Connecting in a Digital America

What do tech leaders think about the societal impact of their own industries? In October, Aspen Across America brought together three leaders of the networked age to talk “Connecting in a Digital America.”  Reid Hoffman, founder and executive chairman of LinkedIn; Tim Westergren, founder and CEO of Pandora; and Susan Wojcicki, CEO of YouTube share their insights on the landscape of online culture and community with Walter Isaacson, President and CEO of The Aspen Institute and author of Steve Jobs and The Innovators as well as other best-selling histories.  

The Ring of Gyges – Is Anonymity A Good thing?

Plato’s parable of the Ring of Gyges, which made its wearer invisible (and therefore very uninhibited), inspired one of the toughest questions for those working in the internet space: “Is anonymity a good thing?”

Hoffman warned that the ability to publish anonymously without consequences corrodes truth in public discourse. “I think that the Russians are actively involved in our election to give the sense of increasing divisiveness - in social networks’ popular topics, which then become a meme, and then becomes news. That’s a way in which discourse is in danger of being hacked and is already being hacked.”

 Discourse is in danger of being hacked and is already being hacked.

Getting people to share their real identities is not always easy, though. At YouTube, video comments, and even the videos themselves, can be home to a shocking volume of anonymous or pseudonymous hate speech. But how to reverse this tendency? “You have to create incentives,” Wojcicki explained. “On YouTube, if you have a following, people know you who you are. That identity is going to be valuable, whether it is real or virtual. The question is, how do you create that for everybody?”

“You Can’t Teach Taste”

Will machines ever replace human workers? Look to any futuristic robot movie and the answer may be yes, but the panelists characterized a more nuanced future in which people and technology are increasingly enmeshed and interdependent.

We never know what’s going to be successful and what’s not going to be successful. Humans supply that.

“YouTube wouldn’t function without algorithms,” explained Wojcicki, “but we never know what’s going to be successful and what’s not going to be successful. Humans supply that.”

It takes human audiences to ultimately discern qualitative judgements, according to Westergreen, who used his own platform, Pandora, as an example. “Every song on Pandora is listened to by a trained musician, usually a PhD musicologist, according to 400 parameters. It can only be done by the human ear.”

“It’s a serious, serious issue,” said Hoffman, “but I’m not one of those people who think that robots are going to take all the jobs.”

Blowin’ in the Wind

More artists than ever are getting a chance to broadcast their message through digital tools, but it can often be unclear whether opening the floodgates has been a good thing for culture or just bewildering. “Ninety percent of our artists have never been played on any radio anywhere,” said Westergren, arguing that digital media platforms have leveled and democratized culture. “So much music is like a tree falling in a forest. There’s a 1 percent problem.”

I hope the future will be led by technologies that bring us together.

Though having a variety of digital platforms has arguably democratized culture, that can also have negative effects. What about artists like Bob Dylan, who recently won the Nobel Prize, and their ability to be the “sound of a generation?”

I don’t know if we’ll have that,” said Isaacson. “Technology has the power to unite us more or balkanize us more. I hope the future will be led by technologies that bring us together.”

While the internet may have fragmented culture, it has also expanded opportunities for the next generation, said Wojciki. “You can be a kid in the middle of nowhere in Asia and have access to the entire world’s information. By having more access, we can lift a lot of people out of poverty.”