• Mon. Feb 6th, 2023



Apple Watch Is a Private Road


Sep 15, 2020 , , ,

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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.

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.

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.

BuzzFeed News and my colleague Sheera Frenkel wrote about her memo.

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.

I love this cat sitting on the low note keys to “help” play a Van Halen tune. (Here’s the original song. Without cat.)

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