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Early Facebook investor McNamee among top speakers at Drucker Day

Since 1982, Roger McNamee has believed technology to be a force of good. The 62-year-old Silicon Valley titan was not only an early investor in Facebook, but also mentored its founder, Mark Zuckerberg.

He got his start when tech’s primary focus was government. The Space Shuttle was literally the hot new tech vehicle, and the personal computer industry was in its infancy.

Read the entire transcript from our interview

“I was a little like Zelig, a little like Forrest Gump—I found myself either at or adjacent to many of the most interesting things that happened,” Mr. McNamee said.

He’s retired now, but is the co-founder of the venture capital firm Elevation Partners. Before that he co-founded the private equity firm Silver Lake Partners and headed T. Rowe Price’s Science and Technology Fund.

“That vision that Steve Jobs had, that technology would empower, and that, in his words, computers would be ‘bicycles for the mind,’ that was what we did in Silicon Valley,” Mr. McNamee said. “And I couldn’t imagine any circumstances where we would stop doing that.”

And for 34 years, things were very good. But a series of events in 2016, including the disputed presidential election, changed everything. And now Mr. McNamee is among a growing number of “adults in the room” calling for sweeping reform in the technology sector.

Mr. McNamee will be in town Saturday, March 9 at Bridges Hall of Music, 150 E. Fourth St., to speak as part of Claremont Graduate University’s Drucker Day. The talk, focusing on his new book, Zucked: Waking Up to the Facebook Catastrophe, takes place directly after 20th Century Fox Senior Vice President Bettina Sherick’s 9 a.m. keynote address. Tickets are $10 for students on up to $50 for general admission.

“There are two problems,” Mr. McNamee said. “One, internet platforms have created a new business model based on the exploitation of data. They gather data from everyone, everywhere, almost always without permission. They use machine learning and artificial intelligence to find patterns. They use the result to extract value from the broad population, even people who do not use their products. Two, Google, Facebook, and to a lesser extent Twitter, dominate the public square in every country in which they operate. Their code and algorithms have far more impact on our lives than the law does. They were not elected and are accountable to no one.”

His unlikely path from insider to whistle-blower came about slowly. “It was a series of events over the course of 2016 in a variety of areas, but mostly around civil rights and democracy,” he said. “It exposed in me an ignorance about the inner workings of Facebook that candidly I’m embarrassed about. I was surprised by what I saw, didn’t understand it, pulled on the thread and discovered issues that I frankly could not have imagined, and yet were staring me in the face.”

His epiphany was that Google and Facebook represent a threat to public health, democracy, privacy, and the economy by suppressing competition and innovation. Alarmed, he went directly to Mr. Zuckerberg and his chief operating officer, Sheryl Sandberg—whom Mr. McNamee had introduced to Mr. Zuckerberg in 2007—with his concerns. He also met with Google executives. They all listened, and he was hopeful they would share in his unease.

“I spent two years pleading directly to the top people in both places,” Mr. McNamee said. “And here we are at the two-plus year mark now, and I would say the answer is no.”

Part of the problem, Mr. McNamee believes, is the folks that originated this new data economy didn’t spend four or eight years studying the history, rules—and importantly, the ethics—of business.

“It’s not because they’re bad people,” Mr. McNamee said. “It’s because they have had a very incomplete education, and there’s no one inside there who values anything other than achieving the explicit corporate goal of, in Google’s case, collecting and sharing all the world’s information, or in Facebook’s case, connecting all the world’s people.” And, “the absence of regulation has enabled internet platforms to re-architect the economy, and frankly re-architect democracy, without any accountability.”

The fix Mr. McNamee envisions would involve a temporary hit to the corporations’ bottom lines, but would improve the safety, security and privacy of billions of end users. This kind of moral altruism could have—and should have—been baked in to Facebook’s and Google’s business models from the beginning.

“These are companies where the founders and CEOs have total control,” he continued. “They don’t have to worry about getting voted out by shareholders. People think they’re going on Facebook to look at family photos of puppies, and they’re really playing a multidimensional game of chess with an artificial intelligence that knows everything about them. And it’s just not a fair fight.”

Change will take corporate sacrifice, political will, regulation, and most importantly, activism from an informed end user community.

“The punch line of the book is that I’m actually very optimistic, because the human beings formerly known as users have far more power to affect change than they realize,” Mr. McNamee said. “We all have the power to change the way we interact with these platforms, to deny them the same attention we’ve given them in the past, and the ability to play with our emotions. And that’s a really hard thing for all of us to do because to one degree or another, we’re all addicted. That addiction is something we’ll all have to battle, but politically speaking we have this great advantage because there’s so many of us that we can find buddies to work with and do this together.

“Here’s my optimistic take: In the case of both Google and Facebook, the founders are just one good night’s sleep away from getting this right. They could have an epiphany. I had an epiphany; why can’t they?”

For more information on CGU’s Drucker Day, or to register, click here.

—Mick Rhodes

mickrhodes@claremont-courier.com