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If you’re reading this right now on your iPhone or on a Windows laptop, it’s good for Apple and Microsoft.
It’s also good for Amazon, Zoom, Candy Crush and this newsletter, which can reach you because smartphones, tablets and personal computers created by others gave them a route to billions.
Think of the last quarter of a century with computers and the internet as a highway. The companies that made gadgets and software systems controlled the roads, and cars made by other companies drove (with some restrictions) on these roads. Computer devices would be meh if we could not have access to a multitude of apps, websites and software ̵
But newer technologies for online interaction – smart watches such as the Apple Watch, voice-activated speakers, Internet-connected televisions and robotic cars – draw us mostly to digital features that the manufacturer makes or closely monitors. They are more like private roads than the open highways of smartphones and PC eras.
These evolving technologies can change, and I hope they do. I’m worried we’ll miss the next Amazon or Zoom if the future is private roads without a multitude of cars.
Apple plans to showcase the latest versions of the Apple Watch on Tuesday. Since it was first sold more than five years ago, the device remains largely a place for people to live in Apple’s world.
Yes, people track calories with the MyFitnessPal app and watch Weather Channel on Apple Watches. But the watch is mostly a way for people to look at their iPhone messages, use Apple’s activity tracking feature, and listen to Apple Music. Other cars are allowed, but in practice it is a road for most Apple cars.
Ditto for Amazon’s echo. If you ask it to play Anita Baker songs or tell a joke, Amazon will download from its own computer systems for music or response unless you specify otherwise. Again, people are asking to listen to NPR and order a Domino’s pizza on the Echo speakers. But most people use their Echo devices for features that Amazon built.
Closed or tightly controlled internet access points become the norm rather than the exception. If you have a Roku or Vizio TV, you cannot watch the HBO Max video app or the Apple TV app unless it is a business contract with the TV manufacturer. (This is not how computers and smartphones work.)
If glasses with the internet and autonomous cars become more widespread, they also take the form of being less open and more of a creation where one company controls the physical equipment and what we do with it.
This may make sense for complicated technologies such as cars. And private roads can be a temporary condition. The iPhone started closed to non-Apple apps before the company changed its mind. I also do not want to exaggerate how open our smartphone and computer path is. Apple still approves or rejects all iPhone apps.
Still, I think even the iPhone is more open to software other than TVs and the Apple Watch. The proof lies in how people use them. Absolutely by 2013 – five years after Apple opened the iPhone app store – apps from companies other than Apple were already a big thing. Not so five years in the Apple Watch.
It is difficult to predict how all this will shake out. But I’m worried that there will be no future Instacart or Netflix if we lose the relatively open highway system that has defined our digital lives for decades, or if the companies that make our Internet portals confine them most to themselves.
Is Facebook too big to control?
I have fought, like many people, with whether Facebook makes people and the world worse. This may have been my breaking point.
A relatively young computer scientist who was fired from Facebook wrote a note describing how politicians, political parties and others in various countries, including Honduras, Bolivia, Ukraine, Brazil and Azerbaijan, used automated accounts and other means to mislead people or harass opponents.
It is not news that Facebook is used to mislead or bully. But even I was surprised by the scale of manipulation campaigns described by former employee Sophie Zhang – both the number of countries involved and the amount of manipulation that took place.
BuzzFeed News and my colleague Sheera Frenkel wrote about their note.
This is the sight of a person. It is also difficult to know the impact of these misinformation campaigns and abuses in these countries. Ethnic violence and manipulative politicians were problems long before social media existed. Facebook told Sheera that it removed coordinated influence campaigns, and that it had a large team working with security.
But Zhang’s note resonated with me because you can feel that she bothers how little she was able to do and how she did not feel supported by her bosses. It made me wonder: Should Facebook be important communication in large parts of the world?
Zhang wrote that she thought the Facebook bosses meant well, but could not handle anything other than the highest profile abuse of the site outside the United States and Western Europe.
She also echoed what we already knew. It’s relatively easy to sow chaos on Facebook, but harder to rein in, with sometimes deadly effects.
What now? Is such a poisonous stew with misleading information an inevitable? Is a gathering place for billions of people too wild and dangerous to exist – is Facebook “too big to manage responsibly” as my colleague Charlie Warzel wrote? I do not know. I have to sit with this for a while.
Before we leave …
They use technology to make technology better and less exclusive: Young people working in technology are banding together to counter what may be an isolated industry, and to combat the misuse of technology products, wrote my colleague Taylor Lorenz.
A teenager built a tool to protect people from harassment on Twitter. One group built an online bulletin board with the aim of spreading positivity. The goal of this loose collective, one person told Taylor, is to “build a more positive internet, things that help people.”
This was pretty pointless: The latest on the tug-of-war over the Chinese video app TikTok from my colleagues: People involved in the company decided on a compromise that did not involve ownership moving to the US or a change in TikTok’s controversial software, which the White House previously insisted on. In short, not much happened after months of drama and wasted time and money. (Here I look at it from Monday’s newsletter.)
“Jeopardy!” in zoom: The quiz show adapts to the moment by filming new episodes with detached stalls that replace the typical participant podiums, people’s pictures on sticks as the audience and auditions conducted with Zoom video. The Ringer takes us into a rematch for a pandemic.
Hugs to this
I love this cat sitting on the low key to “help” play a Van Halen tune. (Here is the original song. Without cat.)
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