In 2011 a young computer scientist named Jeff Hammerbacher said something profound while explaining why he’d decided to leave Facebook—and the promise of a small fortune—to start a company. “The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads,” he said. “That sucks.”
Hammerbacher was getting at the idea that so many of the world’s best and brightest people flocking to Silicon Valley for jobs at companies such as Facebook Inc. and Google Inc. might be an unhealthy use of human capital. Sure, these companies offered plenty of interesting work, but much of it revolved around the core business of advertising. Very smart people were pouring their energy into an unromantic goal: keeping the rest of us on their websites so we might click on an ad for an irritable bowel syndrome cure.
Hammerbacher’s flippant remark has lived on because it captures a crucial sentiment, one that’s even more important today than in 2011. Google and Facebook are unlike any other two companies in history. They’re technology-and-advertising hybrids—strange amalgams with incredible power. They’re building the tools we use to communicate, to do business, to form and maintain relationships, to learn, to travel to and fro, and to relax. And they’re doing all of this while being wholly dependent on ad dollars for their survival. Never have advertising companies had such an all-encompassing influence on our life. And next year it will be even greater.
Google and Facebook each started out as a useful, simple idea. Google made a small search box that allowed people to find things on the web faster than any other small search box before it. Facebook morphed from a way to find attractive incoming college freshmen to a handy public scrapbooking site.
These beginnings seem almost silly now. Today, Google funds self-driving cars, television shows, robots, ubiquitous smartphone software, and even cures for death. The company changed its name to Alphabet—inventions from A to Z—to capture the breadth of its portfolio. Its greatest achievement may be the creation of artificial intelligence software that has a decent chance of altering the future of the human species, for way, way better or for way, way worse. Facebook also funds ample AI research. Its tools sit at the heart of how millions—if not billions—of people get news about the world. Its algorithms have proved effective enough to nudge history in various directions. Up next, Facebook will pump billions of dollars into virtual-reality technology, hoping to become the dominant force in shaping a new universe for humankind.
Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s co-founder and chief executive officer, has ambitions beyond all of this. He recently wrote a letter that positioned Facebook—and himself—as stewards of a global community. The letter is almost 6,000 words long and full of jargon, but in spots, Zuckerberg makes his point clearly enough. “Our goal is to strengthen existing communities by helping us come together online as well as offline, as well as enabling us to form completely new communities, transcending physical location,” he writes. Later, he adds: “The path forward is to recognize that a global community needs social infrastructure to keep us safe from threats around the world and that our community is uniquely positioned to prevent disasters, help during crises, and rebuild afterward. Keeping the global community safe is an important part of our mission and an important part of how we’ll measure our progress going forward.” All hail Zuckerberg the Benevolent.
Last year, Google had sales of $90.2 billion, and Facebook took in $27.6 billion—in both cases the majority of that revenue came from advertising. Together, the companies account for about 65 percent of the money spent on digital ads and 90 percent of the growth in the market. More and more ad money is expected to shift from TV and print media to online formats in the coming years, which will mean more and more dollars for Google and Facebook, solidifying their duopoly.
High-profit, dominant businesses have historically been fruitful for the technology industry and the economy overall. AT&T Inc.’s deep pockets gave us Bell Labs, which invented the transistor and the laser. Xerox Corp.’s copiers gave birth to Xerox PARC, which invented much of today’s computing infrastructure. Following in these footsteps were the laboratories of International Business Machines, Hewlett-Packard, and Sun Microsystems. The underlying drive of these companies was to produce ever-better stuff that other businesses and people would buy. Google and Facebook resemble these innovation temples, but their motivations and convictions are much harder to pinpoint.
The companies purport to care. Google’s slogan is “Don’t be evil,” and Facebook wants to envelop all of humanity in a binary safety net. Both companies, though, are ultimately slaves to a type of algorithmic worldview. Their cultures are based on exploiting inefficiencies and manipulating human interaction. “I don’t think there has been any analogue where computers have been able to do high-speed data science against humans,” says George John, the former CEO of Rocket Fuel Inc., an ad tech company. “It’s sort of unfair. You have these planet-scale databases of what a billion other people have done. The computers are amoral but can be so effective.”
Ads may or may not be inherently evil. They’re certainly a major cultural force. They promote consumption and progress and convince us that we’ll feel better after we buy something. In the past our ads were delivered via newspaper, radio, and TV. The trade-off was your attention for free entertainment. Today, ads follow people around all the time on computer and smartphone screens, and they’re not the dumb variety of yore. They’re precision-guided pellets of propaganda built for you based on everything you do.
“Google, Facebook, and the other data giants have much greater power than any previous attention merchant, and I suspect that their true business isn’t to sell attention,” says Yuval Noah Harari, an historian and author of Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow. “Rather, by capturing our attention they manage to accumulate immense amounts of data about us, which is worth more than any advertisement fees. Potentially, this data might enable them to hack humans, to create superior artificial intelligence, and to take control of our lives.”
Google and Facebook both pursue lofty ideals and champion hopeful aspirations. But there remains a fracture between their inventive side and the motivations of their core business. Google may want to cure death, and Facebook may want to bring an epic virtual reality to life. It’s just that along the way, the companies would really like to make sure that you’re online as much as possible and that their algorithms know as much as possible about you, so they can sell you more stuff. This is the first time engineers—paid for by advertising—have risen to such a crucial role in our future. “Nerds never had such power before,” Harari says. “On the whole, I think humanity is much better off in the hands of nerds than in the hands of the Genghis Khans and the Napoleons. Yet there are dangers inherent in nerd power, too.”
As Harari says, Zuckerberg is likely right to call for some type of global community, and Facebook is arguably in the best position to build one. “All our major problems are global in nature: global warming, global inequality, and the rise of disruptive technologies such as artificial intelligence and bioengineering,” he says. “My impression is that if humankind fails to create a truly global community in the 21st century, we are heading toward an unprecedented disaster.”
The question is whether Zuckerberg wants people leaving their computers to gather together in the world or whether that’s just more lip service to distract us. “I think it is good that Facebook is interested in helping to create a global community rather than in just making money,” Harari says. “But if Facebook is sincere about it, it will probably have to change its business model. You cannot bring humankind together if you are busy selling advertisements.”
Many early engineers from Google, Facebook, and similar companies have consciously moved away from ad brokering into new fields. Hammerbacher has dedicated the past few years to finding a cure for cancer. DJ Patil, who coined the term “data scientist” with Hammerbacher, ditched Silicon Valley to become the U.S. chief data scientist for the previous administration. “President Obama tasked me with using data to focus on precision health care and using data to improve health care for the masses,” Patil says. “I see things now more as people running away as fast as they can from trying to get people to click on ads to using these superpowers for something different.”