Nikola Tesla was thinking of radio in 1904 when he wrote, “the entire earth will be converted into a huge brain, as it were, capable of response in every one of its parts,” but he may as well have been writing about the Internet.
I’ve been thinking about the web, and the future, because I will be launching a futurist podcast network next year, and also because I prefer thinking about the future to the thinking about the past. I’m immune to nostalgia. Must be a character flaw. Besides, I’ve got some good company in the future. There are Big Thinkers pointing their laser-focused minds toward What Will Happen. Here are a few sources that I’ve enjoyed reading.
The End Of Trust, published by McSweeney’s, is an awesome collection of essays, interviews, and statistics that I’ve been underlining and highlighting like mad. The launch pad for its collection of ideas is how our trust in tech companies is eroding because of hacking, data mining, corporate surveillance, and law enforcement’s abuses of power. It is hitting home for me, and not only because I deleted my Facebook account last week.
As Sara Wachtel-Boettcher says in her perceptive essay, everything happens so much. The Internet has changed a lot since I became an early enthusiast of Twitter in 2009. Twitter has turned ugly, an underground replacement for it called Mastodon can also turn mean, and Facebook has betrayed user trust so often it’s not even worth making a joke about it. Still, I believe in what the Internet can be, and I believe in its early promise, as Jonathan Taplin describes so well in Move Fast and Break Things, and Tim Wu breaks down in The Master Switch.
Wu’s book describes how industrial and tech history repeats itself. New communications technologies begin as “optimistic and open media, each of which, in time, became a closed and controlled industry.” History, he writes, shows how information technology begins as a hobby and eventually turns into an industry; from an accessible, open channel to one strictly controlled.
The promise of the Internet was wrapped up in its openness. It was amazing how Twitter allowed you to talk with almost anybody, how platforms like Facebook, WordPress, SoundCloud, and Amazon allowed you to publish whatever you wanted. Some of that capability is still there, but mostly the web has turned against us, used by corporate and government interests as a means of control, used to gather information about us to be sold to third parties.
The authors in The End of Trust compilation include Edward Snowden, Jenna Wortham, Cory Doctorow, Reyhan Harmanci, Sara Wachtel-Boettcher, and many others. The first printing quickly sold out. When McSweeney’s has it back in print it’s worth your time.
While you’re waiting for it, you can be morbidly entertained by Bruce Schneier’s books Data and Goliath and Click Here to Kill Everybody. He’s a cryptographer, cybersecurity expert, and crafter of the best book titles. Data and Goliath is about how corporations collect your data. Click Here to Kill Everybody compellingly extends his arguments into the Internet of Things. So now you can worry about not just your email being hacked, but also your car.
How did all this happen? Taplin‘ s book Move Fast and Break Things is a good place to start. Taplin writes that although the Internet was born from “the marriage of counterculture idealism and Defense Department funding in the 1960s,” by 2002 it has been transformed into a vast surveillance platform controlled by “a new cadre of libertarian übermenschen, a group of men who believed they had both the brilliance and the moral fortitude to operate outside the normal structures of law and taxes.”
Peter Thiel, Larry Page, Jeff Bezos, and Mark Zuckerberg talk about uniting the world, making information freely available, and cataloging everything (well, not Thiel — he doesn’t bother with any positive PR-friendly talk.). They all believe in not asking for permission before taking over your data and using it for their own purposes. They don’t have much interest in privacy. (Except their own, of course. Zuckerberg has bought the houses surrounding his house to increase his buffer zone to keep the public away from him. But he wants you to keep sharing.)
Taplin points out that the Internet was supposed to be a boon for artists by clearing away the gatekeepers. We all would be able to post what we wanted. This is still true, but the monetary value of a creator’s work has been steadily drained away for platforms offering it for free. Publications, writers, musicians, podcasters, and others are working hard to solve this problem before they go completely broke.
I’m confident that we will solve the problem of offering creative work online— but how we will do it is the subject of another post. For now, looking into how we got here will point the way to the future and to solutions.