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“Let it all burn down”

In an extract from his upcoming book Ruined By Design, Mike Monteiro explains the problem with social media and how it ruined the early promise of the internet.

The people who built Twitter (and other services) were a bunch of young men. This is important.

More accurately, they were a bunch of white guys. Those white guys, and I’ll keep giving them the benefit of the doubt and say they did it with the best of intentions, designed the foundation of a platform that would later collapse under the weight of harassment, abuse, death threats, rape threats, doxxing, and the eventual takeover of the alt-right and their racist idiot pumpkin king.

Women are woefully under-represented in the tech sector; ethnic minorities and LGBT people are barely on the radar. So straight white guys build systems that enabled such horrors because as cisgender straight white guys, they haven’t experienced the things that women and minorities experience in life and online.

Incidentally, nobody is saying there’s anything wrong with being a cisgender straight white guy. That’s not what Monteiro is saying, and it’s not what I’m saying. The point here is that people build stuff based on what they know.

Monteiro:

All the white boys in the room, even with the best of intentions, will only ever know what it’s like to make make decisions as a white boy. They will only ever have the experiences of white boys. This is true of anyone. You will design things that fit within your own experiences. Even those that attempt to look outside their own experiences will only ever know what questions to ask based on that experience. Even those doing good research can only ask questions they think to ask. In short, even the most well-meaning white boys don’t know what they don’t know. That’s before we even deal with the ones that aren’t well-meaning. (I see you, Travis.)

You don’t ask “could this be used maliciously by abusive exes?” if you haven’t fled an abusive ex. You don’t ask “could this be used to target gay people?” if you haven’t been targeted as a gay person. And so on.

Twitter never built in a way to deal with harassment because none of the people designing it had ever been harassed, so it didn’t come up. Twitter didn’t build in a way to deal with threats because none of the people designing it had ever gotten a death threat. It didn’t come up. Twitter didn’t build in a way to deal with stalking because no one on the team had ever been stalked. It didn’t come up.

This is one of the key problems with the internet as it is today: it’s been largely built by and for cisgender straight white guys. So for example Facebook enforces a real-name system that bans pseudonyms because cisgender straight white guys don’t need to hide their identities – but women fleeing abusive exes and LGBT people often do. Again and again we see platforms used maliciously because the people who built those platforms didn’t imagine such abuse, and don’t seem too keen on policing it either.

Technology is often portrayed as an unalloyed good, disrupting moribund industries and giving power to the people. But all too often it gives power to the wrong people: the oppressors, not the oppressed.

We designed and built platforms that undermined democracy across the world. We designed and built technology that is used to round up immigrants and refugees and put them in cages. We designed and built platforms that young, stupid, hateful men use to demean and shame women. We designed and built an entire industry that exploits the poor in order to make old rich men even richer.

One of the most telling signs that something is very wrong with social media is the flood of tech firm media founders and executives who won’t let their own children go online much, or at all. As Monteiro says:

When we refuse to let our own children use the fruits of our labor while still cashing the checks we’re earning by addicting other people’s children — all the while rending our garments over “what’s happening to kids today!” — we need to burn all our work down.
Nothing is happening to the children. We are doing something to the children. Let it all burn down, and let those that come after us sift through the ashes to learn from our mistakes.