It’s Time to Drain the Swwwamp

Contrary to the message sent by some of his early appointments, America’s President-elect had trumpeted his plans to “drain the swamp” of corrupted, out-of-touch elites in a capital city whose foundation story insists it was reclaimed from marshland. Untrue, say some — any swamps in the early days of Washington, D.C, were “itty bitty little things.” Whatever, this year’s presidential election has underscored the need to drain a very different, very real and very much larger swamp.

And it’s a swamp that some believe handed Donald Trump not just the keys to the White House but also custodianship of the “Football” — the briefcase-sized device able to trigger the launch of the country’s not inconsiderable nuclear arsenal.

Image via crooksandliars.com

Let’s hope that “Trumpageddon” remains simple wordplay. But, speaking of wordplay, the swamp that now demands global attention might be rendered as the “SWWWAMP,” the fact-free, post-truth online world that threatens to become the source of a globally corrosive miasma. A phenomenon that could even help unwind decades of work on the sustainability agenda.

It is a phenomenon that owes its origins, at least in part, to the World Wide Web. Someone whose thinking I rate highly in the IT space is Observer technology correspondent John Naughton. He describes himself as a “recovering utopian” — and now sees the Internet as in danger of becoming a virtual “failed state.”

The Failed States Index, he notes, defines a “fragile state” as one “whose central government is so weak or ineffective that it has little practical control over much of its territory,” and which is characterized by non-provision of public services and widespread corruption and criminality. Sound familiar?

So even as we encourage business leaders to move beyond incrementalism and embrace exponential “breakthrough” solutions to the world’s increasingly exponential challenges, we need to keep a wary eye on the various ways in which our technological and market solutions could trigger a new set of “breakdown” exponentials.

No question, the early Internet was a breakthrough for pretty much all its users, even if it drove a growing number of traditional business models — including the Encycopaedia Britannica and bricks-and-mortar book and music stores — into commercial extinction.

Until the dawn of the World Wide Web, so-called “netizens” had operated in a cyberspatial universe that now seems like an online Eden. As Naughton recalls, there was “no crime, no spam, no commercial activity and little concern about security” — largely because netizens knew one another, or at least “knew what their institutional affiliations were.”

And some pretty forceful people wanted to keep it that way. Many moons ago, on a beach in the trade-wind-battered Bahamas, near a hotel where we were both speaking to a conference hall full of German-origin American furniture-makers, I discussed some of this with John Perry Barlow.

Aside from being a lyricist for the Grateful Dead, he is renowned for his work through the Electronic Frontier Foundation — and for his techno-utopian “Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace.” Naughton recalls the ringing opening passage:

Governments of the industrial world, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from cyberspace, the new home of the mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather …

Nice try. But, as the denizens of the original Wild West found to their cost, if you open up vast unregulated territories where the baser human instincts are unleashed, the result is virtually guaranteed to be a dog-eat-dog world in which no amount of vigilante posses and lynchings can create — let alone restore — order.

As cyberspace and what the pioneers dubbed “meatspace” (where most of us live) increasingly converged, aided and abetted by the Mosaic browser, AOL and an ultimately all-consuming Google, the gates of Eden were blown off their hinges.

“Scenting profits,” Naughton laments, “companies and pornographers scrambled for a slice of the action, closely followed by scammers and spammers and all kinds of other desirables.” In the process, that original “magical world” is turning into “a strange place, simultaneously wonderful and terrifying.”

It’s a place that reminds some people of New York City in the late 1970s. Now in the online world, “There is a cacophony of hateful speech,” as Ars Technica editor Sean Gallagher put it, “vice of every kind … and policemen trying to keep a lid on all of it.”

It takes wise heads to gauge what is going on — and to distil some of the implications for the world in which most of us have grown up. One of my favourite analysts on the cyber beat is Peter Preston, who was editor of The Guardian back in the day when I contributed to the main paper. Here’s how he sums up Trump’s media strategy. It plays a novel media game, he says, relying on “total distraction. Why talk about serious appointments (not to mention serious promises swiftly shredded) when you can whip up a meaningless storm in 140 characters?”

But perhaps the backlash has already begun. Among the first to feel it was Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg. Initially he responded to claims that “fake news” stories on his 1.79-billion-member site had helped swing the U.S. election by insisting this was a “crazy idea.” But he would say that, wouldn’t he? To get a sense of just how fiercely he is conflicted on this issue, track self-described “Media Curmudgeon” Charles Warner on Forbes.com.

Then, in a virtual eyeblink, Zuckerberg began his U-turn. He announced that Facebook is developing stronger fake news detection, coupled with an early warning system, plus new ways to classify misinformation — including, one imagines, a new class of falsity-seeking algorithms. Good luck with that.

Zuckerberg also reported that Facebook has been in contact with fact-checking organizations. Well, Hallelujah! Whatever the President-elect may say, fact checking is a fundamental building block of civilization — which is why religious fundamentalists and incipient tyrants so dislike it.

By contrast, I have always had a deep admiration for diligent fact-checkers. Over a decade before the World Wide Web first saw the light of day, in 1978, I co-founded a new market intelligence business, Environmental Data Services (ENDS). As the founding editor, one thing I had drummed into me by both David Layton (our managing director, whose family origins were in The Economist newspaper) and Max Nicholson (chairman and a co-founder of WWF) was that fact checking was make-or-break for any organization that needs to be trusted and listened to.

Both men, now sadly long since gone, were greats in their fields — and both knew the value of professionalism, objectivity and, above all, the well-checked fact. I suspect that they would be spinning in their respective graves if they could see where this “post-truth” world of ours seems to be headed.

The accelerating erosion of our appetite and taste for accuracy has profound implications for our future — and for our chances of achieving sustainable development. Consider just one recent tweet by the President-elect. As CBC News columnist Neil Macdonald noted:

Somewhat haplessly, the Washington Post’s superb fact-checking department awarded president-elect Donald Trump four “Pinocchios” for his claim that millions of people voted illegally for Hillary Clinton, and that he in fact won the popular vote, or, as Trump now prefers to call it, “the so-called popular vote.”

The Post’s main headline called it a “baseless claim.” The New York Times used classic Times-speak: “Trump Claims ‘Millions’ Voted Illegally, Citing No Evidence.”

All of this is rather quaint, if admirable. Both newspapers, like other firmaments in the fussy, old-fashioned world of the mainstream media, continue to behave as though citing evidence, or making claims based in fact, actually still matters.

Long may they persist in the effort. And, when you come to think of it, it’s critical that we reverse this trend. With 2017 marking the thirtieth anniversary of the 1987 Brundtland Commision report, Our Common Future, many in the global sustainability industry will be assuming that now we have the Sustainable Development Goals all we have to do is to get to work and deliver the desired outcomes by 2030. Wrong, I’m afraid.

Pretty much all of the Global Goals depend for their credibility and delivery on data, on analysis and, ultimately, on the views of experts. If current post-truth realities continue to spread around the world, the chances are that our dreams of delivering on most of the Goals will prove to be exactly that, dreams.

That’s a nightmare future we must energetically work to head off at the pass. It may be apocryphal, but I remember being told that during WWII the German air force, or Luftwaffe, was reduced to listening to BBC broadcasts to get a more accurate sense of what was going on — because they did not trust their own news bulletins.

I don’t know how we are going to drain the cyberswamp, simply that it has to be done. In the meantime, our aim must be to ensure that as we move towards the post-Trump era data, accuracy and truth are once again seen to be fundamental cornerstones not just of sustainable economies but, in the long run, of the world’s most successful democracies. It’s time to redouble — or double down on — our fact-checking, not stand by as it is thrown out the window of the presidential limousine.