The death and ultimate rebirth of the public internet
"What we need is to spend less time on Facebook."
Brian Bergstein isn't your normal Facebook basher. He is a former executive editor of the MIT Technology Review, among other tech-journalist credentials. In an April 10, 2017, article, Bergstein argues in favor of a social network that isn't privately owned. He points out the irremediable flaws of Facebook, which he describes as promoting "polarization and tribalism" by magnifying people's own world view at the exclusion of all contrasting viewpoints.
Bergstein's principal objection to Facebook is that "the services that we get from Facebook are requiring us to give up something that is very hard to ever get back." He links to a Washington Post article that compiles the 98 separate pieces of private information Facebook collects about its users.
Facebook has "an outsized role in our society," according to Bergstein: 68 percent of adults in the U.S. use Facebook, according to the Pew Research Center. It is one of the five largest companies in the world, valued at $400 billion. The biggest threat of all: Facebook has no competitors. That's what Bergstein is hoping will change.
Could there be a social network that focuses on informing its members rather than on collecting and monetizing their personal information? Bergstein suggests niche networks modeled after National Public Radio or PBS. Just as television blossomed once audiences had more than three channels to choose from, social networks won't come into their "golden age" until people have alternatives.
Silicon Valley's Robber Barons take control of the internet
Apple, Google (a.k.a. Alphabet), Microsoft, Amazon, and Facebook are the five largest companies in the world. Here's a scorecard, courtesy of AlterNet's Don Hazen in an April 17, 2016, article:
What do Page, Brin, Zuckerberg, and Bezos have in common besides more money than mere mortals can comprehend? According to Hazen, they all possess "antidemocratic, monopoly-oriented, radical libertarianism values." In fact, the only Tech Titan who wasn't guilty of holding such anti-humanitarian world views was Steve Jobs, the guy who Hazen claims "probably did more to raise the halo effect of tech than anybody."
Hazen interviews Jonathan Taplin, author of "Move Fast and Break Things: How Facebook, Google and Amazon Cornered Culture and Undermined Democracy," According to Taplin, the leader of this tech cabal of Ayn Rand acolytes is Peter Thiel, PayPal founder, hero of white supremacists and nazis, and rumored to be the Rough Beast's next Supreme Court nominee.
Taplin highlights the difference between Apple and Google in a single telling example. If a recording artist had 1 million song downloads on iTunes, they would make $900,000. If the same artist recorded 1 million YouTube downloads, they would make $900. Now consider that "a kid in Macedonia with a Facebook page and a Google AdSense account could make $10,000 a week putting out" fake news.
Which company would you rather do business with?
Media in shambles, internet platforms in clover
Taplin offers other sad examples of the effects of the takeover of the internet by libertarian techies. Newspaper and music revenues dropped 70 percent between 2001 and 2015. The human face on the decimation of the music industry is Levon Helm, who wasn't able to make a living from his music because he could no longer tour. If you went on YouTube, you would see that his song "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" had more than 1 million downloads. Yet according to Taplin, Levon Helm made not one penny.
Now multiply that by tens of thousands, or hundreds of thousands if you include print media, and you start to see the devastation wrought by Silicon Valley's winner-take-all approach to society. With money and ownership of the most used platforms on the internet, the tech plutocrats can manipulate public opinion (and elections) as easily as the rest of us adjust our undies.
Want to reduce the Democratic vote count in Michigan? Send young people in Detroit a "piece of content" stating that Hillary Clinton called young African-American men predators. It's just that simple! Or if you're a Koch brother, promise to give any member of Congress $2 million in "ad spending" if they vote against whatever legislation the billionaires oppose.
As Johnny Rotten said, "Ever get the feeling you've been cheated?"
A new, decentralized internet: 'Like starting over'
Monopolies are bad for innovation. That's why people such as tech investor Albert Wenger believe the time has come to break free of the monopolistic internet platforms by creating a "decentralized infrastructure." If that sounds familiar, you might remember the original World Wide Web from 20 years ago, which was as decentralized as any network has ever been.
In a January 13, 2017, article on MIT Technology Review, Tom Simonite describes Wenger's recent investment in a technology called Blockstack that is developing an open-source "parallel universe to the web we know." With Blockstack, you'll use the same browser and visit the same sites, but you won't have to create any accounts for Google, Facebook, or any other service.
Instead, you gain access by allowing the site to read your profile, which always resides on your local machine or device. You maintain control over the profile, and when you want to stop using the service, you revoke access to your profile. Everything happens locally, so your profile information never travels to the site's servers, theoretically.
Because Blockstack is based on a blockchain ledger system, there is no central authority controlling profiles and access. Blockstack remedies one of the biggest problems with the web, according to Simonite: the lack of a built-in, independent identity system. This one missing feature has allowed a handful of private companies to collect and lay claim to billions of dollars' worth of private information.
Simonite points out that Blockstack is one of several projects planned to decentralize the internet. One of the programs underway at MIT is called SOLID and is led by none other than the web's creator, Tim Berners-Lee.
I'm ready to say anything's better than the internet we have now, so bring on the decentralization!
Some jobs are more equal than others: Much attention has been given to the loss of jobs in the mining and manufacturing industries. Paul Krugman offers an interesting perspective on the reasons job losses in the coal industry in particular have been hyped by the press. AlterNet's Ilana Novick writes in an April 17, 2017, article that the retail industry lost 500,000 jobs between 2001 and 2017, which represents one-third of all retail employees and is 18 times the number of jobs lost by the coal industry over the same period.
How about the 270,000 newspaper jobs lost since 2000, which is nearly two-thirds of the total workforce? According to Krugman, Republicans would rather focus on coal and manufacturing because it's easy for the pols to blame government regulation promoted by "liberals" for their job losses. This lie plays well with the white men who make up most of the idled workers in the mining and manufacturing industries.
Preparing for the 'location-independent' economy: I'm a big fan of telecommuting, but I never envisioned anything like the location-independent economy Yonatan Zunger describes in an April 15, 2017, article on NewCo Shift. Zunger forecasts that there will be far fewer location-dependent jobs in coming decades because most such tasks will be automated. When most jobs are location-independent, companies will no longer exert great influence over specific communities.
More importantly, people will choose where they live based on factors other than the location's proximity to their employer. Regions are less likely to be subject to the ups and downs of a single company or industry, while at the same time, social roles now tied to employment status will be completely rewired. It's an understatement to say the rise of the location-independent workforce will have tremendous implications for government and business: from infrastructure planning to social stratification.
'Facts are fragile, and the truth is flexible': The modern version of the old Firesign Theater gag, "How can you be in two places at once when you're not anywhere at all?" is "How can two people agree on what is 'true' when they can't even agree on what is a 'fact'?" Casey Williams writes in an April 17, 2017, opinion column in the New York Times that there was a time "when Americans agreed on matters of fact — when debates about policy were guided by a commitment to truth and reason."
It's a little too rosy to think everyone was so reasonable in the old days. After all, there were lots of wars back then, and lots of barbaric behavior. However, there was more trust for science a couple of decades ago than there is now.
Williams suggests that rather than focusing on whether a statement is true or false, we ask "how and why it was made and what effects it produces when people feel it to be true." Appealing to "common sense" and gut feelings, as so many modern politicians love to do, is the fast track to extinction.
We all have to keep in mind that whatever firm beliefs we hold could turn out to be flat-out wrong. In other words, don't be so sure. (That's a lesson I'm re-learning all the time.)