It’s Time to Push Tech Forward, and Rebuild What It Broke

from Wired

In 1904, a group of Canadian workers began the hard slog of constructing the world’s longest bridge, across the Saint Lawrence River just south of the city of Quebec. It was a wildly ambitious project. And it wasn’t just for the Quebecois: Railroads were revolutionizing commerce and communications, and the bridge would connect people and allow trains to run from New Brunswick in the east to Winnipeg in the west.

The river was 190 feet deep at the center, and ice piled high above the water’s surface in the winter. Nothing about the bridge’s construction would be easy. The engineers chose a complex cantilever design, a cutting-edge approach but a cost-efficient one too. Ambition creates risks, and warning signs started to appear. The steel trusses weighed more than expected. Some of the lower chords of the bridge seemed misaligned or bent. Workers raised concerns. But the project’s leaders pressed ahead.

Exactly 100 years later, in February 2004, a young entrepreneur named Mark Zuckerberg founded The Facebook. His ambition was nothing less than to remake the internet around personal relationships and then to remake the world around Facebook. When the company filed to go public in 2012, he published a letter to potential investors. “Facebook was not originally created to be a company. It was built to accomplish a social mission—to make the world more open and connected,” he wrote. “We don’t build services to make money; we make money to build better services.” An open and connected world, he wrote, would make the economy stronger and businesses better. Facebook was building a bridge and relentlessly increasing its span.

One day in August 1907, several years into the construction of the bridge over the Saint Lawrence River, calamity struck in the space of 15 seconds. Every major section of the structure’s nearly complete southern half collapsed. Workers were crushed or swept into the current. Another group of men found temporary safety but drowned under the rising tide. In all, 75 people died, including 33 Mohawk steelworkers from the nearby Kahnawake reserve.

By now, you surely see where I’m going with this. In 2016, Facebook was struck by calamity too. The core algorithm of the company’s News Feed was weaponized by Russian operatives and purveyors of fake news. A platform designed for connecting people turned out to be a remarkable accelerant for political divisions. The election was a mess, whatever your politics, and Facebook was partly to blame. The company’s philosophy—move fast and break things—was fine when the only thing at stake was whether your aunt could reconnect with her high school ex. That philosophy lost its roguish charm when democracy itself was up for grabs. Then, in 2018, Facebook faced the worst crisis of its short existence when news broke that a shady political outfit called Cambridge Analytica had siphoned off data from nearly 100 million users of the platform.

More here.

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7 Responses to It’s Time to Push Tech Forward, and Rebuild What It Broke

  1. Alyssa Bromke October 30, 2019 at 1:27 pm #

    I found this article particularly interesting. I have always grouped software engineering with computer science and the analytics field. I have never thought to draw comparisons between software engineering and civil engineers. This article does that very well. It is hard to draw a conclusion as to the volume of damage that could be created if an error is made by a civil or software engineer.
    On one hand an error or negligence by a civil engineer would have a direct effect on someone’s life, for example, a collapsed bridge kills people. This would lead me to think that this is worse. Every building, bridge, house etc, is made by a civil engineer. If something was overlooked it could end lives because of any faults in the structure. On the other hand, if a software engineer makes an error or is negligent, government secrets, important data and information can be leaked and made into potential threats. This damage could be devastating to a population. For example, if sensitive information leaks to other countries and that other country decides to bomb us before we have a chance that could also kill a lot of people and potentially more than a bridge collapsing.
    Furthermore, one part of this article stood out to me and is very concerning in my opinion. I do not like how in the details of the Canadian bridge being built there were hesitations and errors that came up early on and they were overlooked and neglected. I have an issue with that for many reasons. The first of which is safety. If this can endanger the people who are building or the potential users of the bridge, it should be dealt with. Second, money. If the bridge is successful it will be the largest bridge suggesting that it is very expensive, even if it could be considered cost effective. Third, if this is a project that is bound to make news wouldnt the people who have their name attached to it want to see all the details through? However, I understand that it is their job and they are the experts in their field. I also am aware that even experts weigh the importance or materiality of all the problems that come across their desk. And it is true, not everything that comes across their desk is that important. But, it is their job to evaluate that and they obviously did not do it correctly. Not only did they not do it correctly once, but they continued the job and made only slight changes they did not think a head and make preemptive moves in order to stop the bridge from falling three times.
    This does not only go for civil engineers. Software engineers must think of the same things. There is so much data available to the public online. This should not be looked at in a light hearted way. This data could be dangerous for the masses and every and all precautions should be taken. Not only should precautions be taken but they should also be evaluated and updated frequently to prevent any destruction.

  2. Javier Tovar November 1, 2019 at 3:40 pm #

    This article was a very interesting read. I really enjoyed the comparisons it brought to attention through the history of Facebook and the bridge that was built across the Saint Lawrence River just south of the city of Quebec. The engineers working on the bridge decided to use a cutting-edge approach called the cantilever design. Now this was super risky especially since it took place in 1904. In my opinion, building a bridge with a new approach today is no where near as difficult as building one in 1904. So, for them to push ahead with the project is inane to me. They even experienced some alarming issues during the build including the steel trusses weighing more than expected and the lower chords of the bridge being misaligned or bent. Workers were alarmed and brought it to the attention of their superiors, but they still opted to push forward with the project. In 1907 the major structures on the bridge collapsed, leaving many trapped or dead.
    We see a very similar occurrence almost 100 years after these events, but instead they occur through technological advances and the internet. Mark Zuckerberg created Facebook in 2004; a bridge in its own aspect that was rapidly expanding. Just like the bridge in Canada, Facebook had a metaphorical collapse. The core algorithm of the company’s News Feed was weaponized by Russian operatives and purveyors of fake news in 2016. Then in 2018 a shady political outfit called Cambridge Analytica had siphoned off data from nearly 100 million users of the platform. Ever since, there has been huge backlash against the tech industry. It is very hard to trust anything nowadays. Self-driving cars seem liked a very good idea until they started experiencing issues which could cause death and harm when dealing with vehicles.
    Even after the bridge collapses, the engineers took it as their responsibility to create a solution. They take oaths and have rings that make them do so, but what stops software engineers from doing the same. They two completely different things, but software engineers should take more consideration for what problems their users could face. Then and only then can the tech industry reach new levels.

  3. Kevin Orcutt November 1, 2019 at 6:36 pm #

    I think this article does a great job at trying to humble the reader of it that are constantly using their smartphones or are involved in some type of tech industry. It tires to show us that the power of technology is entirely too powerful today. Technology is advancing faster than most humans can which means that when we use it, we many not fully understand what we are doing. The article gives two examples in this case, Facebook and the building of a bridge in Canada. Facebook’s algorithm allowed for people to be posting information that shouldn’t have been posted. Although in my personal opinion, if something isn’t hate speech, it should not be able to be censored. Just because it was false or not the opinion Facebook liked, does not mean they should be able to take it down. Regardless, the desired purpose of their technology was not refined, and they put it out on the web anyway. This allowed for errors to happen and presented outcomes that hurt a lot of people. In the case with the bridge in Canada. They miscalculated weights of certain objects and resulted in multiple people dying over multiple attempts to build the bridge. They were too eager to put out their product rather than perfecting it and people got hurt. The pursuit of being on the cutting edge of technology should not endanger people, which in these two cases it did. The article also mentions how people have the ability to have a device in their pockets that is more complicated than the computers that brought man to the moon. This means that we have a multitude of capabilities at our hands that if we do not use properly, can hurt people. We must learn to properly use what we create and understand it. People pay almost one thousand dollars for a phone they don’t even use half the capabilities of because they don’t understand it. I think the article makes the completely known to the reader and wants us to be more informed. I completely agree, and not only should we be more informed in technology, buy more informed with everything we do.

  4. Wyatt Slone November 3, 2019 at 9:14 pm #

    The writing of this article was similar to the writing of a folktale in my opinion, but in the best way. The same way a nursery rhyme or a children’s book is written, there is always a moral of the story. Same with the way Nicholas wrote this very narrative article. Nicholas really brought to life some historical background to the article, a bit obscure history too. Not everyone just thinks to research about the Quebec Bridge, but the historic research was quite fascinating to read.
    The way Nicholas venn-diagrams the two contrasting fields of work, software engineers and civil engineers, and finds similarities in both of them is quite good journalistic work on his part. I’m curious to see if software engineers and other fields of work compare to one another in a good manner, while on the surface level contrasting greatly.
    The end of the article left me in such a great mood because Nicholas highlighted about all the great things engineers have done in the technology industry. Many have opted out of the Silicon Valley path to save the earth with new technology advances. While Facebook is taking heat for breaching privacy of millions of users, many software engineers are out there creating robots to save our drastic pollution problem.
    Mark Zuckerburg noted that the creation of Facebook is building a bridge to connect the world to one another, but when will Software Engineering build a bigger bridge to overcast Social Media as the apex of connecting the world. I need to see the pendulum swing and society burn Facebook to the ground and abolish all uses of social media except for educational purposes and research assistants. Software Engineers could create an amazing world if society valued it more than thinking it created just video games. It creates so much more than the Cooking Mama disk for my old DS collecting dust in my closet.
    Technology has been booming constantly since the age of the supercomputer, expanding to creating robots that deliver food to patients in hospitals. Nicholas was correct that it takes a couple crashes and burns to solidify the product that someone is trying to achieve. Perhaps with Facebook’s latest scandal, the phoenix will rise from the ashes and Mark Zuckerburg will rebrand the morality of Facebook for the better.

  5. Tiffanny Reynolds November 7, 2019 at 9:24 pm #

    This is a very insightful article, especially for this day and age in regards to technology and its use in today’s society. One of my favorite lines from the article is the following:

    “If you make a mistake in a line of code, you can fix it from your chair. Repairing a steel beam submerged in an icy river is a different matter.”

    The reason that I love this so much is that it is immensely relevant to so many aspects of technology in today’s society, especially in the younger generations. Since so many things are done online, it is so simple to backtrack, or undo them. Whether it is cancelling an online shopping order, adjusting an assignment through Google Docs/Slides/etc., unsend emails through Gmail (a very useful and not well known fact!), or involving the big one: social media.

    It is all too common nowadays for individuals to make posts and then delete them. More often than not, individuals will adjust the content of the post, such as changing/editing a photo on Instagram, or altering text on Twitter (side note: I too find it tedious that Tweets are not ‘editable’, but that’s a whole other topic). However, there is a new trend on the rise: finsta.

    Finsta (or finstas in its plural form) is a term meaning “fake Insta”. This is essentially a ‘fake Instagram account’ that an individual makes for themselves. They have their ‘main’, which is generally public, and contains nice content pertaining to the individual, that demonstrates a clean, organized, and seemingly healthy person. (Yes, all following the complete and utter ‘bull’ that we are all happy, normal people living wonderful lives as depicted in the photos seen.) The ‘finsta’ is always set to private, and involves the individual ‘vague-booking’ (creating intentionally vague social media post typically with the individual complaining about something that upsets them), or the more common, explicit social media rants regarding a detailed explanation of what upsets them (as these are always private, with a good nine times out of ten, these are about specific people). While these both happen on social media platforms, in regards to finstas, the photo is usually involving a screenshot of a text conversation that made them upset, a picture of them stressed out/crying, or a myriad of other things.

    (Why am I telling you all of this?) Because it is just like mistaking a line of code. Both rants/finstas/etc. can be fixed from your chair just as easily as the line of code can be fixed. People can be extremely upset and say something in the heat of anger, and the next morning delete it when they realize it was wrong, and *poof*, the problem has disappeared.

    Or so they think.

    Another one of my favorite lines from the article is the following:

    “Tech companies operate in digital worlds, but their actions have consequences in the physical one.”
    Amd just like finstas, these actions have consequences in the physical world as well, even if the content gets deleted.

    I have a not-so-charming anecdote to share regarding this. As an Acting major, I was in an acting class where we had to present material for singing auditions. One student went up, having many options to use. The teacher had the student go through just about all of them, because one after another, the teacher did not like the songs being presented. This student was an excellent singer, but the teacher did not like the material and questioned the student heavily on the choices, the student’s voice teacher and their input regarding these, etc. Suffice to say, this student was not having a good day from this teacher. She ended up posting on her finsta about the whole thing, and of course, exaggerating a little about the incident. (Mind you, this student was cast in a musical directed by this same teacher.) And like predicted above, she eventually deleted the post. However, even though the post got deleted, other students still had access to it, in the form of screenshots. Somehow, these screenshots were shown to the teacher (assumedly shown by another student from our class), and the student ended up getting kicked out of the musical for bad-mouthing the director online. Again, she fixed it, her ‘line of code’ so to say, by deleting the post. No proof, right? No, this use of technology ended up detrimentally affecting the student in her physical life.

    It truly is a shame that whether it be college students in New Jersey just making seemingly innocent Instagram posts, or software engineers in Silicon Valley creating extraordinary advancements in technology, both situations do not think about the consequences of their actions. Like what is said in the article:

    “You have to think through what could go wrong instead of assuming everything will go right. You have to build as if you have a ring forged from a shattered bridge on your pinky.”

    And simple enough: with technology, we do not.

  6. Nick L November 19, 2019 at 10:27 am #

    Very interesting read, this article goes into detail about two different types of engineers. One being a civil engineer that had an ambitious design to build a bridge to connect people. The other being a computer engineer that wanted to build a platform to connect people. The end goal was the same just at a century apart.
    Ethical concerns come up overtime about anything, but when it comes to the leaders in charge to either make a change or stick with it. We clearly see that the two leaders in mind with the two project did not and will not change. The engineer for the bridge went with his gut and led the charge for the bridge and it eventually collapsed during construction. Mark Zuckerburg has gotten through the construction phase but may be looking at a collapse of his network soon. Facebook has been plagued a slew of accusations and hacks since it was developed. Zuckerburg has seen the 2016 accusations of the election being attacked by Russian ads. To date it has also seen countless hacks against the company.
    With the amount of hacks that have been happening, it is clear that they are not doing much to fix what they have built. Just as the engineer had claims come his way that the bridge was unsafe, he did not fix the mistake. Zuckerburg is not fixing issues with the construction of his network and soon consumers data is at stake. There is no other social network that has seen more hacks and data privacy concerns then there has been with Facebook owned products. It has come to Facebook and even Facebook owned WhatsApp.
    Many people have come forward to say what Zuckerburg is doing is not okay and that the social media outlet is deceptive. I have not been on Facebook since 2013 and there is no going back. There was not as many ads back then as there are today. There was no sponsored posts or banner advertisements on the sides and top of the page. It has changed drastically because of the value of the advertisement space. The company has been money ridden and will sell pretty much any ad space in exchange for money. There are no rules or regulations about what is allowed to be advertised on Facebook either. There have been concerns that have come up that there is a possibility of someone buying advertisement spot to post the wrong election date. You can see where this would be a problem where it could sway elections. Especially with the target market that you can go after with the data Facebook collects about you.

  7. Daniel J Cambronero December 6, 2019 at 6:22 pm #

    Technology has always been an industry focused on exploration. Not exploration in the literal sense of travelling around the world, but exploration of the mind and capabilities of humans. The Canadians spoke of in the blog were doing just that, exploring the new frontier in innovation and technology. There are always dangers when innovating and trying something new. The bridge may have been a more literal sense of danger, but Zuckerberg most of known the potential danger of Facebook. The internet has always been a place for people to show their wilder side, but that’s mainly because there was a disconnect between the internet and reality. Facebook tore this asunder and showed the many dangers and potential threats that the internet poses. Having that many users participating in social activities and putting themselves out onto the web created an easy target.

    Collecting user data has often been argued as a violation of people’s rights to privacy and creates many issues within not only Facebook but the internet itself. Hackers and other malicious entities have ways to infiltrate and purge personal information from collected user data by these major internet companies. This came to light when the allegations of Russian interference not only in the election but also within our internet. User data being stolen is a big offence and breach of privacy. The issue is how do we the people protect ourselves when it is obvious now that these major companies are either unable or unwilling.

    Something that is often said to me and I’m sure others is this, “Whatever you put on the internet stays on the internet, it doesn’t go away”. This is something that is entirely true and sadly catches up to a lot of people. As consumers of the internet we should be wise enough to know that what put out their can affect us and won’t ever go away. This doesn’t seem to be the case, as I mentioned earlier there is a big disconnect within people’s minds that says the internet is almost like its own dimension. That things that happen on there don’t affect me in my reality. This is something that as a society we will have top overcome. We will have to explore not only into how to better protect ourselves on the internet, but also how to change our society to be more mindful of what we say and do on the internet.

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