"How did the internet get so broken?"
That question anchors season three of "Crazy/Genius," the tech podcast hosted by Derek Thompson of The Atlantic. Its preview trailer runs through a litany of problems linked to the internet, from surveillance to misinformation to algorithmic bias. "What if we just tried turning it off for, like, a week," jokes Vox's Jane Coaston, "just to see what would happen?"
The ill effects of the internet are also examined in a clutch of current books — from "Coders," by journalist Clive Thompson (no relation to Derek) to "Tools and Weapons," by Microsoft president Brad Smith and Carol Ann Browne.
In "Coders," Thompson profiles programmers at social media giants including Facebook, Instagram and Pinterest and examines their role in making the internet what it is today. Early America was run by lawyers, he observes, and 20th-century America by engineers. Now the coders are in charge. They have played a disproportionate role in creating the major internet platforms, transforming economies, cultures and governments in the process. That's less than ideal, Thompson believes, because coders are disproportionately young, white men from privileged backgrounds who design products to solve problems in their own lives: "When you have a homogenous cohort of people making software and hardware, they tend to produce work that works great for them but can be useless, or even a disaster, for people in other walks of life."
In "Beyond the Valley," media studies professor Ramesh Srinivasan extends that critique to include a geographic caveat: "Chinese, Western, and white male interests dominate the content and systems that power the internet, rather than those who reflect the full diversity of us online," he writes. We were promised "an internet that acts as a 'global village' ... that creates, or at least supports, equality," but that's an internet "we haven't yet received."
The pursuit of profits — that is, the internet's transition from a noncommercial Eden for researchers and hobbyists into a bonanza of capitalism — is another force driving things off the rails. The founders of Instagram didn't "actively set out to erode anyone's self-esteem," says Thompson. But the need to continually expand the user base to fuel ad sales — by encouraging people to showcase their best moments in the addictive pursuit of "likes" — overrode concerns about the feelings of inadequacy and the unhealthy fear of missing out that users were reporting. "The money was deforming decisions — what code gets written and why." Srinivasan concurs, pointing out that many of the big tech companies "are branded as public, civic, and virtuous but, in reality, are dominated by a single logic — extending profitability and economic value."
Technologists' relentless focus on efficiency has also led us astray. Coders enjoy automating and optimising, but "even the programmers themselves can be surprised, and disenchanted, by how their zeal for optimisation can produce unexpected and freaky side effects," says Thompson. "Uber flooded the streets … with cars, which was terrific for riders — but less so for drivers, many of whom began to find it harder and harder to piece together a steady living, given the frenetic competition." Srinivasan contends that "efficiency on our consumer platforms can … disturb our sense of security and privacy." Targeted ads are incredibly efficient, for example, but they can also be incredibly creepy.
The relentless drive toward optimisation relies on an entirely new category of workers who toil behind the scenes. In "Ghost Work," anthropologist Mary Gray and computer scientist Siddharth Suri explore the lives of people who, using crowdsourcing marketplaces like Amazon Turk, carry out essential online microtasks, such as cleaning up Amazon's databases, filtering harmful content for Google and labeling data sets to fuel machine-learning algorithms. The book reveals that although some internet work is rewarded and celebrated, much of it is poorly compensated and invisible, and takes a sometimes devastating human toll.
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Even assuming that, overall, the internet does far more good than harm, it will remain broken unless our institutions, culture and policies are adapted to make the most of it. And that challenge is becoming only more urgent as more people come online. As technologist Jim Cashel writes in "The Great Connecting," it took 25 years from the launch of the web browser Mosaic, in 1993, for half the world to come online. But the other half will gain access in the next three to five years. He asks: "What are the major players involved in connecting the planet doing to prepare [for] expanded connectivity?" Cashel's advice boils down to: anticipate, facilitate, mitigate, regulate and celebrate. To date, there's been too much of the last and too little of all the rest — especially regulation. Cashel calls for an international "digital tribunal" that would help countries coordinate regulatory efforts; at the same time, he supports subsidies to accelerate global broadband deployment.
For Gray and Suri, a first step in fixing the internet is empathy. We all need to recognise what happens behind the scenes of the sites and services we use every day and better understand the consequences of our actions. They recommend that more ghost work platforms take a "double bottom line" approach to their business, balancing profits with concern for and development of their workforce. Srinivasan would like to put more control in the hands of users and argues for spreading a more robust version of digital literacy that includes "the capacity to reflect, analyse, and create" so that more of us can contribute to technological development.
In "Tools and Weapons," Microsoft's Smith, who is an attorney, puts his hope in the rule of law. "The tech sector cannot address these challenges by itself," he writes. "The world needs a mixture of self-regulation and government action." That means more than just the public sector holding the private one to account; it also works the other way around. To illustrate, Smith points to Microsoft's decision to sue the U.S. government after the National Security Agency issued warrants requiring the company to turn over customer data.
In order to improve the internet, we must fight against the tendency to ignore its tremendous potential. A few years ago, a Reddit user wondered what would be the hardest thing to explain to someone arriving from 50 years in the past. One user answered: "I possess a device, in my pocket, that is capable of accessing the entirety of information known to man," adding: "I use it to look at pictures of cats and get in arguments with strangers."
I love that quote, because it so perfectly captures our inability to put the internet to good use. Surely we can do better.
Written by: Walter Frick
© 2019 Harvard Business School Publishing Corp. Distributed by The New York Times Licensing Group