Facebook, Piracy And The Unintended Consequences Of Technology
Last November, internet pirates spotted an opportunity hidden in plain sight. Facebook had just revealed a new feature called Watch Party, which allows users to hold online “events” during which they livestream their videos to other people, allowing everyone to view and comment simultaneously. The move made perfect sense. Plenty of its competitors want to dominate the video market and Facebook’s advantage is straightforward: social. They imagined that celebrities might host Watch Parties, giving their fans an intimate sense of connectedness to their idols. But the pirates had other ideas. An investigation by Business Insider showed that groups such as “Super Film Club Watch Party” and “Watch Party Cinema” were using the service to stream illegal movie marathons and binge-watch pirated TV shows.
Facebook subsequently took down the groups, but they shouldn’t have been surprised at what had happened. Technology has a habit of being used for unintended purposes. Bitcoin, for instance, initially had a high-minded aim: to offer a form of currency that would not be affected by the whims of governments or banks and which could be used frictionlessly throughout the world. Instead, criminals use it as a proxy for fiat currency on the dark web in order to buy drugs, stolen credit cards and firearms.
It’s easy for the public to snigger when this kind of thing happens, but actually it’s a vital part of development and progress. The gap between designer and user is a creative space – and for all the undesirable results there are plenty of desirable ones. Viagra was invented as a blood pressure drug, for instance; the transistor – the building block of the digital age – started out in hearing aids.
The same goes for websites. When YouTube was created in 2005, futurologists imagined it would forge a new form of television that would revolutionise entertainment. In fact, the most impactful aspect of YouTube has been something that hardly anyone would have predicted: tutorials. We’re still watching the BBC, but when you want to do some DIY, improve your tennis serve or learn advanced maths, you go to YouTube.
We’re instinctively uncomfortable when something gets used for an unplanned purpose. Speech is what sets us apart from animals so we hold its central tenet dear: that meaningfulness is when others correctly interpret out intentions. But creative output isn’t like that (a poem’s meaning, say, is always up for grabs) and technology is no different. Once the product is out there in the world, its creator has little control over what will become of it. And that’s to be embraced – not just because it’s unavoidable, but because it’s where good things can become great.