Facebook 1, Congress 0April 13, 2018
During this week’s congressional hearings, Mark Zuckerberg came across as a robot. A robot can be programmed to follow an algorithm that humans can’t match in speed, endurance, and discipline. The humans questioning the Zuck put on display many of the worst features of our sentient selves: ego (all wanted appear on national TV); cell death (many came across as feeble and cemented the notion that old people don’t understand technology); and ignorance (asking questions whose answers are widely available).
Humans can’t process as fast as a robot, and the robot that is the Zuck and his army of $1,250/hour communications consultants observed these flaws and, in a nanosecond, beat Congress. It was genius really. I don’t know when Facebook registered the observation, but the decision was easy and lethal. Facebook recognized the format of the hearings, and it was over before it started — Congress had lost.
Burn the Clock
The strategy that rendered the representatives of the greatest nation in history impotent? Burn the clock.
Football teams train hundreds of hours on the field to organize their attack based on the time left in the game, or the given scenario. The two-minute drill that teams prepare for augurs a different mindset and strategy, driven by a need to take greater risk with greater reward — a quick seven points. When a hockey team is one or two players down due to penalties, the strategy is to get possession of the puck and clear it, forcing the full-strength team to skate to the other end of the ice and start over. Taking a knee when the opposition has no timeouts, letting the shot clock wind down before shooting — burning the clock.
To be clear, I have no behind-the-scenes info … yet I know for certain this is how it played out: The team prepping Zuckerberg developed 12–24 talking points, 30–60 seconds in length — arrows in his quiver. Each addressed a concern around privacy, content, how the platform works, or points of nostalgia from the firm’s history (“dorm room”) to make the robot seem more like the good robot in Aliens, if not human. These were cross-referenced with nearly every conceivable question — if asked about Facebook being a vehicle for ethnic cleansing in Myanmar, break into talking point 12a, about efforts to bring on native speakers to screen native content, demonstrating commitment while tech-splaining why it’s taken so long to respond to concerns about a concern that’s just really quite concerning: ethnic cleansing.
Mark is a highly intelligent robot (an outstanding processor) and could likely address 80% of what was thrown at him. But, as humans are unpredictable, what if the robot was asked a second-order question or something he wasn’t expecting? Simple, burn the clock. The algorithm:
— First question asked, senator watching themselves talk (45 seconds)
— Pause and look earnest (5 seconds)
— Say “senator” slowly, repeat the question, and acknowledge how serious the issue is, or how you made a mistake and are sorry (30 seconds)
— Deliver talking point (arrow) based on question (45 seconds)
— Second question asked (45 seconds)
— Another arrow (45 seconds)
— Another question (45 seconds)
— If it’s a question that doesn’t immediately foot to an arrow, cock your head, tell senator this is an important issue, you want to get it right, and will have your team look into it and get back to him or her (3, 2, 1, gavel sounds).
Wash, rinse, repeat … 44 times. It was as if the Zuck looked at the people who would be questioning him and determined, in a nanosecond, that if he spoke really slowly, seven or eight of them would leave the room. If this were a football game, team Senate had to put new players on the field every five minutes, and team Zuck was given 44 timeouts.
My seven-year-old plays soccer, and the coaches are careful to ensure every player gets the same amount of time on the field. My 10-year-old son also plays, and at this level the better players are given more time, as the coaches have opted for effectiveness, believing the 10-year-olds can handle the harsh reality that some players are better at this whole soccer thing, and can better help achieve the mission at hand. Everyone gets to play a lot, but the really awful players get less time, and the deft ones get more. Our Congress is full of seven-year-olds.
One would have hoped that, pre-hearing, one of the 25% of senators in their eighth decade would have called on some of their ample experience and asked the group: “Who among us actually understands this shit?” Three or four would have raised their hands. “OK, maybe we should give these folks more time to drill deep and ask more thoughtful questions of the robot.”
But no, we’re impotent. We have some very impressive people in the Senate. Senators Lindsey Graham and Dick Durbin immediately zeroed in on monopoly power and privacy, but couldn’t really maintain any meaningful exchange in the allotted five minutes. Senator John Kennedy could likely get to the guts of any issue faster than most people … maybe in six minutes. Senator Dianne Feinstein speaks as the collective conscience of America, as she represents its largest and most under-represented cohort, moderates. However, they were asked to do a heart transplant in five minutes.
Some senators accurately represented another large US cohort — out to lunch:
Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT): “How do you sustain a business model in which users don’t pay for your service?”
Well, Orrin, imagine you’re watching your favorite show, Paw Patrol. You know those minishows that interrupt Chase and Zuma, talking about the Extreme Nerf Marshmallow Blaster? That’s called an advertisement, and it lets us bring you Paw Patrol, and Facebook, for free, Orrin. Also, based on your activity and the psychological profile we’ve assembled, we know you’re terrified of zombies. So we’ll fill your feed with the undead, as we know you can’t modulate your emotions, nor look away. Sleep tight, Orrin.
Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL): “After communicating with my friends on Facebook and [indicating] I love a certain kind of chocolate, I all of a sudden started receiving ads for chocolate. What if I don’t want to receive those commercial advertisements?”
Well, Billy, you could fire up Prodigy or Myspace … lots of competition. Just oodles.
There Is Another
Team Facebook has gamed DC and won. However, there is another power. Yes, despite our exceptionalism, we can learn from Europe. I believe they too watched the hearings, and the UK is going to show America how hearings are supposed to be held. The EU, specifically Margrethe Vestager, isn’t impressed with the Zuck. The EU will skip the hearings and just start throwing sand in the robot’s gears. The UK is threatening Facebook with regulation if they don’t better protect users’ data. France will begin taxing big tech on their top-line, as they’ve determined their tax officials will never be as smart as big tech’s tax lawyers (for example, Google did $8B in business in the UK and paid $70M in taxes). The GDPR takes effect next month, after passing two years ago.
Another hope? An attorney general from a red state may have done the calculus and realized the Four have been titanic vessels of wealth transfer from the rest of the world to the US, and then from the middle of the US to the coasts. He or she also likely watched the hearings and recognized there’s an opportunity to establish themselves as a 10-year-old. They could file a cogent anti-competition suit against one or more of the Four, and ride a populist horse to the governor’s mansion.
When outgunned, the smaller army should never fight on the same terms. The gangster move against big tech would be a small(ish) European or Latin American country, who decides not to fight big tech on US trade terms and bans one or more of the Four. It’s uncomfortable to say this, but are non-US Western countries better off going the American way, or the Chinese? The American way is offering your citizens a superior product at the expense of jobs and your tax base, and possibly privacy and borders. The Chinese way is to steal the IP (the Chinese stole a lot of the Four’s IP), prop up a local entrepreneur, and capture all the value domestically. An added bonus: no Chinese platform has been weaponized by an intelligence arm of the Russian government. Who have been the fools … China? Or Uruguay and Italy?
Our seven-year-olds on display this week may inspire a number of nations to look east when dealing with the robot. Big tech should hope they don’t look too far to the east.
Life is so rich,