Money, information, and power are connected. South Africans have watched this play out in full public view, as once-integral news outlets were repurposed as propaganda rags by wealthy political benefactors.
The internet — an organic network for data exchange — is supporting a new type of network. Beyond the infrastructure and application layers, built atop social and digital media, is a network of ideas. Resilient, highly contagious.
This network of ideas is mediated by a collection of opaque, proprietary algorithms — systems that decide what to highlight based on potential for widespread consumption. “Going viral” is no longer a notable event — it’s the default propagation mode.
Those algorithms are built around technical and financial primitives — engagement, monetization, ROI. They have no concept of humanity, only patterns in the data. Their purpose is not understanding, it’s segmentation and hyper-specific targeting.
Simply put, the web is no longer human. It’s been co-opted by machines, optimized for our most basic impulses, reinforced by the massive accumulation of the resulting wealth. The tech boom has left a wake — empathy, humanity and truth, receding into history.
Collectively, we face a choice. Either the algorithms win, and society becomes progressively more segmented, until we’re only known by our politics, brand preferences and consumption patterns — not who we are as people.
Or, as we discard obsolete tools in every generation, we recognize the web for what it has become. An end-of-life product, hazardous to our health, due for an upgrade.
We need a consensus of facts — an immutable foundation on which to build discourse. Without this, we’ll never have meaningful dialogue again. We need an inverse incentive structure, rewarding participation instead of rote consumption.
We need to magnify the stories that matter to each of us, and break the stranglehold of the lowest-common-denominator news cycle. We need to retreat from passive outrage, back into active thought. We need to re-discover curiosity.
We’re a diverse, intelligent, empathetic species with good stories to tell, and much to learn from each other. We’re not going to get that done in a world that competes for our every waking moment, weaponizes our instincts against us.
I don’t know what this new web will look like, but I’m tired of the one we have now. I’m ready to upgrade.