Hi, all, and welcome back to Plaintext. The dumbest thing that happened to me this week was that during an open Zoom session in which Sarah Frier and I were talking about our books, some retromingent troll took over screen sharing to bomb us with images that would turn the stomach of an 8chan-er. People, be kind. And turn off screen sharing in public meetings. Also, make sure you keep getting this newsletter by subscribing to WIRED. Even if you don’t, though, our deep coronavirus coverage is free. It’s our way of being kind.
Mark Zuckerberg sounded tired. Conducting a press call on Wednesday, Zuckerberg, who is normally chipper when announcing fixes to problems, seemed subdued when announcing a series of moves designed to provide coronavirus information and suppress misinformation, on his platform. I guess he’s entitled to exhaustion, leading a company of 45,000 employees, most of whom (including himself) are now WFH, and dealing with problems like a potential rise in toxic content because his contracted content moderators can’t do their jobs.
Despite his downbeat demeanor, Zuckerberg has at least one thing to celebrate: Facebook has gotten rare kudos for its responses to the pandemic, and perhaps even more significantly, more people are using it for the kinds of meaningful interactions that Zuckerberg has been promoting for a long time.
Could this be a turning point? For more than three years, Facebook has been unable to switch the narrative for some—namely, the press, Congress, regulatory bodies, and Sacha Baron Cohen—as being a toxic force in society. The company is the poster child for what is known as the “techlash,” or the reaction to the overoptimistic, and arguably naive, embrace of tech founders and their creations as idealistic digital revolutionaries. Now that our lives are dominated by these giants, we see them as greedy exploiters of personal data and anticompetitive behemoths who have generally degraded society. Before the pandemic, there was every expectation that those companies would be reined in, if not split apart.
But the deus ex machina of an overwhelming public health crisis has changed things. The pandemic may have the effect of a justifiable war waged by an embattled president with low popularity. While Big Tech’s misdeeds are still apparent, their actual deeds now matter more to us. We’re using Facebook to comfort ourselves while physically bunkered and social distancing. Google is being conscripted as the potential hub of one of our greatest needs—Covid-19 testing. Our personal supply chain—literally the only way many of us are getting food and vital supplies—is Amazon.
Who knew the techlash was susceptible to a virus?
The pandemic does not make any of the complaints about the tech giants less valid. They are still drivers of surveillance capitalism who duck their fair share of taxes and abuse their power in the marketplace. We in the press must still cover them aggressively and skeptically. And we still need a reckoning that protects the privacy of citizens, levels the competitive playing field, and holds these giants to account. But the momentum for that reckoning doesn’t seem sustainable at a moment when, to prop up our diminished lives, we are desperately dependent on what they've built. And glad that they built it.
In a rare 2013 interview with then-Google CEO Larry Page, he addressed regulation and how it could have potentially killed the company:
“Consider our own history. When we started Google, it wasn't really obvious that what we were doing wouldn't get regulated away. Remember, at the time, people were arguing that making a copy of a file in a computer's memory was a violation of copyright. We put the whole web on our servers, so if that were true, bye-bye search engines. The Internet's been pretty great for society, and I think that 10 or 20 years from now, we'll look back and say we were a millimeter away from regulating it out of existence.”
Shelly writes, “With Elon Musk's new brain chip coming out this year, what will be done regarding ethics, law, etc.? Are we prepared for this?”
Thanks, Shelly, and I’m sure you’re not asking this just because you’ve written a sci-fi thriller with this question at the heart of it. I think that the brain-machine interface is a genuine contender for the data platform of the future, though it may take a very long time. Look, we’re all kind of cyborgs already, with our omnipresent phones—they just haven’t been hooked up for the final mile. But I believe we should proceed with extreme caution when applying neural context to law, particularly criminal justice. I defer to Bob Dylan on this: “If my thought dreams could be seen/They’d probably put my head in a guillotine.” Spare me the blade!
You can submit questions to firstname.lastname@example.org. Write ASK LEVY in the subject line.
I think this prize goes to the tweet sent by the governor of Utah on Wednesday, reporting that the coronavirus hotline was down because the state health lab was hit by a 5.7-magnitude earthquake outside of Salt Lake City.
This weekend, a tweet about a preprint on the use of the revolutionary gene-editing tool Crispr to fight coronavirus got my attention. When I looked into it I found a promising long-term approach, but no panacea.
Epidemiologist Larry Brilliant has been warning us about pandemics—in books, TED talks, and the movie Contagion—for decades. Here’s what he’s saying now that the nightmare has arrived.
Brilliant is optimistic that an antiviral might prove effective against Covid-19. The buzz in Silicon Valley is that chloroquine, which is used to treat malaria, might be the one. Adam Rogers explores.
That’s it for today. See you next week, though it will probably feel like a month has passed by then.
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