The furious response to the revelations about Cambridge Analytica is in danger of missing the point. Much of the backlash has focused on what hand the company played in the Trump election and Brexit vote. But this is actually a broader tale of what goes wrong when our tech firms hand authority and power to poorly-educated, immature technicians.
About twenty years ago, I took up my first role working in the technology business. I was the creative bod in a small tech team which relied entirely on one coder to produce anything. He was barely out of his teens and had no formal qualifications whatsoever. He had walked out of school aged fourteen and locked himself in his bedroom to emerge a few years later, a fully qualified, but more importantly, genuinely skilled computer programmer. The work I did with that team, I have seen played out again and again, in tiny start-ups, and in global technology brands.
Despite the image these companies like to show to the world, it is becoming increasingly clear that their culture is flawed from the ground up. Cambridge Analytica is a case in point. I have no doubt that Christopher Wylie, the whistleblower who sparked this week’s revelations, is a highly skilled technician. But to be carrying out the work he did for Cambridge in his mid-to-late twenties meant that things were bound to go pear-shaped. Wylie abandoned school aged 16 with no qualifications, and while he did return to study at university, he spent his later teenage years teaching himself to code and working in improbable jobs for someone so young. At 17, he was working in the office of the leader of the Canadian opposition. A year later, he was teaching data to Canada’s liberal party. This speedy rise seems impressive, but it looks to be yet another example of a tech nerd doing ‘God’s work’ with little time to stop and think about the consequences – until now.
The reason for the great power gifted to people like Wylie is simple: data is the lifeblood of every technology business. Without it, such firms are as helpless as a baby. Nothing they do, no action or decision they take is ever made without someone using a spreadsheet to justify it. This means that those that understand data can quickly find themselves elevated to the very top. But the problem isn’t the numbers but the people behind it. No matter how advanced these firms get, they have a profound weakness: they are reliant on people; fallible, foolish people who should know better.
While Cambridge Analytica was seemingly able to push boundaries and persuade clients that the systems and services they were selling would transform millions of small bits of innocuous “likes” into hugely powerful instruments of change, did those working on such projects stop and think about what they were actually doing? The industry has a long history of demonstrating systems to clients which are smoke and mirrors, cleverly assembled presentations combining technology and skilled people, with graphics and statistics, all with the same crude sales objective. Ethics or questions about the wider cultural impact are never asked. No one in such a team is ever going to put their hand up and ask: “What if?”
Even older heads in Silicon Valley don’t seem much wiser. Ben Gomes, Google’s vice president of search engineering, was asked on the Today programme what keeps him up at night. His answer was telling:
“I’m actually driven a lot more by the promise and the technology and the difficulties of that, than by the fears…one of the challenges there is how do you get information to people who live in information deserts. People for instance who speak languages that are spoken by like a hundred million people have almost no content. So things like if we could make things like Google Translate work for them, so that they could get access to all the information that’s available in English, that would be amazing.”
Gomes might be middle-aged, but the adolescent enthusiasm and naivety is characteristic of an entire industry which fails to stop and ask questions of itself.
Not long after Gomes, Elizabeth Denham, the information commissioner, also popped up on Today. Had Cambridge Analytica “acquired personal data in an unauthorised way?” Was there “sufficient consent?” Did Facebook have “strong safeguards in place?” did they “act appropriately when things went wrong?” these were all on her shopping list. I’m sorry to tell Denham, but by the time she gets there, the shelves will be well and truly cleaned out. Until our political representatives start asking the right questions things will continue to go wrong.