But the idea that Facebook’s technological underpinnings are supposedly so complex that they cannot be revised, and its business model so fast that it cannot be lowered, is finally overtaken by its undeniable dangers. A number of catastrophic results, from political manipulation of free elections to violence against minority populations to the detriment of young people, and even misinformation from public health that prolongs and exacerbates a pandemic, have destroyed the pleasing fiction that the company’s products produce a net positive for society.
In the case of the American car industry, the need for not only regulation but also an enforcement body to ensure compliance was also not immediately obvious. The necessity and wisdom of proactively regulating this infrastructure technology, instead of relying on the fiction that consumer choice was the primary mechanism for avoiding harm, was only recognized after decades of harm and years of whistleblowing and investigative journalism.
Like ubiquitous internet platforms, Detroit in the mid-20th century produced something most Americans felt they could not live without and quickly became addicted to. As suburban sprawl enveloped the areas around cities, racist resource allocation eroded urban centers and encouraged white flight. As a result, owning one or more cars was increasingly a necessity for an increasing number of Americans. State and federal government resources went in the direction of creating ever more and wider roads to ensure that car traffic grew uncontrollably, even – or especially – at the expense of those who could not afford cars or who were structurally prohibited from moving out. neighborhoods that were increasingly halved and destroyed by eminent domain attempts to provide more land for highways in and out of cities.
At this time, the big three also seemed unstoppable, rolling across the American landscape using powerful business and government interests, while illegally colliding with each other and against public interest and public safety for ever-increasing profits.
When the bombings took place in lawyer and activist Ralph Nader’s bestseller from 1965 Unsafe at any speed began to explode in American public discourse, car executives lined up in front of Congress. They told the American public and those who represented them that they were doing their best to make cars safer and less polluting, and that there was little they could do to immediately eliminate the damage caused by their product. Leaders downplayed the scale of the public safety crisis and often claimed to be unaware of the scale of their products’ harm to consumers. Their response, of course, was largely a charade aimed at saving profits and averting regulation for as long as possible. Ford’s president at the time, Arjay Miller, told in great detail how his Lincoln Continental was safe enough to save his life when he was involved in a highway accident – the doors did not stop, the gas tank did not explode and Miller escaped unharmed. He promised to make sure Ford did everything they could in the years to come to further improve safety.
But for years thereafter, Ford instead cut corners on safety, producing cars like the Ford Pinto, which removed important safety features to get to market quickly and keep production costs down to reap maximum profits. In 1977, the infamous Ford Pinto became the “memo” that was uncovered by Mother Jones investigative journalists, detailed the company’s terrible cost analysis of past and future accidents. According to the memo, the horrific deaths and burns throughout the body that Pinto residents suffered in rear-end collisions were an acceptable loss because when lawsuits or other settlements were paid out, they would amount to less than the cost of repairing the Pinto designed to prevent the gas tank from exploding. The cost of fixing the design was $ 11 per. Car. Following public and state pressure, it was eventually implemented through a recall required by the newly established National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Today, a similar scenario is unfolding in the field of Big Tech — a concept that has become shorthand for ad-driven platforms and Internet-enabled arbitrage firms, lowering the cost of goods and services by pressuring both workers and consumers. Whistleblowers from several companies, most of them women and many of them colored women, have stepped into the role that Nader occupied in the 60s – from Ifeoma Ozoma, who stood up for Pinterest and subsequently worked to create legislation to ban the misuse of non-disclosure agreements for whistleblowers in California and Timnit Gebru, who alerted the world to Google’s lack of commitment to AI ethics in practice, to Sophie Zhang and now Frances Haugen. In each case, the companies have similarly tried to silence, fire or discredit these workers and reserve their harshest treatment for colorful women.
The need to change power structures in this sector is critical not only for society but also for democracy: As Haugen’s testimony last week showed, Facebook marshaled its massive profits not against solving known problems, but against avoiding being perceived as having caused these problems. And like Arjay Miller, Mark Zuckerberg has said what is needed to delay and divert regulation.