The week of December 28, 2014

The most glaring lies tech companies told you in 2014

By Taylor Hatmaker

With technology woven so thoroughly into the fabric of everyday life, it’s inevitable that in 2014, threads would begin to fray. In the tech industry, this was as big a year for disillusion as for excitement—every other step toward innovation wobbled under the awkward weight of a hack, a scandal, or a cautionary tale in the making.

Last year’s landmark National Security Agency leaks set the stage for the year to come, and given the scope of what we are yet to know, there’s no doubt that the Edward Snowden revelations will reverberate for years to come. In 2014’s tech landscape, we’re definitely still hanging out in the walled garden—but we seem to have misplaced our 3D-printed fig leaves.

5) We’re not in a bubble

By 2014 standards, Facebook’s one billion dollar acquisition of Instagram from 2012 looks quaint. The final price on Facebook’s acquisition of messaging app WhatsApp this year came in at an unbelievable $21.8 billion. In a culture that encourages founders to create products explicitly to sell them to competitors as cheap insurance, expect to see more numbers in the billion—until the bubble bursts, anyway. Waves of social apps follow the mobile ad revenue model pioneered by Facebook, and surprisingly few deal in real, unique products and services that impact the physical world.

By 2014 standards, Facebook’s one billion dollar acquisition of Instagram from 2012 looks quaint.

Two exceptions are Airbnb, valued at $13 billion, and Uber, now thought to be worth more than an incredible $40 billion in spite of relentless controversy around its safety and business tactics. Those two companies leverage crowdsharing platforms in innovative ways, but there’s no denying that in 2014, that big “b” word gets tossed around more than ever. Any copycat social service with no clear plan (and perhaps no intentions) to generate revenue can scrape together an easy few million these days, but it’s worth remembering that money doesn’t grow on trees—not even trees growing in Silicon Valley.

At 2014’s breakneck speed, it’s hard to imagine what’s next for a tech industry plagued—and perhaps defined—by these tensions. We might just be waking up to the truths that these lies obscure, but perhaps in 2015, we’ll ditch the Valley of Eden for good.

4) Facebook doesn’t experiment on you

When word got loose that Facebook had “experimented” on its users’ emotions, the Internet caught fire. How dare Facebook manipulate us? It couldn’t possibly be legal! The fact of the matter is that Facebook’s entire business model—and arguably the entire advertising business—revolves around manipulating the things its users think and feel. The study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, examined something called “emotional contagion” by manipulating the ratio of positive to negative posts that appeared in a given user’s News Feed. And—surprise!—it worked: Facebook can in fact induce positive or negative mental states by altering the stimuli that it serves to users.

Unfortunately, to believe that Facebook didn’t already toy with our emotions is naive. The social network’s entire business model hinges on a broad, disturbing construct known as engagement, which is loosely a euphemism for addiction. The infrastructure of Facebook itself, from Like buttons to that teensy red notification alert, is fine-tuned to hook users into a social casino floor where rewards—messages from friends, Likes on a post, stickers in a message—stream in regularly enough to keep us glued to the News Feed in spite of the fact that we never, ever leave happy. It’s a brilliant model, breeding an empty, uncontrollable, dopamine-fueled addiction to what is ultimately a big, blue ad platform.

This is the Internet and nothing is sacred—least of all your private data.

3) Tech doesn’t have a diversity problem

Tech companies talk a big game about diversity, but ultimately, the numbers say it all. With pressure mounting and the conversation around diversifying tech flourishing, just about every major tech company came clean with a diversity report detailing the number of women and racial minorities they employ. Needless to say, the results weren’t pretty. The data confirmed what we knew all along: pseudo-enlightened as it may be, tech remains overwhelmingly dominated by white men—plenty of whom still endorse the maddening, beyond offensive notion that the industry is in fact a meritocracy. Clearly, it’s going to take a hell of a lot more work to infuse future diversity reports with some actual diversity. Happily, this year may have laid that groundwork.

2) Your cloud data is safe

This is the Internet and nothing is sacred—least of all your private data. Again, this lie is fueled by misleading trends in design. Take Snapchat, which, after a countdown, shows our self-destructing messages exploding like tiny virtual bales of TNT. The seeds of this particular lie are sewn deeply into consumer consciousness by the deliberately misleading user interfaces that misrepresent how cloud storage works.

Long after you click delete—or that snap explodes—the data you thought you ditched will live on a server somewhere, sometimes indefinitely. This lie is exemplified by Celebgate, an iCloud hack that resulted in the publication of a treasure trove of nude celebrity photos this September. Remarkably, the technique behind this hack appears to have exploited a very basic vulnerability in its cloud storage that Apple deliberately turned a blind eye to months prior.

Unless you educate yourself on encrypted apps and tools, the idea of anonymity is anonymish at best.

1) You are anonymous

2014’s most pernicious lie might be that of anonymity, a false promise that hundreds of copycat tech startups were happy to sell to unsuspecting consumers—often teens. This category has an army of offenders, from Whisper (which has a lot of other problems) and Secret to Yik Yak and After School. The latter two target college students and high schoolers, respectively—two populations exceedingly vulnerable to cyberbullying.

As illustrated in a scandal blown open this October by the Guardian, apps like Whisper convince users that they are anonymous, when in fact they collect geodata on all users. Given the sensitive information traded around on these pseudo-secret platforms, it’s important to understand that unless you educate yourself on encrypted apps and tools (Cryptocat and PGP, for example), the idea of anonymity is anonymish at best.

Photo by Katie Tegtmeyer/Flickr (CC 2.0) | Remix by Max Fleishman