actually, on average, more educated and come from more affluent families than the average American. In addition, the ethnic composition of our armed forces mimics the broader population. To attempt to assign a demographic profile to soldiers is futile and misses the point. They don’t have ethnicity or economics that bind them, but something most of us will never have: the courage to be a part of something bigger than ourselves that involves real sacrifice and risk.
Tom Brokaw labelled Americans who took part in the war effort of WWll our “Greatest Generation,” who heeded the call and served. I’m pretty sure it’s statistically a dead heat between generations for who is better / worse. However, within this generation of young people, there are those who are not called, but serve nonetheless. It must be rewarding to know that, regardless of what gets accomplished in the remainder of their time on earth, their lives had purpose.
We all look for something that requires an enormous investment in something that pays off (kids, career success, betterment of humanity) so that we don’t exit this life with emptiness, and a terrifying question haunting us:
Did. My. Life. Have. Meaning?
These young men and women have checked that box. They have served.
Life is so rich,