The “era of accountability” for American tech has begun. Though unsettling, the spate of disclosures from Facebook, Google, and other technology companies has provided a much-needed win for public accountability. Not in the least, it has led to the establishment of tools that offer at least some degree of transparency into advertising and digital politics. At the same time, it’s likely we are only around the midpoint in a longer pattern of undisclosed privacy violations, security breaches, and regulatory oversights.
The good news: we know more than we did six months ago, and the six months before that. Still, the larger questions remain: How did we get here? What brought us to this point? What details haven’t we been told yet? And why have these unfortunate developments, some involving issues that were pointed out years go by researchers, regulators, and activists, proven so difficult to anticipate by those responsible?
In our efforts to understand the how and why, we should continue advocating for access to the data that allows us to accurately reconstruct exactly what happened. Only then can we start preparing for the future. And while the pieces of the data puzzle still trickle in, ensuring independent researchers and policymakers have the right evidence is nevertheless essential, as it helps inform the actions that regulators take, the questions legislators ask, and the changes platforms ultimately make. Archives are key to this process.
It is tempting to relate recent happenings to occurrences of the past, and to lean on outdated theories and convenient analogies to explain the relative collapse of the information sphere. Yet there are no historical precedents, or set of precedents, that can adequately encapsulate the situation and challenges we currently face. This is important, because as we embark on our broader inquiry of “what’s happened to the internet,” and try to interpret its effects on our information ecosystem, media industry, and way of life, we need to think holistically.
I believe studying this requires a diverse palette of investigative tools, a multidisciplinary outlook, and a willingness to experiment in methodological approach. It demands both contextual and reflexive consideration. It involves going back and asking more questions. We must do our best to untether findings from any single disciplinary interpretation or established idea about the past.
The state of the modern information ecosystem — including our dilemma addressing misinformation, propaganda, security, and hate speech — are manifestations of intrinsic misalignments within an increasingly hybridized global information system. I believe we are just beginning to realize some of the consequences. The stakes are high.
Tech companies and regulators, as well as policymakers and the public, are tasked with grasping a hybrid information machine that is not only complex, but riddled with critical vulnerabilities. These involve technological vulnerabilities as well as social ones.
Outside of the installation of sentient, perfectly designed, self-coding machines, emerging technologies and their adoption and subsequent normalization pose problems that can never be solved. The vulnerabilities are inherent to the human-centered design of systems, which are, in essence, features embedded in our mathematics, biology and psychology.
⚠️ The exploits that haunt us are part of human nature.
⚠️ We can only anticipate, identify, and patch. We can never control.
The reason I emphasize this is because the internet is not mature, nor should it ever be. It is not analogous to a human adolescent or a teenager; there is no human condition or developmental stage that sufficiently pinpoints its state.
It’s a network that’s always under construction. It’s both structured and chaotic — an amalgamation of power, culture, and politics. And the more who join this network, the more unpredictable it is likely to become.
The Internet. With a capital I. It was once called the “virtual.” Or less problematic nowadays, “online.” It was deemed the space that opened up new possibilities for exploration and civilization. A heralded venue for identity experimentation, information sharing, and discovery. The dawn of a new digital age. It was liberation tech.
Early on, the impact on humanity was equated with the discovery of 🔥. In hindsight, maybe this was a fitting analogy.
How do we make sense of the unstable scaffolding of technology, culture — and begin to interpret the less desirable effects it has bestowed upon our society and way of life?
We could start, perhaps, by further reflecting on the many decades of technological innovations and engineering developments, or revisiting the contexts through which the internet has been constructed and framed. We could investigate its applications and uses. Of course, the answer is all of the above.
⚠️ The first thing we should do is lay out what the Internet is and what it is not.
The construct known as the Internet — and its associated analogies, euphemisms, and anthropomorphisms — has come and gone.
Most of us don’t “get online” anymore, and younger generations will never truly be “offline.” Even when we are physically separated from data connectivity, whether by situation or by choice, our digitized remnants and data trails still flow and pulse through the veins of the network.
Through 1s and 0s, data representing fragments of our lives and those of our social connections and families will be stored, aggregated, and processed. Emails and DMs will arrive in our inboxes. Many of the most important, if not downright essential, parts our lives now exist indefinitely within the network, and our devices will buzz and beep to remind us of this the moment we connect.
Powered through the diffusion of innovations, capital investment, and ideologically fueled by the promise of connectivity, the “Internet” of yesteryear — I mean the one with the uppercase “I” — has undergone a complete and total metamorphosis.
It should also go without saying that, regardless of the amazing ways we obtain and store it, everything runs on electricity. Until our understanding of the laws of physics dramatically changes, this will continue to be the case.
⚠️ What’s changed in our relationship with the Internet is its supposed purpose.
This isn’t technological. It’s cultural. Facing this reality involves revisiting most of our expectations after decades of celebrated technological achievements, collaborations, and thought leaders who have told us what the internet was supposed to do for us.
To put it bluntly, we — and I primarily mean Americans and Western Europeans — must stop asking what the internet can do for us. And journalists need to stop fixating on how the internet has done us wrong. Instead,
⚠️ We should start asking what we can do for the internet.
Western conceptions and idealistic notions about the Internet are no more. Its trajectory is now dictated in response to the demands of late capitalism. This is not so much a response to economic market pressures or “e-commerce,” nor it is the end of capitalism. It’s the harnessing of the utility of the Internet as the engine for achieving unbridled wealth and power through the accumulation of data.
The consequences of this shift mean that we — the assumed denizens in our supposed liberal democratic states — have already lost control.
Once this fact is recognized, rather than presuming that the Internet is supposed to evolve in tandem with the needs of our society and its constituent global stakeholder communities, or molded by the creative vision of altruistic programmers and designers, we can see it’s virtue as a thing has already been lost — expropriated by a confluence of mostly American mega corporations and their shareholders.
The new rules of engagement are enforced by a deep network of vested lobbying interests and legal experts in the relentless pursuit of capital. There are upsides and downsides to this scenario.
⚠️ We shouldn’t — and can’t — expect the Internet to work for us anymore.
Because it doesn’t. Despite that fact that it often feels this way.
Therein lies the acknowledgement of the existential threat the Internet poses to our supposed liberal democratic way of life.
The dangers of the internet that are circulated in news headlines, quoted in congressional hearings, and aired in parliamentary sessions have always existed. It’s just that they have only recently been realized as our loss of agency becomes more apparent, and as our perceived lack of control over what will happen in the future accelerates.
Our ability to connect with others, share information, engage in open dialogue, and to communicate on our own terms without outside interests, advertising, data siphoning, and algorithmic prejudice through the Internet has quickly deteriorated.
Today, the bulk of our interactions, identities, and informational exchanges are determined not by our access to the network, but by the convenient and free services that have slowly but surely become de facto standards for global communication.
Some might argue that the telegraph, telephone, and television networks were owned by private corporations. However,
⚠️ It’s not the Internet that poses a threat to democratic society. It’s that the technologies that make up what we call “the Internet” have become less democratic.
This, in turn, has relinquished the administration of our public archives, and most of our personal data — including comprehensive records of our lives, conversations, locations, activities, political preferences, purchasing habits, and emotional and health states — into the hands of a small group of private corporations, opening the potential for data extraction and reselling, oversight, and surveillance.
Today, there are few, if any, practical alternatives. If you don’t want to use the Internet in America, you might not be able to even submit an application for a job. The same will eventually be true for using cash and non-digital currency.
So, what are we supposed to do now that it’s become obvious that the Internet is neither public nor democratic?
Especially for American citizens, it means there can be no true first amendment arguments, or reasonable claims to “free speech” online. Or right to organize and protest. Why? Because the majority of the time, we aren’t residing, engaging, or transacting in public. And by using these services, we’ve already agreed to their terms, which typically exclude the possibility of suing for any type of damages in a court of law.
This sets up a vastly different scenario than the rosy future heralded by early enthusiasts, academics, and tech adopters. The opportunities afforded by the internet were assumed to offset the disruption. We ignored and dismissed them, because back then, it was all about us, and the democratization of information.
Built from the ground up to be resilient to attack, and designed to circumvent destruction from the acts of adversaries, hostile powers, and acts of war, everything from the transmission protocols to the geographical footprint of the Internet was designed with one quality, autonomy, in mind. I’ll leave the details to the existing body of work on the history of the Internet, ARPANET, World Wide Web, and Silicon Valley.
The point is, the Internet was meant to be an autonomous defensive mechanism for information storage and exchange. It never was supposed to be equated with autonomy in the liberal democratic sense — even in John Perry Barlow’s techno-libertarian interpretation:
The core architecture — its designers’ operational creed — was to establish a place for information, and not necessarily one for humans. It was built for military reasons. Only then came the ideas about it being a mosaic of connected outposts. The virtual community. The WELL.
I declare the global social space we are building to be naturally independent of the tyrannies you seek to impose on us. You have no moral right to rule us nor do you possess any methods of enforcement we have true reason to fear.
We have ended up in Barlow’s alternative reality.
Not that any of these people were wrong by default. They just built a vision based on grand expectations that has been reinforced to this very day.
Therein lies the Internet’s first disconnect with the needs and expectations of modern liberal democracies; it’s one of the glitches in the fabric of the matrix. The network was meant to be an autonomous sphere, and its celebrated architects and innovators, funded by and employed at American tech corporations, have seen seemingly limitless success in showing its beneficial applications to society. Enabled by entrepreneurial culture, regulatory loopholes and financial incentives, they followed dreams of infinite connectivity and growth. The goal: to move civilization onto the Internet. From atoms to bits, digitize everything.
Ushering in a plethora of products to satisfy their users and attract advertisers, dominant tech companies now scout for — and mitigate — innovations, businesses, and acts of legislation that present threats to their established dominance. Due to the lack of domestic regulation and international tax and market enforcement mechanisms, American tech has carved out an unprecedented niche in the global financial marketplace.
Over the past three decades, the increasing reach of the Internet and adoption of applications, platforms, code, and information sharing formats have, for better or worse — and for richer or poorer — succeeded in connecting much of the known world.
⚠️ The difference is, until less than a decade ago, researchers, politicians, and media tended to fixate on the Internet’s potential to do good.
Years of magazine covers, news headlines, research initiatives, think tank reports, industry awards, white papers, and billions of dollars in public and private funding have been devoted to reinforcing the rhetoric of the Internet’s utopian promise, proclaiming its potential. At one point in the late 2000s, the concept of “venture altruism” was even a thing.
What’s become apparent as of late are the Internet’s less prized qualities. It’s anti-virtues, if you will. Things don’t add up quite like they used to.
These constitute what I view as the byproducts — the unintended, ignored, and unrecognized effects of the rapid evolution and adoption of this hybrid information network on our society. We are starting to see the accumulation of our own cultural information smog.
Five years ago, I view the Internet as less supervised. Specifically, I mean that the online spaces, platforms, and connected applications — while owned by private interests — tended to be less subject to the encroachment of corporate profit models, algorithmic oversight, and the aggressive reprioritization of users’ content and shared information.
The ways in which we exchanged news, and the management and determination of acceptable activities weren’t nearly as formalized. Nor were we as valuable as users. And tech companies didn’t need to finance and maintain the infrastructure, data centers, and server farms required to support anywhere near their current levels of users.
It’s not that the Internet was objectively a better place. And though it was mostly a facade, it did feel more public. There existed unsupervised spaces, and events, hashtags, and interests that could — in theory — still be “occupied” by committed actors, change agents, and independent activists.
Now these same communities can easily be targeted, excluded, and harassed.
The potential of the network for coordination to produce positive, if preconceived, outcomes was deemed by most of the Western world at the time as beneficial to society. No less than five years ago, we saw the Internet as the shining manifestation of self-organization and emerging technology working together for the greater good.
Through this American and Eurocentric framing, companies like Facebook and Twitter helped install what was perceived at the time as positive change. Revolutions came. People in countries even named their children “Facebook.”
The Internet of the past decade boosted coordination in the wake of catastrophic disaster events; helped to mobilize on-the-ground political activists; and invoke — you guessed it, “democratic” — change (these “positive” effects tended to take place in countries outside of America). And just a few years prior, Yahoo and Google formed part of the Web’s liberation of information, attributed with freeing access to knowledge from its institutional gatekeepers, which at the time involved public (i.e., state) agencies and mass media.
The problems with this framing are many: For one, these interpretations are always subjective — conditional upon dominant paradigms, time and place. The revolutions of the 2000s and 2010s have come and gone, but the resulting wars and long-term destabilization of the regions where they occurred linger on. Second, these mostly American technology companies were the enablers for the “positive” outcomes to happen on the Internet in the first place.
The underlying basis of the uses of the Internet for coordination and to produce outcomes — the Tahrir Squares, the Occupys, the election(s) of Obama, came at the cost of being built and subsidized by private technology companies and their internal talent.
Subsidized is a key term here: by this, I mean that while the revolutions of “Arab Spring” and social responses to Fukushima and other crisis events took place, the potential threats to Western democratic ways of life were overlooked in favor of the Internet’s potential to do good.
To change the rest of the world for the better.
These things aren’t necessarily all bad. In fact, I’d argue many were good. Over the past decade, we might have seen the subjective realization of the Internet’s “audacity of hope.” Yet, it was private tech companies that provided the tools that allowed us to “occupy” their platforms and services.
These uses of the Internet were perceived as democratic and reviled as changing things for the better. It was also common-sense public relations for the companies involved, and happened to strategically align with American geopolitical interests at the time. Back then, tech companies weren’t nearly as far along in their quests to become multi-billion-dollar empires. They were, however, valued based on their potential to expand the size of their services and grow their user bases.
What’s become clear is that these companies’ missions in changing the world — and in ensuring their users can coordinate to produce “good” outcomes — is nowhere near the value that can be derived by expanding the overall size and reach of the network.
More users, more value. But the activities of users and the designs of these services and platforms should be factors in helping us determine their social impact and consequences. While connectivity and potential for coordination are neither bad nor good, they are not neutral, as today they form the basis of corporate valuation and capital investment.
Times have surely changed.
Originally published at medium.com on October 17, 2018.