The Myth of the “Pinto memo” is Not a Hopeful Story for Our Time

Lee Vinsel
10 min readOct 21, 2021

A few of the issues I mention below were changed after I finished this post, when Wired “updated” the article on 10/20/21, but I think it is still worth examining the article as it originally came out on 10/14/21, so I have left my post as is.

If historians are going to make analogies in public, we need to do our homework, lest we lead readers astray and give them false understandings.

Last week fellow historian Mar Hicks published a piece in Wired titled “Facebook’s Fall From Grace Looks a Lot Like Ford’s.” The news hook for the piece is Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen’s recent testimony before Congress. Hicks likens Haugen’s whistleblowing to a famous document from the 1970s that has become known as the “Pinto memo,” in which staff at Ford Motor Company did a cost-benefit analysis of a proposed federal technical standard. Hicks argues that the memo constituted a kind of turning point in US automobile regulation: “Before there was Big Tech, there were the Big Three: Ford, Chrysler, and General Motors — and an infamous memo that cemented in the collective consciousness that strong regulation was a necessity, not a nicety.”

If you want a dramatic turning point in the history of US automobile regulation, you would focus on this story of this guy, Ralph Nader, in the 1960s, not the late 1970s.

The upshot for our current moment, Hicks claims, is that Haugen’s whistleblowing is likely a similar turning point: “If the Ford Pinto memo is any indication, Facebook and other major Silicon Valley corporations birthed in the early internet boom are entering the stage when public disaffection with their products provokes robust regulation, backed by a new government enforcement agency.”

What follows lays out three types of errors that affect the Wired piece: First, Hicks gets the Pinto memo’s place in history quite wrong. The most important developments in US auto regulation had taken place well-before the Pinto debacle, which didn’t really influence the regulatory landscape. Second, Hicks mischaracterizes the contents of the Ford memo, which was not about Pintos or lawsuits, though popular mythology holds that it was. Third, as a result of both of these problems, the Wired piece uses the Pinto case to offer readers hopes that are unwarranted from the real history. The late 1970s was not a moment of regulatory blossoming but of looming regulatory decay. In fact, as we’ll see, you could use the Pinto case to argue…

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Lee Vinsel

I do technology studies, co-organize @The_Maintainers, and profess Science, Technology, and Society at Virginia Tech.