The Cave of Wonders

Napster came out in 1999, and foundations only briefly shook before towers began to fall. Iconic companies like Blockbuster, Borders, Kodak, K-mart, Sears, Toys ‘R Us, RIM, and Hewlett-Packard were decimated over the next decade as the internet rushed into mainstream society, bringing a wave of innovation in with it. The general public gained access to a myriad of convenient new products and services as the old gatekeepers were cut to pieces, middlemen were removed, and online alternatives took their place. New software-based empires began to grow and have now emerged as the gateways to the rest of our lives, be it information about the world, the people we know, things we want to buy, places we want to go, or entertainment we want to enjoy.

This has been (and still is) the opening act of the digital revolution, and consumers have largely benefited so far, with newer devices, services, and access proving far superior to the previous generation.

Yet beyond both the short- and long-term benefits of our technological renaissance lies what will likely be the largest shift in the balance of societal power that modern society has ever seen, and shifts in power can be dangerous things. This shift will come. It will come about for the same reason that you stopped going to Blockbuster and Movie Gallery and started subscribing to Netflix; the same reason you gave up your Blackberry or Nokia for an iPhone; the same reason you no longer go to K-mart, Sears, or Best Buy and just add the thing you need to your basket on Amazon. It will come because today’s organizations are far more capable than yesterday’s, and we can do need far fewer Big Ones than we did before. In particular, consider these internet age trends that are already well underway:

I suspect that most people are already being affected by the early stages of all of these trends, but I’m not sure most people recognize the magnitude of what’s still to come. I suspect that most people have no idea what’s about to happen to them and why. I also suspect it may be tough to dig ourselves out if we don’t like where we end up.

The mouth is open and the gold shines brightly, but we have to be aware of what we’re walking into if we want what’s inside. In particular, the idea of a balance of power is crucial to democracy, human rights, and equality, but the current “balance” is on the verge of being tossed into the air as the music industry was almost twenty years ago and will require active care to reassemble correctly.

We’ve never had an opportunity like this

We’re already able to communicate instantly with anyone anywhere. We’re already able to receive products made across the world on our doorsteps within days of requesting them. We’re already able to find people, events, conversations, and interests that would have been nearly undiscoverable otherwise. We’re already able to talk to our phone and translate our speech into almost any language on earth, or find answers to many questions with the tap of a button.

We’re already able to do a lot of crazy stuff, and we couldn’t do any of those things twenty (ten?) years ago! It is absurd how quickly barriers are dropping and the world is becoming more accessible to all of us.

Every new generation has its trinkets and every past generation had to walk uphill both ways, but we’ve recently reached one of the most significant milestones of human history: we’re rapidly approaching a time where we can use machines to do almost anything we don’t want to do, producing technology that can perform mental work to complement the physical work enabled by our machines from the Industrial Revolution. Many have heralded the end of the tunnel as the Age of Abundance where we can produce everything we need without having to work, and we’ve already seen the potential for this around the fringes of the economy with factory-warehouse-vehicle automation, 3D printing, self-driving farm equipment and shipping trucks, and the introduction of autonomous agents into a bunch of different work environments.

These possibilities shatter Protestant-era social norms and, at their best, offer optimistic visions of a world with dramatically reduced suffering and plentiful resources. Even without the full vision, the possibility of dramatically reducing need worldwide would easily fall among the greatest accomplishments of humanity in its short time here on Earth, and its honestly not that far away.

This isn’t a “wait and see” thing

Setting aside new products and services, what we’re about to experience is a massive centralization of power away from individuals and towards (a small number of) companies and governments. Without the proper checks and balances in place, these entities will be incentivized to reduce transparency instead of boost it, and once established it’ll be more difficult than ever before for individual voices to be heard.

When the internet age first began, very few guidelines were set on what would be acceptable business and governmental limits, so we ended up with novel-length software license agreements that can legally bind you to almost anything, shady ‘self-regulated’ companies secretly connecting our online activity with our offline lives and distributing it to others as they see fit, government entities covertly recording and ‘processing’ things we do and say in private, and tragically vague laws on “hacking” that can ruin lives for relatively minor crimes. Laws providing reasonable and clear guidance on any of these practices are still few and far between, and unfortunately receive at most a shrug from politicians and the general public.

Both government and corporate surveillance are increasing rapidly, both in technical and practical capability, as is the ability to automatically and accurately process and draw conclusions from the data. We’re already using information like this to create software that is better than humans at identifying people in photos, drones and cars that pilot themselves, and software that can automatically transform anything we say into fully searchable text in any human language (and we’re getting closer to doing so with lip-reading in videos or even directly from doing the same with thoughts). And, just like last time, there aren’t yet reasonable rules in place for limiting their use.

At the same time, a handful of powerful companies are taking over entire market segments. The internet economy is not one that favors friendly competition; it’s proving itself to be an environment where there is no second place, and competition is regularly obliterated or absorbed into the existing tech giants. These companies are tremendously hard to compete against and are quickly becoming integrated into the fabric of society, rapidly moving towards becoming ‘far too big to fail.’ These companies are setting new rules for existing players (see Amazon and Hachette, Google News vs European newspaper publishers, and Apple’s proposal for new music streaming rates). Recently associations of publishers began asking for additional government oversight for Google and Facebook in the US specifically because of their gigantic and growing influence over who sees what.

And then there’s the last bit: that whole ‘who sees what’ thing. As our ability to record, store, and analyze massive troves of information increases, so do the things we can use it for. Most companies want to maximize the time, money, and clicks we share with them, and choose what to show us with that in mind. Governments want to bolster their economies while detecting and mitigating national security risks. That puts us in a lot of different crosshairs, and gives new meaning to the idea that ‘your actions have consequences’ — both those you did and potentially those you might do.

Prudence pays dividends

The worst thing we can do is nothing; we are entering an age that has the potential to empower people and eliminate suffering at unprecedented scale, but we have to pass through dangerous waters to get there. The most important thing we can do is think about where we want to end up, aware that it’ll take sacrifices, and be conscious of that while we’re on our way.

Believing that companies or our government are going to walk us there is too likely to be wrong, and I believe that the consequences of wrong are too vast and permanent to sit back and watch.

Some of the technical details really are important, even if you don’t like technology. Some of the legal precedents (or lack thereof) need to be understood, even if you don’t like law. Citizens need to be weighing in on these national policies, even if you don’t like politics. Not just by one of us, but by as many of us as possible. I really think these details are going to be what sets the course for our future.

This is the inspiration for these articles: to think critically about what we’re doing, what we want, and what we’re willing to give up to get there. Those decisions are going to be made in our lifetimes, whether we’re sitting at the negotiating table or not.

See you there.