Reconciling the internet’s role in the rise of Trump

The internet was supposed to be the greatest democratic tool of all time. What happened?

One of the things I loved about being a history major in college was getting to step back and look at the big picture. The study of history shows you how things — people, communities, religions, leaders, ideas — interact and influence each other. It made me appreciate that everything is connected, but it also showed me that if you pay attention, patterns emerge. “History repeats itself” is a trope that has a certain truth to it.

Since stepping out of my role running digital at OFA (where, I would argue, we were making history every day) I’ve been applying that big-picture lens to the broader digital technology landscape, trying to find patterns based on my experience and the experiences of others. If Kevin Kelly wanted to solve the question of what technology wants, exploring how what he calls the “technium” behaves as an organism, I’ve been trying to understand the implications of the so-called technium on societal trends, human behavior, institutional trust — something that can be a strategic advantage — and what it all means for those of us who work in this thing we define as “digital.”

I thought I had a good handle on where things were going. Last week, my confidence was shaken by the election of a man that I believe poses a historical threat to society, and the undeniable role the internet, and social media in particular, played in his rise.

I’d been operating under a few assumptions, namely:

  1. The digital era isn’t just changing the way we operate. It’s creating an unprecedented overhaul in human exchange. The internet decentralized information; the social web decentralized relationships; now blockchain protocols are on the verge of decentralizing some of the last bastions of institutional trust: private data.
  2. This world is creating near infinite opportunities for real relationship building with people that matter: customers, clients, voters, shareholders, employees, donors, you name it. Not just with a “market” of those people, but one-to-one. The Cluetrain Manifesto dream of markets-as-conversations may still be too idyllic for our mass-media communications environment, but I believe it’s the direction we’re headed in.
  3. Your public perception, your brand, is no longer yours to control; it’s built on the meaningful exchange of value with the people mentioned above (or the absence of it). Near infinite opportunities for disaster means trust can be destroyed in the blink of an eye.
  4. These changes are creating a world where radical engagement with society is a must. But to do that, institutions need to be about more than making money, or advancing an agenda, or shareholder value alone. Societal capital, environmental capital, relational capital, etc. all matter. In a world with no walls, we’ll see all the dark spots. (My admittedly idealistic assumption here is that the dark spots matter.)
  5. Competitive advantage in this new world will be dominated by those who are identified with those kinds of higher value elements — who can answer the question, What do you stand for? But it’s hard work. Getting someone’s attention once or twice doesn’t build real trust. Real relationships aren’t built in real-time, they’re built over time.
  6. In fact, if attention for its own sake ever was a worthwhile goal, it isn’t now. Attention is the metric of a consumption-based, linear economy, and we’re going circular, baby.
  7. Most institutions that matter — corporations, governments, and nonprofits — aren’t built to engage in the new world. Have you ever driven a car down an old European road built for sheep or cattle? That is the state of digital integration at most institutions: the traffic is backing up, but the roads aren’t getting wider. It’s awkward at best, and ineffective at worst. Radical engagement calls for essential transformation.

These are some of the long-term trends that I still believe will be born out over the next 50 or so years. What I had assumed was that they would naturally enable our better angels; that when people were empowered, they would push for a more just society. But our demons are taking advantage.

Because what happens when we decentralized information? We weaken one of the pillars of our democracy: the free press. Many of us now get information from filter bubbles like Facebook and Google, who themselves are beginning to reconcile with their roles in disinformation campaigns.

How do we deal with the fact that our relationships online are often curated, intentionally or unintentionally, to be with people who believe the same things we believe? The internet and networked conversations enabled both the activism of Black Lives Matter and just put a white nationalist in the White House. What do you stand for? is turning out to be an operative question, but the answers have often been disturbing.

What happens when trust in institutions has to be earned instead of assumed? Government, often the slowest of innovators, becomes the target of all that is wrong with the world. Combine that with the compromise and politicking that is a natural part of the system, and a Balkanized media environment, and and we’ve instituted Hanlon’s razor in reverse: everyone assumes malice instead of benign incompetence, and no one tries to help.

How do we reconcile the idea that public mistakes drive declines in trust with a man who used social offensiveness, racism, sexism, to thrust himself into the White House? When a megalomaniac used the internet’s power for relationship building to tap into people’s fears? George Orwell warned about the potential oppression of public opinion. What happens when it is manipulated by foreign governments?

These are the kinds of big questions I’m going to be wrestling with over the next few weeks, months, years. Because technology is going to keep evolving; it’s going to keep changing our society and how we interact with each other personally. But I know now more than ever that that change will only be for the better if the digitally-oriented do-gooders like you and me make sure that it does.

Are you in? Because we’ve got a lot of work to do.