Sat. May 18th, 2024

The race to build a better internet — before it’s too late

By 37ci3 May1,2024

One of the worst attributes of our society at times is the search for someone to blame. Sometimes we prioritize figuring out who is at fault rather than focusing on how to fix the problem.

Our current politics are dominated by debates over who is to blame for various problems. Take immigration: The debate over whom to blame takes up more time and space than the debate about how to implement the various ideas we actually all kinda-sorta agree on for fixing the issue at the center of the blame game.

Even the ideas to mitigate the current immigration problems at the border are tied up in a cycle of paralysis that has been repeated over and over in a number of areas, not just immigration, over the past decade.

In fact, about the only thing the country agrees on is that political polarization has stopped us from solving even the smallest problems. But other than agreeing about the existence of our disagreements, we appear incapable of trying to bridge these hardening divides.

One idea to fix our polarization is to come up with a better incentive structure for our politicians so that they act more often for the greater good than for their own personal gain. Right now, it’s clearly broken.

Look at Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga. All of the incentive structures in her world mean it’s good personal politics for her to create chaos and act like a Congress of one. She can intentionally disrupt Congress for her own whimsical beliefs that benefit no one but her campaign bank account and there is no real downside — for her. She gets more attention and she raises more money, and that allows her to act with some perceived influence, thanks to her online following. The party can cut off her funds and Congress can kick her off committees, and all it does is entrench her even more deeply with her supporters, even if she’s about as productive a member of Congress as expelled former Rep. George Santos, R-N.Y.

She’s an intentional bad actor in the political system, and the system doesn’t have a chance to defeat this threat, thanks to our current information ecosystem. Of course, in politics, perceived “success” is always imitated, and Greene’s antics are constantly being copied to the point that we are on the verge of having a Congress filled with people who derive their power from, essentially, being online influencers, as opposed to actually representing the concerns and well-being of the people they are supposed to represent.

And that brings me to, well, another “blame game” concept.

As I noted at the top, we sometimes become too consumed with the blame game, to the point that we allow it to cloud our ability to solve problems. But what if no political party or politician or outside actor is to blame for America’s “perfect” polarization? What if our preferred communication system has created a perfect behavioral modification that maximizes engagement and minimizes agreement?

What if the big tech companies achieved their ultimate business goal — maximizing engagement on their platforms — in a way that has undermined our ability to function as an open society? What if they realized that when folks agree on a solution to a problem, they are most likely to log off a site or move on?

It sure looks like the people at these major data-hoarding companies have optimized their algorithms to do just that. As a new book argues, Big Tech appears to have perfected a model that has created rhetorical paralysis. Using our own data against us to create dopamine triggers, tech platforms have created “a state of perpetual disagreement across the divide and a concurrent state of perpetual agreement within each side,” authors Frank McCourt and Michael Casey write, adding: “Once this uneasy state of divisive ‘equilibrium’ is established, it creates profit-making opportunities for the platforms to generate revenue from advertisers who prize the sticky highly engaged audiences it generates.”

In their new book, “Our Biggest Fight,” McCourt (a longtime businessman and onetime owner of the Los Angeles Dodgers) and Casey are attempting a call to action akin to Thomas Paine’s 18th century-era “Common Sense.” The book argues that “we must act now to embed the core values of a free, democratic society in the internet of tomorrow.”

The authors believe many of the current ills in society can be traced to how the internet works. “Information is the lifeblood of any society, and our three-decade-old digital system for distributing it is fatally corrupt at its heart,” they write. “It has failed to function as a trusted, neutral exchange of facts and ideas and has therefore catastrophically hindered our ability to gather respectfully to debate, to compromise and to hash out solutions. … Everything, ultimately, comes down to our ability to communicate openly and truthfully with one another. We have lost that ability — thanks to how the internet has evolved away from its open, decentralized ideals.”

As it currently functions, the internet, they argue, “is the primary cause of a pervasive unease in the United States and other democratic societies. The internet explains why our national arguments seem intractable. It’s why every issue is reduced, in public debate, to the lowest common denominator.”

In some ways, like Paine’s “Common Sense,” the book is an attempt to stoke revolution, this time against Big Tech instead of the English monarchy. The book opens with a challenge, similar to the rhetoric of the 1700s in Colonial America: “Do we want to envision, write and be in charge of a future in which we are respected as individuals and in which we can enhance and enrich our society? Or do we want our future to be written by a few giant corporations whose technology, algorithms and devices steadily chip away at our humanity? It’s a choice between human beings and machines.”

And with generative artificial intelligence about to take over the internet, it’s never been more urgent to embed true small-“d” democratic values in it first.

One of the difficulties the authors admit in the book is trying to convince the public that people have been wronged by tech’s monopolization of our personal data for its profits. After all, even as inflation touches so many aspects of our lives (cost of health care, cost of food, cost of housing, etc.), the tech companies have been really good about offering new bells and whistles for nearly nothing. (Do you pay for your Gmail account?) Why is that? Why are they so willing not to charge us for using their services?

Well, imagine that instead of a tech company’s offering up “free” services that we almost mindlessly join, giving these companies universal access to our personas, it was an agency of the U.S. government. Imagine if the U.S. Postal Service offered to give you free stamps for the rest of your life in exchange for the following:

“We will open all your mail. We will keep records of every person you ever communicated with, every business you ever transacted with, every magazine or book you ever purchased. We will install cameras and other monitoring systems in every room of your house, including your bedroom, as well as in your car, and we will use all the information we gather from them to decide what among our product offerings, and those of our clients, to bombard you with pitches for. We will flood your letter box with junk mail to the point that it is constantly overflowing. Oh, and after secretly reading your 13-year-old’s diary, we will send her weight-loss brochures that actively use body-shaming methods that could drive her to anorexia.”

All for free stamps for life! Just click “yes” on this user agreement with a super-small font size.

That user agreement is at the heart of this book. Ultimately, what the authors are imagining is a new internet that essentially flips the user agreement 180 degrees, so that a tech company has to agree to your terms and conditions to use your data and has to seek your permission (perhaps with compensation) to access your entire social map of whom and what you engage with on the internet. Most important, under such an arrangement, these companies couldn’t prevent you from using their services if you refused to let them have your data.

This basic flipping of the relationship seems almost too logical. For whatever reason, despite our societal fear of government databases and government surveillance, we’ve basically handed our entire personas to the techies of Silicon Valley. What are we thinking?

Unlike most anti-Big Tech books, this one isn’t calling for the breakup of companies like Meta, Amazon, Alphabet, Microsoft or Apple. Instead, it’s calling for a new set of laws that protect data so none of those companies gets to own it, either specifically or in the aggregate.

The authors envision an internet where all apps and the algorithms that power them are open source and can be audited at will. They believe that simply preventing these private companies from owning and mapping our data will deprive them of the manipulative marketing and behavioral tactics they’ve used to derive their own power and fortunes at the expense of democracy.

The authors seem mindful that this Congress or a new one isn’t going to act unless the public demands action. And people may not demand this change in our relationship with tech if they don’t have an alternative to point to.

That’s why McCourt, through an organization he founded called Project Liberty, is trying to build our new internet with new protocols that make individual data management a lot easier and second nature. (If you want to understand the tech behind this new internet more, read the book!) There’s a bit of “Field of Dreams” ethos throughout this book, because the authors are convinced that if they build it, users will come. Let’s see whether they are right.

If you are someone concerned about the state of dialogue in society, this book is worth your time. And I sure hope members of Congress consume it, as well. (It’s barely 200 pages, perfect for reading on a plane ride back to the district!)

Is building an internet that is based on the tenets outlined in the Declaration of Independence possible or just some libertarian pipe dream? That’s unclear. But here’s what’s true: This system is broken. We all know it — journalists know it, politicians know it, advertisers know it, and, most important, tech knows it. It’s going to take the collective outcry of the public to truly make change, because there are so many financial incentives protecting this status quo.

Until enough folks in the public square realize that the current information ecosystem is designed to keep us at one another’s throats, not to enhance our ability to solve problems and live our lives as we see fit, we will continue to point fingers more at one another than at the real culprit of our intractable divide. The American public would never choose a government that abused its access to people’s data the way the tech world does. Perhaps the elected representatives of the country will realize that before the AI bots make this challenge exponentially harder.

Biden’s challenge is much greater than we realize

If President Joe Biden is to win a second term, he’s going to have to do it while having a nearly majority of the country wishing it could elect someone else. The most recent Pew Research Center survey had a fascinating question that produced one of the more compelling analyses I’ve seen about the true nature of Biden voters and Trump voters.

As you can see, half of all voters surveyed said they would like to see both Biden and former President Donald Trump replaced on the ballot.

But note how those voters break when they’re forced to choose between the two candidates they wish weren’t running. A whopping 62% of Biden voters would prefer that both Biden and Trump weren’t on the ballot. That’s a lot of “hold your nose” voters.

For Trump, the mix of double-haters versus core supporters is more of a 1-to-1 ratio.

What does that mean? Biden’s challenge is even greater than we realize.

As Biden himself is fond of saying: Don’t judge him against the almighty but against the alternative. Well, it’s clear the only way he wins at this point is if he convinces enough people that a second Trump term isn’t worth the risk no matter how disappointed they have been in Biden’s first term.

It’s something that isn’t easy to pull off as an incumbent. Emmanuel Macron, the president of France, did win re-election despite arguably being even more unpopular than Biden. But the threat of a Marine Le Pen-led far-right government was enough to move France’s disgruntled middle to reluctantly re-elect Macron.

Outside of that recent French example, I’m struggling to think of many elections in which someone has won with such tepid support. Trump has more supporters who are more enthusiastic about a second term than Biden does. In a lower-turnout election, that’s a huge advantage, and as I wrote last week, the possibility of a lower-turnout election is higher than we think, given the country’s lack of interest in this presidential rematch.

Bottom line: The country would prefer a new president, and it might have already given up on Biden. But neither party is offering the country anything or anyone new.

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By 37ci3

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