Sunday, March 29, 2020

OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 21-04-2018 12:17

Dreaming of digital utopia

The problems surrounding the web’s current iteration have led to the consistent deterioration of privacy, the deep capacity of surveillance, an incredible power to manipulate, and the intense concentration of power and capital could stifle future innovation.

Can we fix the Internet? And even more profoundly, what would it mean to “fix” what has grown to become the underlying fabric of our lives, responsible for our capacity to access practically all of the information ever created with a few clicks while at the same time allowing us to connect instantly with almost anyone, anywhere in the world?

The answer is undoubtedly yes, the Internet and everything that has come with it has made our lives better, substantially so. And we must thank Silicon Valley and a group of visionaries for that (we already have, of course, all of them have become incredibly wealthy and their companies the most valuable in the world: by the last trading day of 2017, before the Cambridge Analytica scandal broke out, the largest publicly traded companies in the world, ranked by market capitalisation, were Apple, Alphabet — Google’s holding company — followed by Microsoft, Amazon, and Facebook). Yet, the problems surrounding the web’s current iteration, which is based on a business model that derives value out of attention and data, have led to the consistent deterioration of privacy, the deep capacity of surveillance, an incredible power to manipulate, and the intense concentration of power and capital that could stifle future innovation. From an Argentina perspective, it has stripped our sovereignty, relocating it the Bay Area in California, giving our regulators limited wiggle-room, while rendering many of our decisions practically useless if they happen to go against the whims of the Silicon Valley giants.

While the Internet was originally designed as a military project tasked with connecting networks owned and operated by the US Defense Department, it achieved massive scale from the garages of hippies in the 1970s and 1980s looking to change the world through technological innovation. Members of the counter-culture, these early Internet entrepreneurs “wanted everything to be free, because we were hippie socialists,” explained Internet visionary Jaron Lanier to New York magazine last week, “but we also loved entrepreneurs, because we loved Steve Jobs. So you want to be both a socialist and a libertarian at the same time, which is absurd.” Lanier, the person who coined the term “virtual reality,” is but one of the many influential Silicon Valley thinkers who has become disillusioned with the way things turned out, noting the libertarian vision of the web has failed, having become a “behaviour modification empire” that needs to be remade.

At the root of the problem lies the web’s successful business model which bred a socially failed ecosystem. It was clearly laid out in two books by the brilliant editor-in-chief of Wired from 2001 to 2016, Chris Anderson. In The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business is Selling Less of More and Free: The Future of a Radical Price, Anderson spills out how the Internet’s massive reach at practically no cost allowed these innovative companies to focus on “the long tail” of the demand curve: while traditional companies focused on selling large quantities of a limited number of products — in order to achieve economies of scale — the web allowed precise micro-segmentation, meaning companies could focus their products and contents on the specific niches a user or customer wanted. Thus, the sum of very many small transactions has the capacity of being greater than the sum of a few very large ones.

The second part of the equation was the eureka moment: give the product away for free. Given Moore’s Law, which states that computing power doubles every two years, effectively cutting costs 50 percent annually, technology-based companies developed the capacity to increase productivity at a nearly zero marginal cost. Once Google had incurred in the costs of developing Gmail or Android, for example, it could add users at an exponential rate at practically no cost. So, users were conditioned to expect products for free, unaware that in exchange they were giving away something incredibly valuable: their personal information.

The Internet caught on like wildfire, accelerated by the introduction of smartphones at a staggering rate. Google, looking to index all of the information on the web, became our entry-point, while Facebook, seeking to connect everyone in the world, our digital arena. Near unlimited access to the vastest set of information every created, seamless communication across the globe, the possibility of buying almost anything from the comfort of your couch, and the simplicity of being able to avoid queues or going to a public office were great.

Along with those and other services, the Silicon Valley elite grew to become the largest corporations in the world. Donald Trump’s unexpected victory in the 2016 presidential elections in the US uncovered something that had been smelling rotten for quite some time: Google, Facebook, and the rest of these companies could be used for evil. Scratching beneath the surface, we figured out that the deep polarisation that occurs on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube is incentivised by their algorithms looking to generate greater engagement. In turn, Facebook Audience Network (FAN) and Google Display Network (GDN) — their ad platforms — can easily be used by foreign entities to pipe in manipulative messages to an unaware and vulnerable population, directly to their pockets. And with vast troves of psychographic data, behaviour can effectively be modified by targeting susceptible individuals’ deepest fears. Even worse, these companies are constantly tracking us, meaning evil actors (particularly nation states) can constantly surveil us, exerting ever greater control which is, to paraphrase Michel Foucault, invisible.

What, then, needs to change? For starters, building an ecosystem on the massive collection of personal data and strategies to increase engagement in order to sell more ads creates the worst possible incentives. And, as is clear, digital advertising is ripe with fraud. Second, allowing these tech titans to self-regulate has clearly failed, yet the nature of the web (that it should be decentralised and global) means that country-specific laws won’t do. International cooperation (as we are seeing against moneylaundering, for example), lagoon with careful redaction and the opinions of true experts is needed. And third, we need to reduce concentration in order to unleash markets’ creative powers on behalf of users, not shareholders.

Agustino Fontevecchia

Agustino Fontevecchia

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