Living in the New New Normal

It’s the year 2019. What’s it like to live in the New New Normal*, in a world where the once-disruptive Silicon Valley tech companies (GAFAM) have become the richest, most powerful companies in the world?

In a world in which Chinese tech giants (BAT), too, have reached a level of maturity, and scale, to equal those Silicon Valley companies and are starting to push outside of China and onto the world stage? In which these companies represent not change, innovation and improvement (of the world, or at least the online experience) but the status quo; where they are the entrenched powers defending their positions? In a world that has left the utopian ideas of the early open web (especially openness and decentralization) in the dust, and instead we see an internet that has been consolidated and centralized more than ever?

Image: Unsplash (derveit)

In other words, what’s it like to live between increasingly restrictive “ecosystems” of vendor lock-in, and the main choice is between the Silicon Valley model and the Chinese model?

There’s no escape

A friend once mentioned Android as his “back to the woods” option: If iOS ever got too dominant/too bad/too unbearable, the (more) open Android mobile operating system would be there as an escape route. Also, just by existing, it would keep Apple on their tows, so they wouldn’t abuse their power (too badly). This phrase has stuck with me ever since.

For the big platforms (GAFAM-BAT plus X), there mostly isn’t a viable back to the woods alternative. Sure, you could host your own email or use a privacy-protecting email provider. But what about docs? What about files? Alternatives exist, but the drawbacks of using them — especially collaboratively — are too massive in most cases. If you rely on collaboration tools and your peers aren’t all on that same platform, these tools cannot give you what you need. Network effects are too strong in social networks: In 2019 everything is a social network.

So there’s no real, viable alternative to Google Drive, unless you mean Microsoft’s collaboration platform or one from the Chinese platforms — but they are all essentially the same, or at least put users in the same awkward position of not controlling any of their data.

There’s no innovation

There’s not a lot of Uppercase-I Innovation going on. Not just no disruption (which I’d argue is a good thing) but just generally speaking the big jumps in user experience or delivery are nowhere to be seen. Maybe that’s ok, or at least the most acceptable of lacks in this list. But it does feel like if there was a realistic chance of new players in the market, that that might deliver better results.

There’s no privacy

This is the main issue: Walking among the big platforms, users are like sheep among wolves. They know they’re in danger but have no way of defending themselves. The platforms have perfected surveillance capitalism, and we’re all worse off for it.

Advertisement is still the dominant business model for content online, yet a web page in 2019 reads the user more than the user reads the web page. Any bit of interest or intent a user displays online by searching or clicking a link is recorded, analyzed, and used against them: For advertisements, for surveillance; with benign or malicious intent. It almost doesn’t matter: The fact that it’s possible and easy and cheap is all it takes. Chilling effects.

The object of that interest follows the user around like puppy, or maybe more like an STD: Unpleasant, hard to shake, and better avoided through protection. We’re being stalked across the web. The stalkers are everywhere we go, and they are legion.

This is no way to live life online. Surveillance is a massive threat to a free society. Surveillance marketing as pioneered and perfected by and for adtech is not fundamentally different.

It’s the same few voices everywhere

Voice might be one of the big next frontiers for user interfaces. The big companies all have their smart voice assistants: Apple has Siri, Google has Google Assistant, Amazon has Alexa, and so forth. Not all voice assistants are created equal, though: The three above are the dominant ones in the West (I’m not familiar enough with the Chinese market.)

Voice-based interfaces fundamentally change how we interact with content, and the world. If you look at online search, for example, we’re very skilled at skimming a list of text results and determining which of these pre-selected results is most relevant. In voice, there’s usually just one result: It’s like hitting Google’s “I’m feeling lucky” button every single time. (How often do you use that button? Have you ever?) This changes everything. We need to be able to trust that result, and they way it was selected. But how can we tell?

So…

So what is it like to live in the New New Normal? It’s too early to properly say, to fully grasp. But we know one thing — in the New New Normal, we have less freedom, and fewer freedoms: Less freedom of speech and to exchange ideas, because we know all we say is being recorded and analyzed. Less freedom to exchange information in confidentiality. Less freedom to seek out information unwatched. Less freedom to choose. Less freedom to control our own data, and hence our own destiny.

Instead we see chilling effects play out all around us. We need to define a new social contract for democracy to have a chance long term. Digital media have to be free from surveillance again so that we can make sure we’ll still have a free society in a few years time. This isn’t a digital issue: It’s a human rights issue.


*Tip of the hat to James Bridle who originally coined the term The New Normal. It was also a posting of his in the recent WELL State of the World thread that triggered my impulse to write this.