On The Dangers of Opacity

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Although business transparency is central to making decisions on investing, regulation, and what sort of world we are creating, there’s very little of it from many of the largest technology companies.

Some of it is purposeful, and some of it is inadvertent. All of us are impacted by it. Ask yourself a simple question:

Do you know Uber’s plans? 

Of course, you’ve likely experienced the ease of its ride-sharing technology, and read stories about how it’s disrupting taxis and delivery services.

But maybe you’ve also caught wind of its aggressive efforts to impede regulation of its drivers, including security checks, or the occasional passenger rape or theft horror story. Perhaps you’ve heard about how much money it’s spending to lobby governments to resist taxing it, or fighting efforts to impose on it the same insurance responsibilities imposed on traditional taxi services.

It’s possible you know that it vociferously resists paying its drivers the same as similarly-occupied workers, or that it’s already testing cars driven by robots, so someday it won’t have to pay people anything at all.

And you might have noticed that Uber lost at least $1.2 billion in the first half of this year.

Only it didn’t lose it; rather, $1.2 billion was simply an investment in implementing a strategy to fundamentally undo how we live, and how our governments operate, and then remake those institutions in accordance with its own vested interests.

That ultimate strategy is utterly opaque, other than the tidbits Uber chooses to tell us.

If a foreign government subsidized lower prices so it could similarly change a marketplace, we’d consider it illegal, or an act of war.

Unfortunately, even being a publicly listed American company doesn’t necessarily overcome such opacity.

Although Facebook complies with the reporting requirements imposed by NASDAQ (and, thereby, the government), it’s unlikely any of us truly understands its plans, let alone the implications for our lives.

The FASB standards by which it accounts for its operations were invented in a world filled with carbon paper and mechanical adding machines. There’s no accounting language for recognizing the value of data, or the aggregate (and growing) models of user behavior Facebook is building every time you sign-in.

There’s also no math for valuing the costs or benefits of the trade-offs imposed by its use, like shifting community involvement from geophysical to virtual engagement.

Assessing Facebook’s impacts is impossible because we lack the language and models to explore them. They’re externalities to its services offering, yet I’d bet there’s a deeper company strategy buried in them…that we know nothing about.

I’m not sure our new media are up to the role the erstwhile traditional mediascape once served.

First, tech has enabled a flood of online content, much of it biased, self-serving, or just plain ignorant, which contributes, however indirectly, to a lack of consensus opinions on issues (there’s an inverse relationship between the complexity and importance of a topic, and the likelihood that people can agree on even its smallest aspects).

Do you know how much of what you read, see, or hear is bought by Uber or Facebook, whether outright, or through the power of persuasive argument and corporate influence?

Yeah, I don’t, either.

So good luck trying to research the truth about any powerful tech business. What advocates call democratization of content is a nice way of referring to chaos, and much of it is brought to you by a sponsor.

Second, reporters who cover tech businesses are sometimes hobbled by assumptions that whatever tech companies are doing is 1) inherently good, and 2) inevitable.

Both premises are flat out wrong.

Technology isn’t inherently good, or bad for that matter, so describing its intended consequences without exploring its unintended effects, direct or indirect, qualifies as cheerleading as much as anything else.

And tech’s use and effects aren’t inevitable, either; if they were, we’d all be living in a permanent nuclear winter, and drinking Tab soda filled with cyclamates. Inventions can’t be undone, but they can be managed when people agree on that necessity.

The opacity of tech companies, along with the shortcomings of our ability to address it, inhibits our understanding of such necessity.

It makes it impossible for us to agree on whether or not we approve of what they’re doing, which means they get to keep doing it.

Whatever it is.