Was the internet stolen from us?

The pioneers of the internet, had a rather idealistic view of how it could transform the world, how it could be used as a tool to connect people and build...

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February 18, 2021

The creator of Wikis, Ward Cunningham, imagined a collaborative tool. Before the internet, Cunningham created a HyperCard system with screens that connected to other screens, so that people within a company could search for ideas. He also wanted to make it boundless. If you wanted to know more about a certain concept, but that concept didn’t yet exist, he programmed the system to automatically make a new information sheet about that concept. In this way, the people could keep pushing the boundaries. It was such a fascinating idea that Cunningham often found people gathered around his desk, wanting to see how it worked and learn more. Until the internet came along.

The gift of knowledge

The internet allowed Cunningham to take this HyperCard system and transform it into the WikiWikiWeb, commonly known as Wikis. He wanted everyone to be able to add their own insight to build a knowledge base that was based not on a single perspective, but on a multitude. It is a system where everyone can add and edit content, but are encouraged not to sign their work. Cunningham believed that it should be like a gift of knowledge. People from around the world were able to infuse their own perspective, thus providing a global overview of the topic that is not based on one person’s background. This was the vision for the internet, a place of distributed authority. It’s transparent and unfiltered. It’s much closer to reality.

This ideology may have been admirable, but it was victim to three severe mistakes. The creators of the internet underestimated the sheer number of people who would write content on the internet. Participation couldn’t be expressed in terms of thousands or millions, but rather in billions. They also underestimated human nature and the commercial potential of the internet.

Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, was quick to identify the potential of the internet. He originally created ‘The Facebook’ as an online directory of students at Harvard. Using this directory, you could find out information about other students at the college. Zuckerberg started small, first expanding ‘The Facebook’ to Yale, Stanford and Colombia before widening the scope to other colleges as well. In his first interview with CNBC, Zuckerberg described ‘The Facebook’ as an online directory where you could “find interesting information about people”. He stated that the most important aspect of the directory was being able to see who people’s friends were, although it also gathered other personal details such as your interests, favourite books and college major.

A mirror of real-life

In another early interview, Mark Zuckerberg outlined that his aim with this directory of students was not to create an online community but rather a mirror of real-life community. His idea was that people would use Facebook to see who knew who and thus use this information as an icebreaker to initiate conversations in real-life. Facebook wasn’t about connecting people, it was about gleaning information about people. The key to making this work was to make the site interesting enough so that people would want to use it and eventually become addicted.

Mark Zuckerberg saw the potential of using the community aspect to make people addicted to Facebook, gather their data and sell it for a return. Other companies, such as Google and Amazon, also saw this potential and started to use the internet as a tool to make money. The internet was designed as a communications tool, but it became a tool for commerce, a means of making money. Although the internet was intended to free the world from one singular authority, it is now dominated by a few giants who set the pace. The freedom it once afforded disappeared.

Steve Ballmer, former CEO at Microsoft, warned of the dangers of scale and the resulting impact on the internet. Data and algorithms match publishers, who want to sell ads, to advertisers, who want to buy them. The more inventory publishers possess, the more people bid for ad spots. As a result, prices rise and the publisher makes more money. Scale invites more scale. That’s how feedback loops work. The more players you have on the market, the more people will want to join. However, if only one company benefits from this scale, value will eventually be transferred from publishers and advertisers into the ecosystem of data and algorithms. Over time, this would lead to one person essentially controlling all ads, with the ability to determine how much your business is worth. This is where the internet went wrong. Rather than removing the singular authority, it led to the institution of a new singular authority.

Gather data, (divide) and conquer

Instead of trying to bring people together and build a community, companies like Facebook have gathered data on people in order to divide them. Social media is not really a type of media. It is the fabric of our society. Using algorithms, Facebook can segment people into clusters of people who think alike, who have similar interests and beliefs. These groups represent valuable data that they can sell to advertisers for targeted marketing. The algorithms that connect millions of people are designed for marketing and commercial purposes, playing with people’s emotions to get the response they want. They’re not made to create lasting connections.

In our ever more connected world and fast-paced society, communications need to happen quickly. Now we even see the estimated reading time on articles as we scroll further and further down the endless newsfeed. This speed causes us to fall back on our basic emotions: fear, aggression and lust (or instant gratification). I like to call this our reptile brain. Marketing algorithms are particularly suited to these primitive emotions. We no longer make decisions like we used to, looking at the long-term vision, making sacrifices and toughing it out for future gain. That was our rational brain. In a fast-paced world, our reptile brain takes over from the rational brain. Our reptile brain responds to the three basic emotions of fear, aggression and lust.

Remember the Cambridge Analytica scandal in 2016 surrounding the US elections and the Brexit referendum? Alexander Nix, then CEO of Cambridge Analytica, used data provided by Facebook to identify people’s biggest fears. He knew that it is incredibly difficult to discover what someone’s dream is, because people often don’t know exactly what their dream is themselves. Fears, on the other hand, are easy to detect. Alexander Nix used these fears to unite people against a single enemy: “the establishment”. During the 2016 US election campaign, Cambridge Analytica shared around 50,000 different messages in Trump’s name. These messages contained different content targeted to each voter, playing on the fears identified using their data and uniting them against their common enemy.

Instant reward

Social media is designed to be a place of instant reward. It is the new social fabric of our world, which is based on our most primitive reptile brain. Social media groups people into clusters, which have accidentally become echo chambers. By conversing with like-minded people, your ideas aren’t challenged but instead cemented. Rather than benefiting from a global vision, people are exposed to a reduced reality. As a result, the internet is being used to sow discord. The alt-right has used social media for years to sow fear of the establishment. The platform social media has provided us is not giving the ordinary man a place to air his views, but rather is using the ordinary man as a mouthpiece, stoking confrontation and presenting an alternative to the controlled offline world. Online happenings can rapidly influence events offline. It may even lead to civil war.

Social media has made us feel like we are the centre of the world and that, as a result, we can do whatever we want there. Nevertheless, the divide between our online and offline universes is narrowing. Long gone are the days when we had to dial up to the internet. Remember that awful screeching sound you had to endure as your computer took a few minutes to connect to the server, thus disconnecting your landline phone? Those days are over. Instead of purposefully accessing the internet, we can now conduct a simple Google search with the tap of a button or even using our voice. This notion of “connecting” to the internet is unknown to young people who have grown up as a connected generation, always online.

In 2015 at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Eric Schmidt, Google’s Chairman and ex-CEO, sent shockwaves around the room as he stated: “The Internet will disappear”. What he meant was that the internet would become so integrated into our lives, so seamless to use, that we would no longer regard it as a thing. He explained: “There will be so many IP addresses … so many devices, sensors, things that you are wearing, things that you are interacting with that you won’t even sense it. It will be part of your presence all the time. Imagine you walk into a room, and the room is dynamic. And with your permission and all of that, you are interacting with the things going on in the room.”

The internet is now a fundamental component of our lives. The EU is even examining the implementation of a new human right – the right to disconnect. There is an expectation nowadays that we are always connected, we are always reachable. The internet is so integrated into our everyday lives that we have transformed from homo sapiens into OMO sapiens (online merged with offline). If you really think about it, can you identify where your online life ends and your offline life begins? Although you may be spending time with friends and family in person, your phone is likely within arm’s reach, with the possibility to hop back online within seconds of a notification sounding. It’s no longer about making the choice to connect once or twice a day. We are always connected.

The OMO Sapiens

2020 accentuated our new status as OMO sapiens. In many cases, the police would have jailed people if they did what they do online in real life. And yet, our online world often seeps into our offline world. Ideas spread online before they jump offline like a fireball that devastates reality. The events at the Capitol are a perfect example. Nobody tries to stop these trends when they are small and seemingly insignificant. By the time they do act, it is often too late.

Governments took quick forceful action to halt the coronavirus pandemic. Many countries went into lockdown and took various measures to limit people’s activities within their countries. Schools, shops and theatres were forced to close down, the government imposed a set number of social contacts and face masks became compulsory in many public places to limit the spread of the virus. Yet, online little action is taken to stop the spread of incendiary messages, radical ideas and harmful comments. The way in which we tackle online viruses is a far cry from the measures governments took in 2020 to stop coronavirus in its tracks.

Many people, including politicians, warn that social media presents a serious threat to democracy. And it does. But how can we solve this problem? We can’t ask social networks to change their algorithms, because that wouldn’t really tackle the heart of the problem. So what if we tried to change the input into the algorithms, excluding some messages such as certain political ideas? This isn’t an option either. This would be an infringement of free speech and thus also endanger democracy. We are trying to manage the new social fabric using rules that date back to Napoleon’s time. It’s just not possible.

Catch 22 for democracy

The world seems to have been turned upside down. Liberals want to impose harder rules on social media, while conservatives fight to retain the right to free speech. Democracy is at stake, but we’re stuck in a Catch 22. Social media poses a threat to democracy, but the solutions we could employ to alleviate that threat would also endanger democracy.

The internet was designed as a tool to connect people, to create international communities, to share knowledge. Social media and internet giants have made it a place of commerce primarily, with data as the commodity to be sold. In this way, they have sown discord that doesn’t remain online but directly influences our offline worlds. A democratic system built on one central authority is not armed to deal with a hyper-connected world. Trying to stop the stream of data is like raising your hand to stop a tsunami. We didn’t realise it before, but social media have been working in the shadows to steal the internet from under our very noses. And no one seems to know how to fix it.

Rik Vera
Rik Vera
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February 18, 2021