Sooner or later, the world will have to try and get a grip with the pace of technological changeby Tom Clark / January 26, 2018 / Leave a comment
Only two decades ago, when Google was founded, the internet was on the fringes of real life, a place for misfit students to hang out. Their parents may have heard of the web, but were clueless about it.
Today, in many respects, the internet is real life. It is where we shop, work and connect with lovers and friends. It has become the streets in which we trade insults, and the town square where we protest. Smartphones are, almost literally, our window on the world. The web is our way into every form of culture, and often the only way to find out what’s going on.
But if all human life can be found online, what humans do there is, increasingly, led by guiding hands. John Naughton charts the insidious evolution of a free and ungoverned cyberspace into a pleasure garden for five giant corporations. Two of them, Google and Facebook, have acquired an all-seeing eye to make the Stasi burn with envy. And their business model rewards them for knitting us in ever-more tightly.
The result is a strange and novel form of influence, on top of the more familiar monopoly power which Amazon, Apple and Microsoft also possess to varying degrees. Sometimes the new power is not sought: Facebook did not plan to warp the US election in 2016, but nonetheless played its part in facilitating the spread of dubious communications (James Ball). None of the tech giants set out to subvert the world of letters and ideas either, but collectively that is what they’ve done (Houman Barekat).
There can be no going back to a pre-internet age. Ideally, we would instead run the web like the indispensible utility it has become—regulating the prying profiteers in the same way that past reformers like Theodore Roosevelt tamed the robber barons of the time.
But there are formidable challenges: for one, the question of whether politicians could be trusted to get involved without succumbing to the sort of self-serving meddling that is seen in places like China (Yuan Ren). For another, regulation of a worldwide web needs worldwide co-operation.
That’s never easy, and especially not when Donald Trump’s Washington is actually moving against net neutrality, one of the few regulatory checks we have against corporate capture (Hannah Jane Parkinson).
But sooner or later, the world will have to try and get a grip. If not, we’ll be stuck with a civilisation that’s all tangled up in the web.