Better luck next year!
It’s hard when making a list about those who have had the most impact in — and also on — the digital space to ignore the people who have done some very profound damage to it, too.
And we can all agree that this has been a very damaging year for tech in all kinds of ways, as it has become crystal clear to many that it is most definitely not the benign medium that so many of its leaders have long claimed it to be.
Social media has become weaponized; new developments to come such as automation and artificial intelligence could have a profound negative impact on jobs with few thinking about the consequences; digital addiction is a real thing that feels like it is making our society hair-trigger insane; and the long-celebrated culture of swashbuckling pirate bros — who brag that they are changing the system with every keystroke — is now clearly seen less as the harmlessly naughty one of Peter Pan and the Lost Boys and more as the malevolently toxic one of Blackbeard and his band of very scary dudes.
When Facebook’s founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg posted the phrase “Move Fast and Break Things” all over the walls of the now frighteningly powerful social communications behemoth way back in the last decade, it certainly seemed an energetic and exciting bromide. Now, I think I can speak for a lot of us when I say that that company and many others have broken just about enough things and need to start thinking about fixing much of what has been shattered.
In that spirit of healing, it’s hard, then, not to name some names of those who have done damage in 2017 through their actions, whether intended or not.
Here’s that list of the Terrible 10:
No. 1: @realdonaldtrump
While you can debate all you want about the kind of president Donald J. Trump has been, it’s pretty clear his use of Twitter has been nothing but ugly, divisive and nasty. With every tweet tapped out with bile and lobbed in the middle of the night, it’s clear that this Twitter user is one we could all do without. Whether attacking his detractors in demeaning terms that would make a bratty 10-year-old cringe or spewing easily checkable lies or capitalizing letters so it feels like a really noisy and angry old man is shaking his fist at the internet 24/7/365, Trump has been one of the major influences on the Twitter platform that has helped make it a cesspool and encouraged others to makes it even dirtier still. Thumbs down, he tops this list without question.
No. 2: The alt-right
Let’s be clear: There are not any fine people on the far right when they are the ones who post the most vicious, vile and ofttimes dangerous videos, memes and more all over social media from Twitter to Facebook to Reddit to many other nasty corners of the internet. While our nation and the world have become more polarized than ever, those denizens of the alt-right have become unfortunately adept at creating and disseminating hate on the many platforms at their disposal and have used them to punish their enemies. While the companies have been scrambling to fix the many loopholes that these malevolent users take advantage of, the entire system has been lessened. While it’s certainly a bummer for Pepe the Frog to get hijacked as he has been by the alt-right, the rest of us are also along for this hellish ride.
No. 3: Sexual harassers
Mark 2017 as the year that women have finally said enough is enough when it comes to the persistent issue of sexism, gender bias and, most of all, sexual harassment in the workplace. While the problem first was clear in tech in the gender discrimination lawsuit waged by Ellen Pao against her former venture firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, she still lost. But that theme simmered and was lit on fire again by Susan Fowler’s epic memo on her toxic experience as an engineer at car-hailing startup Uber. From that came the rest, especially accusations leveled at players in venture (Justin Caldbeck, Dave McClure, Steve Jurvetson) and at big tech and media companies (Google, Netflix, Pixar, Amazon) too. While some have called it a reckoning, there is more to come, especially in ending the pernicious practice of paying off victims to keep quiet via nondisclosures that allow perpetrators to move on to their next jobs without strictures.
No. 4: Russia
Simply put, the Russian government has used the wonderful innovations that were invented largely by U.S. entrepreneurs to mess with our democracy. The current investigations by the FBI and Congress will not likely get to the very bottom of how this was done, nor will they be able to account for the extent of the incursions; but it’s pretty safe to say that Vladimir Putin pulled off the greatest hack of all time. From WikiLeaks to the manipulation of Facebook, Google and Twitter content and ad platforms to who knows what, Russia has been victorious in this cyberwar. And the reliance of Americans on their technology has never seemed more problematic or sinister going forward.
No. 5: North Korea
Let’s also not forget that it was the always bizarre North Korean government that led the way in making hacking a tool of terrorism. Back in 2014 when the so-called Guardians of Peace released confidential data from the Sony Pictures film studio, we all should have been on much higher alert about what was possible. In 2017, North Korea continued to use technology — this time, nuclear — to keep the world on edge, lobbing missiles in the direction of California on a seemingly weekly basis. “Rocket Man” used to be a pretty good song — now, it is a chilling insult used by President Trump to pick a fight across the globe. Is it just me, or does anyone else want to log out of this madness?
No. 6: Facebook/Twitter/Google
Speaking of which, what about the powerful executives at the massive internet companies who abrogated their responsibility to make sure their technologies were not misused? While they have long peddled the notion that they are simply benign platforms, that has finally been seen for what it is: A canard. So let’s demand that these companies now spend a lot more time anticipating those bad actors and also try harder to protect users against them. While it is not possible to know every way that innovations can be misused, it is certainly not acceptable for these companies to benefit so much from the fruits of their inventions and then throw up their hands when those things are used for ill. Their performance before Congress was dispiriting and vague and the possibility of effective regulation seems remote, so it is incumbent on these leaders to think hard in 2018 about just what kind of legacy they want to leave.
No. 7: Equifax
To review: The giant consumer credit reporting agency exposed the accounts of 145 million consumers in the U.S. alone via this cybersecurity breach. There was a patch available two months before the hack that the execs ignored. Equifax’s public response was cloddish and looked like it was taking advantage of consumers. There are now close to 250 class action lawsuits about how the company handled the breach. A few Equifax execs “retired.” Criminals the world over now have a trove of personal consumer data to exploit. Will anyone actually pay for Equifax’s incompetence? Unlikely.
No. 8: Job impact deniers
Now, I am no Luddite, but it’s more than past time for a cogent and honest debate about the impact of upcoming technologies on the workplace and the job market. From artificial intelligence to advanced manufacturing to self-driving everything to automation to robotics, it’s pretty clear that many of what appear to be amazing new breakthroughs could also have potentially devastating implications for jobs as they are currently conceived. While it might eventually bring another era of plenty — all-will-be-well techies like to point to the shift from farm to manufacturing as an example — it is also critical that tech leaders, government and citizens begin to assess and plan for what is coming. One very sharp pundit noted that every job that can be digitized will be and that is a lot of jobs — so it is time to reconsider everything from education to retraining to creating a sensible assessment of what jobs will exist in the next decades.
No. 9: Travis Kalanick — as the poster boy for out-of-control tech bros
Is it unfair of me to blame the pugnacious ousted CEO and co-founder of Uber for all the sins of his arrogant bros? Well, no, because he has become the object lesson of how not to behave as an entrepreneur in 2017. While Kalanick was widely feted for a long time for his aggressive drive and take-no-prisoners approach, the price for that relentlessness was made clear after Fowler’s memo opened the floodgates and revealed the toxicity that was an inevitable result of his deeply flawed leadership. From the Waymo lawsuit to questionable shortcuts around regulations to the payoffs to hackers to presiding over a culture that was obviously hostile to women, it’s a record that should not be celebrated in any way. While Kalanick remains on the Uber board and is one of its biggest shareholders, to act as if what he did as its CEO was okay is, well, not okay.
No. 10: Enablers of Silicon Valley
And, let’s also make the very salient point that Kalanick did not operate in a vacuum. He was facilitated, encouraged and coddled by venture capitalists, the media, board members and the entire Silicon Valley mythology that celebrates entrepreneurs as gods. And while it’s easier to blame the single, out-of-control CEO or handsy VC or arrogant brogrammer or useless HR staffer or press-release-spewing reporter, it is incumbent on everyone who is part of the system to be part of its improvement. The famous phrase uttered by Walt Kelly’s Pogo, “We have met the enemy and he is us,” has never been more true for the digital space than it has been in 2017. So, for those who still believe in the transformative power of tech to really and truly change the world, it is time to act like heroes again. Or, at the very least, like decent human beings.