What Sean Parker Shares with Einstein and the Labradoodle’s Inventor

Sean Parker, Facebook’s first president, just joined a group that’s a favorite topic of history listicles: He’s an innovator who has become abashed by the breakthrough he helped to create.

Parker, in an interview with Axios on Wednesday, said Facebook’s founders consciously exploited “a vulnerability in human psychology,” by luring users into an addictive engagement with the social media site by providing constant rewards in the form of “likes” and comments.

The unintended results as Facebook became a global juggernaut with two billion users, Parker says: “It probably interferes with productivity in weird ways. God only knows what it’s doing to our children’s brains.”

Parker, who says Facebook “literally changes your relationship with society, with each other,” told Axios’ Mike Allen he’s now “something of a conscientious objector” when it comes to social media.

Parker joins a long line of regretful inventors that includes another media technology giant: Philo Farnsworth, who produced the first electronic television in 1927 when he was 21. He envisioned it as an educational and cultural marvel that would bring far-flung people together and prevent war.

Years later, Farnsworth agreed with critics who called the content of TV a “vast wasteland,” and refused to have a television in his house.

Television and radio transformed communications at the dawn of the mass media age, and raised the same kind of uneasiness over cultural change that has lately been extending to the products of the information age.

Parker’s comments come as the wider society is expressing a wave of trepidation over the massive impact of social media and other high-tech offerings, such as search engines that arguably have a built-in bias. Interestingly, Parker didn’t emphasize Facebook’s apparent role in the Russian influence campaign that injected false and divisive messages into the 2016 presidential campaign. Russian operatives further weaponized the social media site by using its advanced marketing tools to amplify the foreign propaganda, spreading it to more than 126 million Americans, according to Facebook’s estimates.

The list of remorseful innovators, where Parker now holds a spot, includes Wally Conron, who bred the first Labradoodle; Anna Jarvis, who initiated Mother’s Day; and other tech entries such as pop-up ad creator Ethan Zuckerman; Dong Nguyen, inventor of the perilously addictive game app Flappy Bird; and Scott Fahlman, who unleashed the first emoticon on the world.

But the heavy hitters on the list are scientists and technologists who found ways to create formidable weapons—or lived to see their peaceful creations weaponized.

—Alfred Nobel invented dynamite in 1867, then left the bulk of his munitions fortune to endow the Nobel prizes for peace, literature, physics, chemistry, and physiology or medicine.

—Orville Wright, who with his brother Wilbur achieved the first sustained flight of a powered airplane in 1903, had believed their invention would head off warfare because aerial surveillance would prevent surprise attacks. But Wright lived to see the day when fighter planes were dropping bombs during World War I.

“We underestimated man’s capacity to hate and to corrupt good means for an evil end,” Wright reportedly said.

—Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity formed the foundation for the atomic bomb, but Einstein regretted his assistance to the U.S. bomb program after the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were destroyed near the end of World War II.

— Theoretical physicist Robert Oppenheimer, who led the Los Alamos Laboratory where the U.S. bomb was developed, also suffered moral qualms after the first atomic bomb was successfully tested at Alamogordo, New Mexico in 1945.

“In some sort of crude sense which no vulgarity, no humour, no overstatements can quite extinguish,” he said several years after that searing detonation, “the physicists have known sin; and this is a knowledge which they cannot lose.”

The American government, and U.S. citizens, are still grappling with the consequences of the nation’s decision to launch the era of nuclear weapons in 1945. This year, U.S. officials are still scrambling to ward off a military conflict with North Korea, an aspiring nuclear power.

The U.S. government, tech companies, and consumers are just beginning to grasp the consequences of the information age technology already in widespread use, and even greater transformations are still to come with the growth of artificial intelligence and automation. If the pattern of history holds true, society will be scrambling to cope with the aftermath for decades. Some changes may be surprisingly glorious, but Parker and Farnsworth and Einstein might also have more company on their list.

Photo credit: Depositphotos

Bernadette Tansey is Xconomy's San Francisco Editor. You can reach her at btansey@xconomy.com. Follow @Tansey_Xconomy

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