Is the Internet good or bad? So, Bob… podcast, episode 1

Bob Sullivan

I started covering technology in the late 90s, sitting in a cubicle on the Microsoft campus, but working for a separate company named MSNBC.com.  At the time, most publications didn’t have technology sections, or even full-time reporters.  Those who did write about tech were business reporters, worried mainly about revenue and stock price, or gadget reporters, worried mainly about what new, cool thing was coming on the market (wearable computers!).  I was immediately attracted to something different — broken technology. I started writing about computer viruses when nobody really cared about them; then the Melissa Virus and the LoveBug took the entire world offline for a day, and everyone cared. I went to hacker conferences before it was cool. I covered online dating scams, eBay fraud, credit card database thefts, child online safety, and the birth of surveillance capitalism.

At the same time, I would go to press conferences hosted by companies like Apple where (alleged) journalists would applaud each new product release.

It all made me wonder continuously: Is all this tech such a good idea? Is anyone stopping to think about any of this?

Eventually, plenty of other people became worried, too.  This story in the Canadian magazine Macleans from 2006 (titled “The Internet sucks”) captures the growing unease people had with the power of giant tech firms.  Read it; it’s cute what a side note Facebook was back then.

Since then, the pace of change has only accelerated, while our introspection about it has not kept up. Social mores haven’t kept up. Law hasn’t kept up.  The closest thing the U.S. has to a federal privacy law does not even mention cell phones or the Internet — because it is the Privacy Act of 1974.

Fortunately, plenty of people care about this now. Do a Google News search for privacy and you’ll find thousands of stories.  Facebook, for better and worse, has placed these issues top-of-mind for most people. As we discussed at the end of the Breach series on Equifax, privacy may be on life support, but it’s not dead.

And I am thrilled and so grateful that a person named Alia Tavakolian is at the top of the list of people who care. An Iranian-American from Dallas, Alia brings an entirely different perspective on these issues to the podcast. She has an amazing ability to ask the right question to get to the heart of the matter. And her emits empathy and understanding in such a way that people can’t wait to talk to her.  I’m incredibly lucky that she is my partner on this project — and with her, come the incredibly talented and passionate people at Spoke Media.  Soon enough, you’ll become familiar with the Spoke Media Method and why the podcast they make really are a cut above what you are used to hearing.

Please don’t interpret my skepticism of all technology as a distaste for it. Quite the contrary: Computers have been in my house since I was a small child (once upon a time, a remarkable thing to say!).  My father taught computers to high school kids in Newark, N.J. for decades. I played my first “video game” on a teletype.  Wrote my first program on a TRS-80.  Used a radio signal hack to add sound effects to a baseball game on a Commodore Pet.  I love this stuff.  I love that tech saved my father’s life after he had a heart attack. I love that I can communicate with old friends in real time at any time.

But there’s lots to worry about. And we don’t talk enough about it.  Mainly, I hate the kind of tricks that tech allows large companies to play on workers and consumers.  Your cable company makes billions of dollars each year, one hidden $9 fee at a time. Uber will make a few people billionaires while turning drivers into minimum-wage employees via slight of hand, and along the way take down some mass transit systems, too.  Facebook threatens democracy and the very notion of truth, all because it didn’t want to pay people to play hall monitor. Smartphones are great for finding your lost 12-year-old on a class trip!  But they are also altering his mind so he’ll never be able to pay attention to other people the way you did.  Tech is often portrayed as magic, able to make “scalable” businesses that provide investors with unicorn-like 1,000x returns. Often, the only magic is the way it fools people.  Tech sometimes provides amazing, ground-breaking solutions to life’s problems.  Just as often, it’s merely a trick to make early investors rich, consequences be damned.

This is what we’ll talk about on So..Bob.  But we won’t just whine about the downfall of small retailers or the curse of short attention spans. We’re going to arm you with real ideas and real solutions so your gadgets don’t rule you — you rule your gadgets. Alia asks amazing questions, and I have a few answers. But mainly, I’ve been at this long enough that I know hundreds of really smart people who are generous with their time, and they’ll have much better answers. As our first guest, Canadian privacy lawyer Sinziana Gutui, suggested to me, I am an expert of experts.  At least, that’s what I hope to be for you.

So, readers — what questions do you have? Send them along to SoBob@SpokeMedia.io.  Follow us on Twitter or Instagram at @SoBobPod.  Give us 25 minutes — hopefully, every week.

Click play below, if a play button appears, or click on this Stitcher link or this iTunes link.

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