The original sin of the digital utopians

There’s a fascinating mea culpa in Jaron Lanier’s new book Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now. On loc 411 he describes how early design decisions, inspired by the libertarian ethos taking hold within the tech community, created the openings for the global monopolies we now see emerging:

Originally, many of us who worked on scaling the internet hoped that the thing that would bring people together—that would gain network efect and lock-in—would be the internet itself. But there was a libertarian wind blowing, so we left out many key functions. The internet in itself didn’t include a mechanism for personal identity, for instance. Each computer has its own code number, but people aren’t represented at all. Similarly, the internet in itself doesn’t give you any place to store even a small amount of persistent information, any way to make or receive payments, or any way to find other people you might have something in common with. Everyone knew that these functions and many others would be needed. We figured it would be wiser to let entrepreneurs fill in the blanks than to leave that task to government. What we didn’t consider was that fundamental digital needs like the ones I just listed would lead to new kinds of massive monopolies because of network efects and lock-in. We foolishly laid the foundations for global monopolies. We did their hardest work for them. More precisely, since you’re the product, not the customer of social media, the proper word is “monopsonies.” Our early libertarian idealism resulted in gargantuan, global data monopsonies.

If I understand him correctly, he is suggesting that these functions could have been built into the infrastructure of the internet itself rather than becoming services fulfilled by corporate providers. This passage reminded me of a recent keynote by danah boyd, reflecting on how utopian dreams concerning digital technology have come to seem untenable with time:

A decade ago, academics that I adore were celebrating participatory culture as emancipatory, noting that technology allowed people to engage with culture in unprecedented ways. Radical leftists were celebrating the possibilities of decentralized technologies as a form of resisting corporate power. Smart mobs were being touted as the mechanism by which authoritarian regimes could come crashing down.

Now, even the most hardened tech geek is quietly asking:

What hath we wrought?

This intellectual utopianism concerned the products of the original digital utopians themselves, innovators who sought to “disrupt the status quo, but weren’t at all prepared for what it would mean when they controlled the infrastructure underlying democracy, the economy, the media, and communication”. Recognising the role of dreams in shaping technology isn’t just a matter of how they inspire people to create but also recognising what happens when they go wrong. These aren’t just a froth of naiveté on the surface of a dark materiality lurking beneath. They are rather a force in their own right, changing the world they sought to improve as the ambitions underlying them curdle in the darkening reality they have contributed to.

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