Ethical Technology, 3

Continuing these thoughts in a meandering sort of way (Part 1Part 2 → You Are Here).

Yesterday I was talking about the filter bubbles that we are so easily caught within—especially on the internet, where an algorithmic approach to dealing with information begins with benign personalization, but can lead to a very real distortion of our worldview. The better the machine knows you, the more it tints your windows to your liking. On the one hand, it’s a surprising turn of events for those who have been engaging online since the days of Geocities—once a thriving a diverse community with one major thing in common: virtuality; now a ghetto in a snow globe. On the other, it’s human nature. We want the world to look more like us. It’s safer that way.

Today, the economics of the internet.

Just as we thought that the internet would increase the existential weight of diversity, we also believed it would evenly distribute opportunity and wealth. But that is not what has happened. Instead, the internet has apparently only further isolated wealth to the very few. When I mentioned this to a friend, his face took on a very distinct mix of confusion and distress—a look that is the result of knowing dissent but not what to make of it—and said,

“Well, what about email? Everyone uses email and benefits from it!”

I thought about that momentarily and realized that email was actually a perfect example of my point. Yes, email is in many ways a wonderful communication tool. For people like me, who lead in small companies and therefore have a large amount of autonomy, a fairly short line exists between tools like email and real, monetary value. But for most people who actively use email—aside from their personal use—their productivity has increased over time but out of proportion with their economic gain. Most people today are not earning substantially more than they were 10 or so years ago, taking inflation into account. Yet, corporations are making far more than they were 10 years ago (I dare you to Google “corporate profits vs wages” and not drown in the charts, but here’s a comprehensible one). Among other things, this shows that the corporation derives the value from technologies like email, but the individual does not. And, of course, this is just one isolated technology. The same could obviously be said about social media technology when you consider the vast number of hours we spend immersed in social networks which offer users virtually zero monetary value.

On that note, Edge.org recently pointed a camera at Jaron Lanier and let him talk for an hour, the result being a pretty fascinating point of view on the economics of the internet, or as Lanier calls it, “The Local-Global Flip.” If you’ve got an hour to spare, I’d recommend it. But on the social media side of things, here’s a quote I pulled from it (there’s no fancy technological way available for me to do this other than starting/typing/stopping/rewinding/starting/typing/etc., by the way):

“I’m really kind of astonished at how readily a great many people I know—young people—have accepted a reduced economic prospect and limited freedoms, in any meaningful way, and traded them for being able to screw around online. There’s a lot of people who feel that being able to get their video or their tweet to be seen by somebody once in a while gives them enough ego gratification that it’s ok with them to be still living with their parents in their thirties. That’s such a strange tradeoff and if you project that forward obviously it really does become a problem. I think that leads to a world that Wells and Kurt Vonnegut and many others wrote about where there just is enough virtual bread and circuses—just barely enough to keep the poor in check and they just kind of whither away through attrition or something.”

I think implicit in all of this is a very good question as to the meaning of progress.

I’ve quoted from Howard Rheingold already in this series of posts, so I’ll do it again. This come’s from The Virtual Community:

“What does it mean that the same hopes, described in the same words, for a decentralization of power, a deeper and more widespread citizen involvement in matters of state, a great equalizer for ordinary citizens to counter the forces of central control, have been voiced in the popular press for two centuries in reference to steam, electricity, and television? We’ve had enough time to live with steam, electricity, and television to recognize that they did indeed change the world, and to recognize that the utopia of technological millenarians has not yet materialized. An entire worldview and sales job are packed into the word progress, which links the notion of improvement with the notion of innovation, highlights the benefits of innovation while hiding the toxic side-effects of extractive and lucrative technologies, and then sells more of it to people via television as a cure for the stress of living in a technology-dominated world. The hope that the next technology will solve the problems created by the way the last technology was used is a kind of millennial, even messianic, hope, apparently ever-latent in the breasts of the citizenry. The myth of technological progress emerged out of the same Age of Reason that gave us the myth of representative democracy, a new organizing vision that still works pretty well, despite the decline in vigor of the old democratic institutions. It’s hard to give up on one Enlightenment ideal while clinging to another.”

As I write this I realize that the lines between the economics of the internet and the politics of the internet are extraordinarily fuzzy, if not in some ways nonexistent. After all, economies are political structures, and political structures are economic. What Rheingold had his eye on back in 2000 is how this particular technology—which was already scaling beyond most other discreet technologies in history in terms of use and application—brought to the surface not only issues of politics and economy, but deeper, more foundational ideas of progress, even purpose.

Ten years later, immersed in it as we are, it is difficult not to follow the question of the purpose of the internet with another one: What is our purpose?