25 August

JFDI broke the world

Back in the old social media optimism days the acronym JFDI was popular, especially amongst those advocating for a more liberal adoption of online conversational tools in traditionally constrained environments like, say, local government. Just Fucking Do It, for it is easier to ask forgiveness than ask permission, or at least much faster. I may well have advocated this position at times. I think we all did. The old world was stupid and slow. This was obviously so much better.

Facebook's version of this was "move fast and break things" which is the sort of obnoxious interpretation you'd expect from entitled brogrammer swine, updated to "move fast with stable infra" which is like yer dad trying to be entitled brogrammer swine while stabilising the share price. It's all part of the cult of Disruption which seemed like a cool idea when punching up at monolithic media companies but then venture capitalists started using it to reinvent mildly regulated, middling wage employment as totally unregulated low wage contracts, shitting on the poor with cries of freedom and, yeah, here we are now.

To be fair, in many of these cases the Disruption Cultists have just made a shitting thing a bit more shitty. Taxis and minicabs were always crappy - Uber just made that crappiness a bit different so they could syphon off the profits. Amazon simply streamlined existing supply chain methods of high street retailers that were already dehumanising their warehouse staff. Late-capitalism in Western society was already pretty terrible. Wankers like me were moaning about it throughout the 90s and actually thought the Internet might allow us to at least bypass the awful if not fix it. But Silicon Valley just used maths to iron out the kinks and accelerate the race to the bottom. Capitalists gonna capitalise. Whadaya gonna do?

Thing is, with industry and economics we can understand, to a point, what's going on. With social media it's a bit weirder. What happens when you suddenly and comprehensively rewire how societies communicate and just leave them to it? Will it be a good thing? A bad thing? Nobody knows! And we probably won't properly know for a few generations. Which makes blundering in and just fucking doing stuff, in hindsight, a little rash.

Take Facebook in Myanmar, a country that recently opened up from a repressive regime and which suffers from much ethnic strife (yay for that British Empire legacy). Facebook operates in Myanmar, because expansion into new markets is what you do, but until recently couldn't effectively moderate the content being posted in Burmese, partly because they didn't bother hiring anyone and partly because the home-grown font used for Burmese aren't compatible with the Unicode standard so all that fancy hate-speech detecting AI didn't work. The UN human rights experts are fairly sure Facebook was instrumental in promoting hate speech that lead to genocide.

As Nick Heer calmly says with remarkable restraint:

Facebook may be a publicly-traded company that is trying to do right by its shareholders — and the best thing for them, it perceives, is conquering the world. But this is an abhorrent dereliction of ethical responsibility. [...] It is a choice for them to expand to places they don’t fully comprehend. It is arrogant, and demonstrates a lack of sensitivity in attempting to merge American values with those in every region they operate.

Facebook is an easy target because they won the social disruption game so they get blamed for the effects, but all of us who went along with and promoted this was of thinking are responsible here. The privileged arrogance that the world can be fixed by maths and cheap electronics is, in hindsight, embarrassing. I'm embarrassed.

JFDI was intoxicating, and like many intoxicating things it's probably best you don't operate heavy machinery when under its influence.

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