An early investor in Facebook and Google has slammed them for ‘aggressive brain hacking’
Roger McNamee says he regrets helping to create today’s internet giants who aren’t governed by watchdogs, calling on consumers to increase the pressure
By Julie Bort
Iconic Silicon Valley venture investor Roger McNamee, an early backer of both Google and Facebook, has penned an explosive condemnation of these companies for what he calls “aggressive brain hacking.”
McNamee now says he regrets his role in creating today’s internet monopolies, which “have become a menace to public health and to democracy,” he wrote in an editorial for USA Today published on Tuesday.
He then told Business Insider:
“The executives at Google and Facebook are good people but the unintended consequences of their well-intended strategy is causing enormous harm to society, to democracy and to the economy.”
While he isn’t yet advocating government regulation, he said, “I think we should be having a public conversation.”
McNamee is an investor at Elevation Partners, where U2 frontman Bono is also an investor. But McNamee is best known for helping found Silver Lake Partners and previously running T. Rowe Price’s tech investments. He was once an advisor to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg.
It’s not the basic services of these companies, such as search or social networking, that he regrets funding. It’s their business model – advertising – which has become the root of the current problem, he feels.
Advertising has caused these companies to “borrow techniques” from the gambling industry to make their products addictive — the more you feel compelled to continually use their products, the more information the internet companies are able to gather about you.
That’s led to an amazing level of unregulated profit mongering based on your data without your knowledge or consent, he says. As one example, he cites the time Facebook was questioned by the federal housing agency about data it used for advertising that appeared to target specific ethnic races.
“Like gambling, nicotine, alcohol or heroin, Facebook and Google — most importantly through its YouTube subsidiary — produce short-term happiness with serious negative consequences in the long term.
... the big Internet companies know more about you than you know about yourself, which gives them huge power to influence you, to persuade you to do things that serve their economic interests. Facebook, Google and others compete for each consumer’s attention, reinforcing biases and reducing the diversity of ideas to which each is exposed. The degree of harm grows over time.
... The fault lies with advertising business models that drive companies to maximize attention at all costs, leading to ever more aggressive brain hacking.”
The implications from all this brain hacking are already causing us harm, ranging from our propensity to addictively check our phones to how the Russians used Facebook to spread misinformation and influence the US election, according to McNamee.
Taking back control
And in particular, he calls out the very ad-driven internet giants he once backed as an investor: Facebook, Google, Instagram, WhatsApp, WeChat, SnapChat and Twitter.
As for Apple and the smartphone that makes it so easy for people to stay glued to their screens, McNamee notes that Apple makes its money selling hardware, not ads and that “Apple has a role hopefully to play in getting this under control.” It has already done things like stopping YouTube autoplay and blocking ad trackers in Safari. (It’s worth noting that one of the co-founders of McNamee’s Elevation Partners firm is former Apple CFO Fred Anderson.)
McNamee isn’t the only person in tech to call out and condemn brain hacking.
Tristan Harris has been crisscrossing the country, giving speeches and conducting media interviews to raise the warning flag. McNamee has joined forces with Harris to try and raise public awareness on the issue.
Harris previously worked at Google as a so-called Design Ethicist, where he was tasked with helping the company keep ethics in mind as it created products. Today he runs the non-profit Time Well Spent, which hopes to “stop technology platforms from hijacking our minds, and to start putting our best interests first,” it says.
McNamee warns that consumers have no watchdogs for this attention hacking and are going to have to step up and force internet companies to knock it off themselves.
Harris has a few ideas for that. For one, he’s trying to get the public to put pressure on internet companies.
He also advises consumers to start taking control of their devices and their attention such as only allowing notifications from humans, not machines; and deliberately setting up your home screen to minimise attention-grabbing apps, among other tips.