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If you’re reading this right now on your iPhone or on a Windows laptop, that’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 about the last quarter-century of computers and the internet like a highway. The companies that made gadgets and software systems controlled the roads, and cars made by other companies drove (with some restrictions) on those roads. Computer devices would be meh if we couldn’t have access to a diversity of apps, websites and software — and vice versa.
But newer technologies for interacting online — smart watches like the Apple Watch, voice activated speakers, internet-connected televisions and robot-piloted cars — mostly pull us into digital features the device maker creates or tightly controls. They are more like private roads than the open highways of the smartphone and PC eras.
These developing technologies could change, and I hope they do. I worry that we’ll miss the next Amazon or Zoom if the future is private roads without a diversity of cars.
Apple plans to show off on Tuesday the latest versions of its Apple Watch. Since it was first sold more than five years ago, the device remains mostly a place for people to live in Apple’s world.
Yes, people do track calories with the MyFitnessPal app and look at the Weather Channel on their Apple Watches. But the watch is mostly a way for people to glance at their iPhone messages, use Apple’s activity tracking feature and listen to Apple Music. Other cars are allowed, but in practice it’s a road mostly of Apple vehicles.
Ditto for Amazon’s Echo. If you ask it to play Anita Baker songs or tell a joke, Amazon pulls from its own computer systems for the music or response unless you specify otherwise. Again, people do ask to listen to NPR and order a Domino’s pizza on their Echo speakers. But most people use their Echo devices for functions that Amazon built.
Closed or tightly controlled internet access points are becoming the norm rather than the exception. If you have a Roku or Vizio TV set, you can’t watch the HBO Max video app or Apple’s TV app unless there’s a business contract with the TV maker. (That’s not how computers and smartphones work.)
If internet-connected eyewear and autonomous cars get more prevalent, they’re also shaping up to be less open and more of a creation in which one company controls the physical equipment and what we do with it.
This might make sense for complicated tech like cars. And private roads could be a temporary condition. The iPhone started out closed to non-Apple apps before the company changed its mind. I also don’t want to overstate how open our smartphone and computer highways are. Apple still approves or denies every iPhone app, for example.
Still, I think even the iPhone is more open to other software than TVs and the Apple Watch. The proof is in how people use them. Certainly 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 into the Apple Watch.
It’s hard to predict how this will all shake out. But I worry that there would be no future Instacart or Netflix if we lost the relatively open highway system that has defined our digital lives for decades or if the companies that make our internet gateways confined them mostly to themselves.
Is Facebook too big to govern?
I have wrestled, as many people have, with whether Facebook makes people and the world worse. This may have been my breaking point.
A relatively junior data scientist who was fired from Facebook wrote a memo detailing 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 their opponents.
It’s not news that Facebook is used to mislead or bully. But even I was surprised by the scale of the manipulation campaigns that the former employee, Sophie Zhang, described — both the number of countries involved and the amount of manipulation taking place.
This is the view of one person. It’s also hard to know what impact these misinformation campaigns and abuses had 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 on security.
But Zhang’s memo resonated with me because you can feel her torment at how little she was able to do, and how she felt unsupported by her bosses. It made me wonder: Should Facebook be essential communications in much of the world?
Zhang wrote that she believed the Facebook bosses meant well but couldn’t deal with all but the highest profile misuses 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 it in, with sometimes deadly effects.
Now what? Is such a toxic stew of misleading information an inevitability? Is any gathering spot of billions of people too sprawling and dangerous to exist — is Facebook “too big to govern responsibly” as my Opinion colleague Charlie Warzel wrote? I don’t know. I need to sit with this one for a while.
Before we go …
They use technology to make technology better and less exclusionary: Young people who work in technology are teaming up to counterbalance what can be an insular industry, and combat abuses of technology products, my colleague Taylor Lorenz wrote.
One teenager built a tool to protect people from harassment on Twitter. A group built an online bulletin board aimed at 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 all rather 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 didn’t involve ownership moving to the United States or a change to TikTok’s contentious software, as the White House previously insisted on. In short, not much happened after months of drama and wasted time and money. (Here’s my take on it from Monday’s newsletter.)
‘Jeopardy!’ in Zoom: The quiz show is adapting to the moment by filming new episodes with detached booths replacing the typical contestant podiums, people’s photos on sticks as audience members and auditions conducted over Zoom video. The Ringer takes us inside a game show remade for a pandemic.
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