I’ve got a problem. For a very long time I’ve been espousing the upside of digital technology. And now, it seems like the ratio of negative externalities of tech is rapidly increasing. So I’m not going to pretend everything is OK. Looking into the future is far more than being a technology evangelist or even showing corporations how to maximise profit via tech. It’s about using our tools to maximise human flourishing at scale. It’s about understanding potential trajectories and knowing which ones to pursue rapidly, and which ones to avoid.
A New Era: We’re well beyond that of digital disruption and the resulting corporate power shift. It’s now; Technology Oligarchs versus Nation States. It’s a battle for the ages, and we can expect it to shape the Geo-Political Economy for many years.
Love / Hate Relationship: I can’t remember a time when a set of organisations have been so loved at a consumer-utility level and yet so despised and distrusted at a corporate level. Facebook and Zuckerberg surely win the trophy, but big tech in general, isn’t far behind. It’s easy to understand why – their services are literally indispensable to modern living. And they know it. In many ways we are reluctant captives of an internet which somehow had fences put around it.
Nations v Digital Colonialists: The most recent play from Facebook turning off news in their Australian feed (responding to proposed news-media legislation), should’ve been expected. They are well within their rights to decide what they allow on their service. Likewise, Governments around the world are well within their rights to decide what the laws are within their geographic boundaries. But when Facebook also decided to turn off Quasi-Gov services like health and hospital pages, fire departments, emergency service pages and the like, it should’ve been clear that Zuckerberg couldn’t care less about building a more open and connected society. It was a power play – and it worked. After the event the Australian Treasurer re-negotiated some terms within the legislation. It was despicable corporate behaviour and was not an error as they claimed. The sad part was that the Australian Government didn’t hold its ground. We’d have all been better off.
They’re Just Too Big: While it is refreshing that Governments the world over are finally taking action, against big tech, the real problem isn’t just that ‘independent‘ news reporting is at risk. It’s that big tech, is well, just too big. Zuckerberg now oversees a population of 2.8 billion people’s media consumption and he can never be voted out. He is the single controlling shareholder with 58% of the Facebook’s voting rights. This is more people than any country has or had in the history of the planet, and larger membership than any religion that ever existed.
The High Cost of Free: The free services provided by Facebook (and Google for that matter) are predicated on not paying for raw materials (content we create) and the permanent invasion of privacy and civil rights for which blood was spilled blood to protect. A surveilled society cannot be a free one. Just ask anyone who lived in East Germany. Of course it is a very profitable strategy, but one which is terrible for society and needs serious recalibration and regulation. A simple start would be to reframe the possibilities of data capture. Users should be allowed to choose whether or not those platforms can collect their personal data and use it for targeted advertising—and “no” should be the default setting. That would not only restore users’ eroded privacy, but also provide an opportunity for small scale digital businesses to compete. It would have a much bigger impact than we might imagine.
Leadership: If we want to have a capitalist economy which doesn’t devolve into some kind of Tech Feudalism, or Stasi Economy – then we need leaders at a national political level who can stand up to a bully and start governing less for business interests, and more for society as a whole. If we do that, business will do better in the long run too. It may mean that Governments may also need to remove themselves from the public data hose.
The internet I believe in is one which isn’t dominated by five big websites with screenshots from the other four. We can do better. It’s time to demand it.
– – –