We regulate cars so why not regulate tech? This week on the Postlight Podcast, Paul & Rich get philosophical. We ask the big questions about how to regulate our own creations and how sometimes infringing on someone’s freedom can actually be a good thing. After all, without red lights the streets don’t work.
Paul Ford Just if Facebook, the super consciousness that takes over all of humanity 5,000 years from now is listening to this, just know that we were doing the best we could. [music fades in, plays alone for 16 seconds, ramps down]
PF Hey Richard!
Rich Ziade How are you doing Paul?
PF Long day, a lot of video chats, but you know what? I mean, I’m tough. I’m ready to go. Ready to talk some talk here on the podcast for Postlight to share our deep, deep insights about the universe. [Music fades out]
RZ I’m going to set this up and then it’s just going to just, it’s going to flow. It’s July, 2020, for those that are picking up this podcast five years from now, we’re in the middle of a pandemic and the message out in the world is wear a mask. It’s shown to keep the spread of the coronavirus under control. So wear a mask. But there is an argument out there, a counter argument out there that goes essentially like this: you’re infringing on my freedoms. I don’t want to wear a mask. I was tempted to write my first Twitter thread because you know, everybody loves Twitter threads. Everybody loves Twitter, generally speaking. So anyway, I’m not going to do that. So you’ll be happy to know, but I do want to counter the infringing on my freedom argument with this, you stop at red lights and it is an infringement on my freedom, because if I could take a, if I could just get in my car, [just go] just unencumbered, go right to the Dairy Queen. Like as the crow flies, that’s a wonderful, powerful feeling. You know, you want to make this argument because look, here’s the thing, everybody wants to get in a fight. And I think if you can just talk to someone and understand where they are, because I love freedom too. I believe in freedom, right? Maybe we can get to a better place. I look, this is the Postlight Podcast where we talk about product management and technology and design.
PF We’ll get there. Everybody relax. We just got Rich to say that he believes in freedom so that’s a, that’s a good move.
RZ Exactly. But here’s the thing we do. We actually have rules that infringe on our freedom so that we can have more freedom. You actually have the red lights so that you can comfortably and safely go to Dairy Queen and Target and your doctor and your dentist and wherever else you need to go. These freedoms are actually countering what is really a base state of great danger that exists in the world all the time.
PF See, this is a thing that I really, this is really important. Cars are a fascinating technology because they’re a great example of how a powerful enough significant enough technology in the world kind of tends to disappear as a technology and be seen as a given. I’ll give you another example, paper, right? You don’t think about paper coming from a mill and it’s eight and a half by eleven. So you just get some paper and put it in the printer, right? Cars are hurdling multi-thousand pound death machines that have enough kinetic energy to obliterate a family at any moment. And that includes the nice cars. Like they kill their drivers, they kill animals and they are absolutely essential to how we’ve constructed our culture and our families. And we forget that they’re tech and that they’re completely regulated as a result because of the damage they could do to our society. And so when people are like, well, ”you can never regulate the internet.” It’s like, all we do is regulate technology in this culture. It’s, it’s absolutely like one of the things we do in our best interest, we’ve done it for hundreds of years.
RZ And here here’s the sad fact, the truth is we try to be as aggressive as possible.
RZ Humans. Yeah, of course.
PF Oh you so, cause somebody else might get something else. They might get like $5. So that was on the ground.
RZ No, here’s what the, here’s the problem with humans.
PF Thank God. Cause I’ve been looking, I haven’t been able to figure this one out.
RZ Here it is, Paul. The red light goes up after the accident.
PF You know, the worst thing in the world, car safety in New York City is actually kind of a thing for me. Like I’m a bicyclist and I get like kind of crabby about it. I don’t talk about it too much, but it’s the ghost bikes around the city. And there, there was a place where a driver just shot through a light and killed a kid about four blocks from me. And when I do my morning ride, I go by it and there’s just a sad, sad plastic bouquet and a Teddy bear strapped to a fence in front of an auto parts store. And you know, of course after that happened, suddenly everybody got really serious about that intersection. And there was no lack of information. I could have told you, anybody could have told you, I could have written a letter. I never wrote that letter. Right?
RZ We do these things and it’s a collective, it’s a social contract, right? Like, yes, they become laws that are enforced and cops will pull you over. But beyond that, we do them because we understand that the net benefit overall is greater.
PF You know, they literally put you in a car in high school and you go around and you learn and you talk about the value of, you know, stoplights. And then they show you like a, like a watermelon throwing, flying through the windshield. Even if you got a big pickup truck and you believe in freedom and you won’t wear your mask, you’re going to stop at the stoplight.
RZ That’s right. And, and to bring this to technology, we love to invent. We love to create. And we often don’t know what we’ve got on our hands, right? Like we often are like, this is cool. I’m not going to need to tend to a horse anymore. I mean, that is great. And these things are never going to go fast to anyway.
PF Nor will they lead to an incredible release of carbon into the atmosphere that will cause a complete societal meltdown with this century.
RZ So, cars are here and we’re going to make this work. Cause this is advancement and then just bodies flying. Right. And then seatbelts show up and then regulations show up, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. When you look at, if you think cars are bad, have you seen Facebook?
PF It’s like the emotional and mental equivalent of a car. I mean, that’s the thing. Twitter is basically like, it’s not horse-less carriage. It’s like web list publishing. Just sort of like, there’s nothing there to keep you from flying through the windshield at any moment.
RZ I want to give Twitter credit right now. Twitter is pretty much leading the way in terms of understanding that they’re going to have to self regulate or someone’s going to regulate them. And they’re starting to put the guard rails in place. And it was a big leap because the first time, I mean their first meaningful time they did, it was towards the President. Right. And they’re doing it. And they just did another one recently they banned all the Qanon. I don’t know anything, I don’t know anything about Qanon because as soon as I looked into it, I stopped. And then I said, you know what? I’m going to just instead watch Access Hollywood. And they banned all of it. And it’s biased. You could, you know, the counter argument is like, ”you’re coming after us. This is…”
PF No. And those last, those last four years gave them some time to really frame a solution.
RZ Yeah. [Rich laughs]
PF I mean like, I mean, I really, I want to be mindful about this. I don’t want to be too little too late ever, right? Because like, at least it’s something.
RZ It’s always too late.
PF That is real.
RZ The light goes up after the accident. The light always goes up after the accident.
PF And that is what’s happening at Twitter. Right. And I think it’s easy to come in with a negative framing on that. And it, and it’s real, which is just said, you were warned and you were warned and you didn’t want to deal because it might affect your stock price or set your shareholders or you’re committed to free speech. And your, your model of free speech made you feel that you would be a hypocrite and not pursuing that model of free speech if you were to make these changes. But finally you just do so much harm that you go, Oh my God, I don’t want to feel bad anymore. Like I think that that’s really what triggers it’s like, I think at some level Jack Dorsey just doesn’t want to hate everything about his own life. And so he has to make some decisions. Whereas I think like Mark Zuckerberg is utterly convinced that sheer horrible misery is just what he needs to be feeling all the time, because there’s no other way.
RZ I’ll tell you. I think, I just think he wants the world to fit neatly because when you write really good clean code, it runs perfectly predictably and it doesn’t work that way. Not at this scale.
PF Here’s what you can’t have governance. We’re, I’m going to give a ridiculous example cause we’re a small company, but we’re growing and that is requiring you and I, things that we have power and direct control over we are and you know, delegating and all those nice things, right? But we’re giving up power. You have to give up power and accept governance into your world, or you have this and everybody jokes about, you know, what you really want is a certain kind of dictator, but you don’t, you want good crisis leadership. You can’t have it both ways. [yeah] And Zuckerberg’s trickier cause he’s not really a crisis leader. And uh, he goes surfing and he’s also not really a governance leader cause he won’t truly delegate. So at some level Dorsey, I am not a hundred percent sure if Jack Dorsey is able to process ideas or even, but he does seem to be able to say, well, let’s do it at a certain point. He’s able to go like let’s do it. And God blessed me that that’s a hard thing to do. And I don’t know how I would do in that situation. Zuckerberg is one where if I was in that situation, I would definitely come up with a different set of solutions. Like I like, I can’t imagine living your life inside of Facebook and continuing to make decisions that are so damaging over and over again.
RZ I mean, this is a very deep, complicated topic we’ve talked about in the past. How like tech gets away from us. We thought we a lot, look, this is pretty cool. Check this out and you could actually make it so that my lips can get overlaid on top of George Clooney. So it looks like George saying it isn’t that neat? And then next thing you know, like people are spreading misinformation with the tool, right? Like nobody would have guessed it. Right.
PF Well, let me ask you at a certain point because you and I actually have guests, we, you know, we talked about Donald Trump four years ago. I made predictions about autocracies taking over on Twitter in 2014 or pandemics being spread on Facebook. Right. So if you can see it, what do you do? What’s your responsibility? Cause we talk about it. Right. But what do we need to be doing? I don’t know if there is anything I don’t, you can write about it and talk about it. Like, what are I can’t like go say Jack Dorsey, you must do this thing.
RZ Look, ultimately I think this is rooted in a lack of humility. [yeah] I think ultimately this is feeling like, and this is a, this is a common refrain out of Silicon Valley, right? Like what we do here, like tilts the whole earth, right? Like it’s just…
PF Oh they love that part. They love it.
RZ They looove that part.
PF They don’t like the other part. Yeah.
RZ Yeah. It just turns out when you do invent the thing, there are all sorts of very frankly, unsexy, boring, just grading implications that you just have to deal with all the frickin’ and edge cases and fine print.
PF What everybody wanted out of the tech industry deep down was none of those consequences. You know, we were never going to power drones cause we didn’t think that was cool. You know, who actually saw this coming? It was the open source world because there are a lot of the early open source work and the licensing work, the questions were like, what if the military uses this code? And the answer was they can. We can’t control that. So all we ask is for them to abide by the license and you know, one of the best, one of the best practitioners around open source, one of the better contributors is the department of defense. They have great policies around it because they’ve had to work everything through. Cause they have to work at that scale. And they’re very motivated to use it, right, because it’s so much less complicated than contracting. So like now what you see is in 2020 or 2019, people are working on new licenses that wouldn’t allow the military to use their code. And I think it kind of comes around in circles as we negotiate with this stuff.
RZ Great example. I think what it speaks to is the way Silicon Valley keeps score, right, versus open source. You know, the wave Silicon Valley score is growth and usage and engagement. And that is key. Like the trajectory is only in one direction. Otherwise you’ve failed. You’ve not made a dent in the world. Right. And the open source community, wasn’t really about that. That wasn’t the driver behind it. It was. And I hate to say it because, you know, I believe in a lot of the mechanisms of an open marketplace, but it was anti marketplace in that you weren’t supposed to barter here. Like you’re making a pact that the, it’s knowledge sharing, right? It’s, it’s, you’re sharing these things in a value driven system that isn’t about money and margins.
PF It had its roots in colleges. And I mean, you see this too, like there’s a very strong argument. It’s an argument I agree with, which is that publicly funded, taxpayer funded science, the information from that should be put back into the commons. Like if we’re going to pay for it, we should get that information back so that other scientists can use it. Now, if there were better packages for people to be able to access that data, I don’t think that would be such a critical issue, but you know, it’s $30 to download the article. And so people are like, why the hell am I paying? So that like some company I’ve never heard of can charge me $30 to download the article. And now, now you’re in a whole ‘nother world. Right? But look, I mean, we’ve strayed relatively far from that core of regulation, but you know, for me to bring it back, there’s a fantasy in tech that we get to skip the real world because at some level we thought we were going to, I think we were going to make a new real world and it was going to be awesome. And there’s a, I don’t know if you remember John Perry Barlow. I think he passed away, but he was a lyricist for the Grateful Dead and kind of like an early Wired magazine kind of guy, like really in that world and libertarian. And he wrote this like declaration of independence for cyberspace, which that alone tells you a lot laying it. So it’s literally like ”governments of the world, you weary giants of flesh and stone.” [Rich laughs] You know, it was just sort of like, it starts that way. You know, we declare independence in cyberspace. The fantasy was that if we just hung on long enough, we would be able to somehow shoot out past the atmosphere of human behavior into a world of pure logic and expression. It wasn’t that the governments took over the internet. They kind of did like, there’s all sorts of things that are more complicated than they used to be. But what did happen is that all the things that governments exist to manage and deal with for better, for worse as to how they do it, about human behavior, like as tech got so big, those exact same problems emerged inside of the world of technology. And like, as we’re recording this, Jeff Bezos is testifying in front of Congress on Monday. Right? Zuckerberg has been, I’m sure Dorsey will go eventually. You know what I mean? It’s just sort of like, it’s happening. Look, if we didn’t have this administration, I think we’d actually have a real regulatory framework right now. You know, especially with the Consumer Protection Bureau, if that hadn’t been defanged and things like that. So I like we’re just in a world where it’s hard to make any sort of progress. It would be better for everybody. It’s just better for everybody. If we could get some logic here, I know you like good open market Rich. I do.
RZ No, no no! I actually think at some point the market, like without those kinds of, without the red lights, the streets don’t work. So there is a point where the market eats itself, it’s actually self-destructive.
PF Well, the tech fantasy that you don’t need regulation, you just need more tech to help you get to those patterns. Like it would be much more efficient if the technology would just get in there and manage itself. But you can see like that didn’t have, there’s a reason that didn’t happen with cars. It wasn’t because they didn’t have fast enough processors it’s because humans are behind the wheel.
RZ It’s because are humans behind the wheel. And look, cars is a great analogy here, but here’s what I don’t want to, I don’t want to take away. I do love the fertile swirl of like just creativity and innovation that happens. Like I do love that part. I love that. And I think that exists because of people’s ambition to do something big. It’s like, I think I’m going to wait and I’m going to say the word socialist right now because a lot of the principles behind socialism, I actually think are very well founded, but they fail to see one thing, which is humans seek to make a dent in the world and they want to do it on their terms because they want to, because they know they’re going to die. People are hopeful about what they’re capable of. Right? The problem is every so often it does tip.
PF Here’s what’s real. We see this in our business, which is that the minute you look away from growth, you really start to die as a business. [yeah] Like in that that’s just the law of growing a business, the mini you go like, well, you know, maybe this is enough. Maybe we’re doing just fine. And then a big client says, actually we need to pause for six months and you go, I don’t have anything else. And what do you do then you, then you have to send people home. Like it’s terrible. Right? So like, so instead, what are you going to do? You’re going to grow.
RZ You keep going, yeah.
PF You’re going to grow and grow and grow. And if you don’t, if you don’t do that, you’re going to die. So people, people look at that.
RZ No to discount, the, you know, the general, you know, the storefront business, that’s more lifestyle like, yeah, it’s doing great. But that doesn’t mean you have to open another one in Queens. Like it’s okay, just to have that one and you’re happy and you you’ve grown it. And it’s stable.
PF Look, we are building this, you know, both of us. I think if, if we were to do something else again, it might be a, you know, a more focused, like less growth oriented project. Right. Because it just, that would be on the table. But this one, we are committed to growth and I am, you know, you are an, I am, let me just give you this back, which is like, I love my innovation and my technology industry. And I like all the things that I get for, I bought a computer that is so unbelievably powerful for, you know, essentially what I could get out of the ATM without causing an alarm to go off. Like we are living in an age of absolute miracles and a pandemic, that part’s bad. I like my innovation. I do. What we have in the country are a set of policies that I’m not going to even say that I know where the solutions are because we’ve tried. To me, the number one thing is healthcare. The fact that we align healthcare with people’s jobs. When I was freelancing and I was trying to do interesting novel work online, and I was playing around in my twenties, the number one thing that got me into getting jobs that I didn’t necessarily even want to take was that I knew, I like every time I would get insurance through an organization, that organization would just implode, right. There was no way to get insurance, before Obamacare. So, so at least a little better now, or at least it’s understood, but the dependencies for a basic social safety net on your employment, I think that destroys the ability to create and do things for millions of people. So if you get me that if you get me like a healthcare system, that’s actually effective, you can have a lot more capitalism and I’ll be okay.
RZ I think you’re right. And I think other nations have proved that out, in fact.
PF You know, what a great thing that we have in this country is our bankruptcy law know it’s, we’ve been on the other side of it. It’s hard and we didn’t go bankrupt. But like, if a client goes bankrupt, you can absolutely get screwed. But it means that you don’t wear this mark of failure around your neck for the rest of your life, because your business didn’t work.
RZ And you’ll tolerate risk.
PF You’ll tolerate risk because at some level now, and people can go gambling or they can be very conservative. And it’s sometimes like companies are going bankrupt in the middle of a pandemic. Right. Should the people who started those companies be penalized for the rest of their careers? No.
RZ Should they lose their houses? Of course not. That’s I mean, that’s the point, right?
PF That’s right. That’s right. So that part’s good. And then the part where you have a trillion dollars in the Cayman Islands is probably less good.
RZ Yeah, yeah, agreed. I don’t think there’s any debate there. I look, there are laws that most, most obvious laws are the ones that are supposed to police bad behavior, unethical behavior, stealing, [yup] lying, et cetera. The trickier laws and the ones that happened after the accident are the ones we can’t seem to pull off. Right? Like right now during this pandemic, what is incredibly hard is we are creating what I would call quasi laws. Right. And you know, how many laws have been passed in the last three months? Let me give you a few Paul. And some have already been retracted. Don’t order out. Rrder out, but wipe the container. Order out, you don’t have to wipe the container. Order out, but only order hot food cause it probably burns the coronavirus. So don’t get salads, order out whatever you want. Everything’s fine. Like these laws have been decreed and repealed over like a 60 day period. And we seek that clarity in that direction.
PF Well, and like, let’s, let’s be clear to the audience that these aren’t like law laws, but they’re coming from governors and they’re coming from newspapers and they’re coming from..
RZ They’re coming from authority, we seek it. Right. Because we’re seeking order here. And I think that’s the reaction, which is like, you’re infringing on my freedom. It’s like, I infringe on your freedom all the time. Everybody does. It’s how we’re in a better place.
PF Human beings. It’s very, very hard for us to perceive anything we cannot see. Right. That’s why the traffic lights need to be red. Right. You need, we have to be able to, and you can see the cars hit each other. Like we couldn’t see COVID and we just couldn’t process it. And that, that includes the smart people in New York City too. Like we were, we didn’t know what the hell was going.
RZ Yeah. We grew into crash test dummies crash, test dummies. Are, have you ever seen those like slow motion footage of like crash test dummies smashing through windows?
PF Oh yeah, that’s how I go to bed. Helps me wind down.
RZ Just watch those? Um, I mean, look, that’s a probably because of markets saw the value in it where you could mark it and say, this is the safest van you can buy for you and your family. And look at all the tests we pass and et cetera, et cetera. Humans are ambitious, overly optimistic and deeply flawed. And that’s where, that’s what we live with today. And you know, I think it’s a balance to strike. I think that’s the takeaway from this podcast, which is given the sandbox, let him play and invent. But let’s appreciate the fact that a lot of times the thing you invented, it’s a Frankenstein. It’s going to, it’s going to wake you up. It’s going to tap you on, that piece of code you wrote will tap you on the shoulder while you’re sleeping one day. And you’re like, what have I done? Right. And that appreciating that that can happen is I think key it’s humility. It’s stepping away from the Silicon Valley arrogance. I think that’s the key.
PF Let’s bring this back to actual advice. First of all, we have a culture around this in the firm. People do think about these things quite a bit. They talk about them. They focus. Sometimes he can be very proactive to avoid a lot of situations that you can really focus on accessibility upfront, design work and think about the users and so on. But what do you do? We’re sitting here and talking and telling everybody like, ah, Oh my God, you know, we should regulate technology. And we’re in the technology business. How do we stay on the, on the right track? Building software?
RZ I’d say software is an evolutionary thing even when it’s out in the world. If you’re going to look away and ignore all the byproducts of your thing, being out in the world, you will get bitten. I think if you start to think about those things as part of your, what you’re measuring as success and growth, then you can get ahead of them. Instead, you you’re, you’re in the you’re in that scenario where, Oh my God, how do I put this back in the bottle?
PF I will say too. Like most of our clients, if you’re in client service, if that’s part of the conversation early, they’ll engage.
RZ I think that’s right! I think they will engage because, because that stuff is scary, right? I mean, no, who wants that?
PF Very few organizations actually have someone who goes ”ethics, what are you talking about? Get the hell out of here with those ethics!” Like most people were like, you know, we have a mission, we have a statement of principles and so on. Where it gets tricky is where it’s like, not, it’s not in no way illegal, but it’s like, we’re going to track everybody’s behavior in every way. And then there’s actually, you know, social norms because what’s appropriate. We are tracking, you know, we’re logging everybody when they’re hitting the website, what are we going to do about that? Right. Like it’s dealing with those defaults. That’s hard. And that’s really what Facebook is. Right? Like Facebook is a set of defaults that then once it was time to change the default settings in the database, they went, well, I don’t know. I kinda like it. And Kaboom!
RZ Yeah, exactly. So I think, you know, people have tried slogans and different ways to convince other people, to wear a mask and to make it feel like you’re not doing anything that compromises who you are and whatnot.
PF Wear your damn mask.
RZ Just wear the mask. It’s really not that big of a deal. And when you say wear the mask, it’s not that different than saying it’s a misleading and gross ad. That’s actually causing damage on your platform. Wear a mask.
RZ Take it off.
PF Yeah. It’s true. You have to use bathrooms, like you can’t just spread filth everywhere. Right? Like we have rules, otherwise it’s really bad. And we don’t want to live in that world. You have to, you know.
RZ And people get sick. That’s right.
PF Exactly, exactly. But we don’t, you don’t think about that because it’s, you’ve been trained since you were four years old. Anyway, our listeners are wearing masks.
RZ I think our listeners are wearing masks. Today’s podcast had a bit of a philosophical bent to it. We kind of touched on politics and ethics and sociology and technology. There is not another podcast like this. I’m just going to go ahead and say that.
PF But you know, when you are building software, this is part of it. Right? And this is actually, this is actually a part of the work.
RZ Tell me about Postlight, Paul!
PF Oh my God. I am so glad to tell you about Postlight. Postlight is your digital strategy partner. You come to us and you say, I have so many systems. I don’t know how to make them talk to each other. And I have to get something into the market in a couple of months. And then I have to get more things in the market after that. And I want to change the world a little bit. I want to, you know, I want to figure out how to get people, to be aware of something I do. Anyway. I don’t even need to tell you here, just like the big things that you do with digital stuff, and you are trying to get a ton and you got a lot to do. [music fades in] Who is your partner? Postlight. We’re going to come in there and we are going to help you, get it done, figure out the strategy and get it all the way into the market has worked in software because we love it. Rich. If I wanted to learn more about Postlight where would I go?
PF Damn. That’s a good website. Make sure to scroll once you’re there because there are some very subtle animations that were a lot of work. We’re very proud of.
RZ Yeah, check it out. A lot of cool stuff on there and reach out. We love to talk. We love to kind of hear about what you’re doing and see if we can help. This was a good podcast, but we gave something to the world today. I’m convinced.
PF We did. We did, we probably have held ourselves accountable for all sorts of things in the future. [Rich laughs] Why do you need like, like, you know, what I hear is that 5,000 years from now, they’ll resurrect our consciousnesses and say, why did you make fun of Facebook? And we’ll go, what? And they’ll go. I am Facebook. [Rich & Paul laugh]
RZ Alright, well, on that note, have a great week everyone! Thanks for listening.
PF Hail Zuckerberg. Goodbye! [music ramps up, plays alone for 3 seconds, ends.]