The internet broke free speech

The idea of free speech is great and highly important. But when it emerged it could do comparatively little damage, because most individuals had no reach beyond their personal network and the market square. So no matter how silly and possibly damaging something someone said was — the harm was fairly contained. Sure, ideas still traveled. But it took much longer and required extraordinary circumstances.

Now times are different. Anyone with street smartness and a certain intuitive understanding for how to emotionally trigger people can use the internet and tech platforms to spread their message to a huge crowd.

In such an environment, applying the old principle of free speech means that even the most absurd, 100 % fact-free bullshit could instantly be spread to the masses. Sadly, the masses cannot be trusted with being great at filtering out the bullshit, as history has taught us over and over again.

The internet has disrupted free speech, and now the question is: How to move forward. The case of Alex Jones and Infowars shows that the leading tech platforms inevitably become the arbitrators of “truth”. This is extremely undesirable, but also unavoidable — because the alternative of having demagogues, hatemongers and manipulators spread their messages to millions of people at basically zero cost is even worse (and this of course extends to various spheres of extremist ideologies).

On a small-scale level, freedom of speech must prevail. But on the giant scale where the tech platforms operate, it cannot. Which truly sucks. It’s a wide open can of worms. But seriously what other option is there?

Freedom of speech must be defended. But there cannot be an universal “right to distribution”.

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Is Digital Capitalism Aligned With Public Interest? Probably not.

2017 has been (another) very eventful year. The consequences of the shift to digital are more apparent and far-reaching than ever. When reflecting on the trends that currently are reshaping the world, one can take many perspectives. What I consistently end up with when pondering current events, is the following question: In the digital age, is “traditional” capitalism still sufficiently aligned with the interests of the people? And my answers is: probably not. Read on why, and what Swiss cheese has to do with it.

The basic idea of capitalism is clever: acknowledging that the pursuit of self-interest is the best motivator for people to get stuff done, and then building a framework which ensures that the results of this pursuit are channeled into overall improvements for everybody. Genius. And this approach indeed has led to unprecedented wealth, growth and prosperity, over many decades, if not centuries (depending on where you look and when you start counting). Continue Reading

The internet brings people into space

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During the Q&A following a talk with the a16z investor and Netscape inventor Marc Andreessen at Stanford Graduate School of Business (54 minute-long video recording here, very worth watching), a student sitting in the audience asked the Silicon Valley mastermind about his advice for people who have big ideas that might be very capital intensive. The questioner managed to score some laughter after quoting Elon Musk who – according to him – answered the same question a few years ago with the recommendation to “become an internet billionaire first”.

That’s witty. But it is also the truth. Musk used money he had earned from various deals in the online industry (including his biggest exit PayPal, which was acquired for $1.5 billion and made him a 9-digit sum in USD) to fund the initial stages of both his electrical car company Tesla and his rocket company SpaceX – to the point at which he literally ran out of cash. Without the dotcom companies that the South Africa-born serial entrepreneur did launch and sell before he took on the really big problems, Tesla and SpaceX might not exist. Continue Reading

The internet does to the world what radio did to the world

Over the holidays, I finally found the time to read Marshall McLuhan’s book “Understanding media” (I might have spent time with it during my studies but definitely didn’t pay too much attention back then). Last year, hardly a week went by without me stumbling upon a text which made a reference to the book and its most famous phrase, “The medium is the message”. Now I understand why. McLuhan’s media criticism laid out in his 1964 work feels incredibly contemporary. Occasionally to an almost scary degree.

Among the parts that intrigued me the most were the following three paragraphs, which in my opinion are very suitable to describe current media dynamics and societal events – if one, while reading, replaces the term “radio” with “internet” and “Hitler” with whoever comes to mind.

“That Hitler came into political existence at all is directly owing to radio and public-address systems. This is not to say that these media relayed his thoughts effectively to the German people. His thoughts were of very little consequence. Radio provided the first massive experience of electronic implosion, that reversal of the entire direction and meaning of literate Western civilization. For tribal peoples, for those whose entire social existence is an extension of family life, radio will continue to be a violent experience. Highly literate societies, that have long subordinated family life to individualist stress in business and politics, have managed to absorb and to neutralize the radio implosion without revolution. Not so, those communities that have had only brief or superficial experience of literacy. For them, radio is utterly explosive.

“The power of radio to retribalize mankind, its almost instant reversal of individualism into collectivism, Fascist or Marxist, has gone unnoticed. So extraordinary is this unawareness that it is what needs to be explained. The transforming power of media is easy to explain, but the ignoring of this power is not at all easy to explain. It goes without saying that the universal ignoring of the psychic action of technology bespeaks some inherent function, some essential numbing of consciousness such as occurs under stress and shock conditions.”

“Just as we now try to control atom-bomb fallout, so we will one day try to control media fallout. Education will become recognized as civil defense against media fallout. The only medium for which our education now offers some civil defense is the print medium. The educational establishment, founded on print, does not yet admit any other responsibilities.

Clearly, education has failed to offer a large-scale civil defense against internet fallout.

Update: Have a look at the excellent comment discussion about the thoughts in this post on Hacker News.

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Photo: Flickr/Alan Levine, CC BY 2.0

Turns out, the Internet is no big “world improvement machine”

Data Center

This year the World Wide Web celebrated its 25th anniversary. The Internet as underlying technological platform is about twice as old. Compared to a human life that’s a significant amount. But compared to the historic existence of humanity and to other groundbreaking inventions of the past, the Internet (and the web) are still green behind the ears.

In consequence, any prediction and analysis about the Internet’s short, mid and long term impact on life and people is flawed and inevitably incomplete. The insane complexity that is being added to the world through global connectivity requires a level of systems thinking which no one is capable of. Generally, it’s only in hindsight that a technology’s importance and implications can objectively be assessed. Today, we know very well how the printing press, electricity and the railway have changed the world. When it comes to the Internet, there cannot be any hindsight yet, since it is still so young. Basically, everyone is totally clueless.

However, with each year that passes, the number of data points and information bits about the Internet’s effects on society and humanity is growing. While no one has the full picture yet, this year something is getting more obvious than ever before: The Internet is increasingly being utilized for goals contrary to what its proponents initially hoped for, which would be a more open, more democratic, more prosperous, more knowledgeable, more equal world. Continue Reading

The Internet is the first global platform for the exchange of ideologies

One of the main building blocks of the commercial Internet are platforms; online places where two or more groups with matching demands and needs can connect to exchange goods, services or information. Among the most well-known and widely used platforms are social networks like Facebook (where multiple parties with a variety of needs and demands are involved), Uber (where people who need to get from a A to B connect with people who are willing to drive them from A to B), Airbnb (where people with housing space connect with people who need an accommodation), Wikipedia (where people with time and knowledge provide information for people who are in need of knowledge) or classifieds sites and e-commerce market places such as Craigslist and eBay. While platforms can take on different looks and shapes, a major characteristic is that the operators of platforms try to let demand and supply find itself as freely as possible. Especially when it comes to legal proceedings, the companies behind those platforms regularly claim that they only provide the technical infrastructure and operational framework, but that the users of that platform are the ones responsible for their actions. Platforms have evolved as one of the superior forms of how interactions and transactions happen on the Internet, and they will for sure keep growing and expanding.

Looking at the idea and mechanism of platforms from a more abstract point of view, here is a thought, or rather an analogy: The Internet itself can be considered one large platform. A platform whose users utilize it for the purpose of globally offering and “consuming” ideologies, cultural ideas and thought concepts. This is something completely new to humanity, groundbreaking but also not easy to digest. Continue Reading