I Believe That We Can Do Better
This year I have reason to hope, in a previously bleak picture of the social media and AI landscape.
Working with Frances Haugen as her Chief of Staff (temporary, until we hire a new one, applications open!) and diving into the challenges facing us from another perspective, has been a powerfully inspiring and wild ride.
We'll be doing a lot in 2022, so please reach out if you want to be involved (read below for more on how.)
When I learned that Frances was going to release documents showing Facebook's complicity in the issues on its platform, I was filled with a surge of hope. These issues have seemed intractable and thorny, at the level of systems rather than people, making them hard to think about and act on.
The world seems to be increasingly glued to smartphones, and the promise of increasingly intelligent AI threatens to make today's levels of depression and disconnection seem like only the beginning.
In 2014, when Tristan Harris began speaking about this subject, my eyes were opened to the scale of the problem: on the other side of the screen, 10,000 engineers working to influence our behavior.
Aza Raskin showed me that while we have been fixated on the singularity, where AI overwhelms our intelligence and strength, we have passed the point where AI overwhelms our weaknesses. Algorithms know what we crave and fear, and are increasingly able to get us to respond how they like. They're going to get MUCH better at it.
Dared My Best Friend to Ruin My Life was created to explore these challenges, and we built a world where it was hard to tell what is real to open a doorway into experiential understanding of the challenges facing us. (I'm continuing to work on finishing the movie and creating more alternate reality content in the future.)
It seemed to me that many experts had their hands in the air, feeling that the problem was too large and complex to be tackled directly, too systemic to have coherent solutions. The best strategies seemed to be sounding the alarm and asking the world to work together in myriad ways, or tackling components of the problem that may be far too small to make a big impact, both important approaches, of course.
Frances has brought to the conversation three vital things: first, a compendium of evidence too big to deny, which is forming the basis for lawsuits and regulation. Second, a conviction that the problems facing us are solvable, and a roadmap of actionable steps. And third (perhaps most importantly), an ability to speak to the complexities with crystal clarity, resisting false binaries and articulating their alternatives in accessible ways.
We met about messaging in the summer, and when she went to DC, another friend and I went to support her in the insanity of coming out publicly. It was powerful to see the maelstrom around the process: lawyers, politicians, and communications teams working at the top of their game. I could not have expected the scale or intensity of how wild it would be.
One thing led to another and I got hired onto her team. I had company-building, messaging, storytelling, disinformation/social media awareness, fundraising, and management experience to lend. But most importantly I was, as her mom Alice called it, "the dolphin in the shark tank," there to be a sounding board and friend.
What followed was ten days of planning and respite in SF, and then three weeks traveling all around Europe, where Frances spoke with legislators, journalists, and interest groups.
The needle is moving. Change is being made. It was extraordinary to meet so many people at the top who care about this issue, and to watch them swing into action. It was front of mind for the UK and EU Parliaments, which were already considering laws. And since Frances' disclosures, other whistleblowers have come out of the woodwork, and Facebook has already made shifts in strategy.
Frances often says that she doesn't think the world is divided into good and bad people, and I share this belief to my core. I believe in changing incentive systems, bringing in regulation, spreading education and awareness, and labeling and transparency. I believe in strengthening the power of the the people as we are in dialogue with large corporations.
Unchecked power destroys the powerful as surely as it destroys the subjugated. Corporations ignore the well-being of their users at their own peril.
What's next? We have a bit of a breather, so we can start to think more strategically and comprehensively. Frances will continue speaking and education to the public, lawmakers, and journalists. She'll be writing a book. And we'll be scaling things up. I'm planning to transition to more of an advisory role as we hire another Chief of Staff and other positions.