The Disconnection of Tech Bros from Tech

Ed Zitron 6 min read
The Disconnection of Tech Bros from Tech

When I started using the internet, I was fairly anonymous like everybody else. I didn’t want anyone who played EverQuest or Ultima Online or whatever internet chats I was on to be connected to who I was, not because I was scared or nasty, but because not being “me” was utterly freeing. This was an arena where how I looked or sounded or what I ate or lived was irrelevant - it was how I played the game or operated in the community that mattered. I’m not anonymous today because I’ve found a way to monetize having a name, I run a client-facing business, and I’m also not under any significant risk tying “who I am” to “what I am think.”

Bloviating CNN+ star Scott Galloway upset a great deal of people last week with a screed that effectively said that “we need to identify everybody on the internet,” an idea that makes complete sense if your entire perspective on the world is “I love to tell the teacher that they forgot to assign us homework.”

For decades, studies have demonstrated how crowds, anonymity, and obscurity unleash our worst instincts. There’s a term for the online version, the “online disinhibition effect.” Research shows anonymity is an accurate predictor of cyberbullying. It also causes a lack of empathy. In sum: When we don’t have guardrails or face consequences, we’re prone to being assholes. And the incentives of ad-driven media promote the most aggressive and uncivil among us to prominence, coarsening the discourse further and crowding out a key component of civilization’s progress: civility.

I will stop here and say that I do not believe that Scott Galloway spends any significant amount of time online beyond occasionally checking his Twitter feed and email. If he had, he’d realize that there are plenty of people - tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands - that are fully willing to harass and upset people online using their real name, sometimes including a picture and who they work for. Anonymity may or may not do certain things, but the argument appears to be that because anonymity can cause people to be rude to others online (I assume Scott’s primary grievance is that somebody was mean to him online), and because Russian bots may have fermented discord in some way, well, that means we need to “see everyone’s papers.”

Don’t believe me? Just read the end of his piece:

We can absolutely provide anonymity to good actors and should begin the process of carbon capture of the toxicity platforms emit under some adjacent cries of free speech or privacy. Last week, California passed the FLASH Act. Now you can be fined if you send a pic of your junk to someone who didn’t ask for it. Shouldn’t we also have (dis-) incentives for people pretending to be someone else (or thousands/millions of someone elses) or harassing or misleading people?  

When you step up to the bar that is discourse in our society, you should be asked the same question that used to bother but now delights me: “ID, please.”

Now, if you want to start with a real problem here, I’d go with the idea of “good actors.” What is a good actor, exactly? Who is the arbiter of what good actors (or actions) are? Is a good actor a political activist? What if they’re an activist that has been critical of the police? Would they have anonymity? Does anonymity mean true anonymity, or does it mean that only a few people know who someone is? Is someone able to be purely anonymous, or do they have to reveal their identity to the platforms?  What if their identity doesn’t fit into a box designed by (and for) cis-gendered people?

And while we’re on the subject - who is the platform here, exactly? Does each platform identify each person? And what if the person in question doesn’t have the “right” kind of papers, such as someone who doesn’t have a driver’s license, or a birth certificate?

One of Galloway’s many problems is that he can only consider ideas within the extremely narrow world he lives in. Mike Masnick had an excellent thread tearing down this article, specifically that Facebook has tried real names already and that online trolling can be worse when connected to real names. These ideas are not new, nor undiscussed, nor unresearched. There are incredibly well-researched academics one could talk to about it. But Galloway continually shows a lack of curiosity and basic awareness of how the internet works. Otherwise, he’d realize that there are many nations that he doesn’t live in, and that several of them will gladly arrest and jail you if you’re critical of the government.

Sadly, he also lives in a country where this happens. A man in New Hampshire was arrested by local police for criticizing the corruption of the local police chief, specifically for suggesting that the chief “covered up for [a] dirty cop.”  Another man was arrested for sending private emails criticizing Louisiana police for not solving a murder, including pushing for a massive (and very illegal!) search warrant. Whether or not these are isolated cases is irrelevant to the larger problem - these were both situations where someone was directly punished for criticizing the powerful without anonymity. And because Scott Galloway has likely never run afoul of the police, nor does he have any concern about what a run-in with the police might look like, he has never considered the extremely obvious ramifications of why being anonymous online is a necessary option.

Jeff Kosseff, Associate Professor of Cybersecurity Law at the U.S. Naval Academy, also brought up the obvious problem of who is holding the keys to our anonymity, and what could be done as a result:

In Galloway’s mind, anonymity is bad because it means that Russian bots stole the election and people are mean to him online with no recourse. He experiences the ultimate form of privilege - the perception that everybody experiences the same level of freedom as you, other than those who are undeserving of it - that his view of the world is warped based on the daily experiences of being a rich media guy. Like many tech bros, he lacks the basic curiosity to immerse himself in any of the actual things he’s talking about, defaulting to making calls based on his fractured, siloed intuition.

I could have also summarized this paragraph by saying “Scott Galloway went on Bill Maher and said he’d rather give a bottle of Jack Daniels to his daughter than let her use Instagram.” This is Galloway at his finest: creating soundbites for talk shows to sell a book that don’t really make sense, especially when you consider that he had just written a long blog post that said “we should give the platforms that use algorithms to make teenagers miserable all of the information of every person behind every single account, and also provide them with more information so that they’re able to verify each person.”

Galloway is undoubtedly smart, but seems to lack the intellectual curiosity to be right or the emotional maturity to be wrong. It would have taken roughly 15 minutes for him to make a good faith attempt to challenge his own argument  and perhaps an hour’s extra work to talk to some subject matter experts. He either knew he was wrong, and that his “core” audience (white people who want to know what opinions to have about technology) won’t care, or he truly believes he’s right, which means that he may lack even the most rudimentary understanding of how the internet works or how governments treat digital dissent.

I believe Scott Galloway is the larger, more public version of a problem throughout tech where the powerful seem utterly disconnected from the products they claim to care about. Twitter’s board doesn’t tweet. Executives of social media companies regularly admit to not using their own platforms, and this is fine, because they’re famous, and thus held to different standards. Could they create personal accounts, or perhaps anonymous accounts, and use the networks as a usual user? Of course not. Why would they do that, when they have so many things to decide on behalf of the user?

If Galloway actually wanted to do something useful, he would complain about the big, ugly secret of social networking - that if you’re banned, or otherwise require some sort of support, there is absolutely no lifeline unless you are already famous. People constantly get banned from Instagram for no good reason. You can spend 10 years on Twitter and be banned out of nowhere, receive no explanation as to why, and then have no recourse or customer service or human being that you can discuss it with. I’m not talking about “shadowbanning” or some sort of politically-related thing, but people who have been kicked off of networks for absolutely no reason, with no warning, something that you will run into if you’re using social networks more than an hour a week.

And yes, I believe that Scott Galloway and anyone with a significant platform or voice within the tech industry should be spending that much time online. Otherwise…how the fuck do you know what you’re talking about?

More from Ed Zitron's Where's Your Ed At

Empty Laughter

Amongst the sludge of AI-powered everything at last week’s Consumer Electronics Show, a robbery took place. “Dudesy —” allegedly a
Ed Zitron 15 min read

Welcome to Where's Your Ed At!

Subscribe today. It's free. Please.

Great! You’ve successfully signed up.

Welcome back! You've successfully signed in.

You've successfully subscribed to Ed Zitron's Where's Your Ed At.

Success! Check your email for magic link to sign-in.

Success! Your billing info has been updated.

Your billing was not updated.