Jonathan Freeland writes that the Cambridge Analytica story reveals that the rich and the powerful have hijacked the internet. It was not supposed to be this way:
In its infancy, the internet was hailed as a harbinger of equality and liberty. The new gospel held that “information wants to be free” – free from censorship and free of charge. A new techno-utopia seemed at hand. Or as Zuckerberg defined his company’s purpose: “Facebook gives people the power to share and make the world more open and connected."
Thanks to social media, the internet had apparently decentralised power. In the old days, information was passed down from the mountain top – by a government, say, or a news organisation – to the crowd below. Now the crowd could speak to each other and to the world. At least one aspect of the techno-utopians’ early hopes seemed to have materialised.
But recent revelations have shown us what has really been going on. Instead of upending the pyramid, social media have firmly entrenched the pyramid:
For what we now understand is that those at the top, the political parties or governments that could afford it, have been engaged in a radical act of recentralising power. They saw the way social media was working, empowering individuals and networks of individuals, and they decided to grab those same weapons for themselves.
What Cambridge Analytica promised its clients was a return to the old form of media distribution, with those at the top sending their message to the crowd below. Except this time, that message would be disguised as if it were the organic word of the crowd itself, spread virally from one person to another, with no traces or fingerprints left by those at the top. As a Cambridge Analytica executive said, unwittingly caught on film: “We just put information into the bloodstream of the internet and then watch it grow … it’s unattributable, untrackable.”
What's to be done? Freeland writes that there are several options:
It could be regulation; it could be anti-trust legislation to break up those tech giants that act as virtual monopolies. I like Derakhshan’s idea of obliging Facebook and others to open up a marketplace of algorithms: if you don’t like the current social media preference for popularity (retweets) and novelty (“latest”), you should be free to choose a different algorithm that acts on different values.
Unfettered algorithims -- like an unfettered market -- cause disasters.
Are what we seeing are the unforeseen or less than adequately foreseen consequences of societies built on old rules and mores, aggregated over too much time, that have simply lost their utility. This enfeebled "system" is constantly being gamed, confounding our understandings of how the system operated and safeguarded our vital and fundamental interests.
We have for too long tolerated a shift in our political model, a severing of the bond between the elected and those who put them in office. Once installed they too often allow themselves to be captured by narrow interests seeking to defeat or at least degrade the public interest.
Here's a litmus test. Today humanity confronts the greatest threat, by far, in the 12,000 year history of civilization: the very real possibility of a 6th mass extinction. This would be the first such event driven by one species, our own. Since the turn of the 20th century we have doubled our longevity. In the post war era we have tripled our population threefold to a staggering 7.5 plus billion. We have nearly tripled our per capita GDP - production, consumption and waste. We are rapidly running out of resources, everything from arable soil to the growing mountains of junk we too quickly discard. The environment is beginning to wobble, presaging collapse and yet our political caste, Liberal at the moment but also the Conservatives and even the NDP, clamor for growth - perpetual, exponential growth in GDP.
From our side that looks like sheer madness. We don't understand that, to our political caste and those they serve, it looks much differently. We, out of concern for our children and grandchildren and generations that may follow, must take a long-term view. The narrow interests and the politicians in their thrall, take a short-term perspective - the next election, the next annual report,the next shareholders' meeting. You cannot reconcile the two and yet those we elect and the systems they perpetuate are squarely adverse to our own.
By the time "they" change it will probably be much too late for us.
We're clearly running out of time, Mound. And our structures -- political, economic and social -- refuse to recognize that fact.
Highly evolved apes. Narcissistic, acquisitive apes. After all is said and done - apes.
Apes or Darker Angels. They're the same, Deacon.
Thanks for the link, Mound. This business does present an opportunity -- if we choose to take it.
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