I was listening to Andrew Keen, digital sceptic, giving a keynote at a conference. He was lambasting the way in which the internet had developed, and the fact that it had gifted power to a small, select few companies, who own the world. Apple, with its trillion-dollar valuation, could buy four Chile’s or two Poland’s. He made the amusing, but worrying comment, several times that Tim Cook could decide to take over a country and rebrand it as iChile or iPoland. I don’t think so, but it is an interesting idea that a trillion-dollar company outpaces countries like Chile, with a GDP of $277 billion, or Poland with a GDP of $470 billion.
Andrew made the point that if the CIA were considering launching a company to spy on people properly, they would have created Facebook. That’s a statement I can agree with, but Andrew was having a bit of a rant. For example, he claimed that the Russians and Chinese are most interested in blockchain developments as it’s a way to take over and destabilise the world. I’m not sure I agree with that.
He stated that to put so much control in the hands of so few – Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Jack Ma, Pony Ma – was gifting our planet away. When eight business leaders have more wealth than the combined savings of half the populations on Earth, something is wrong.
Andrew talked about how Alibaba and Tencent in China are creating a world where you have to behave within the social norms for, if you do not, the government is watching. China’s social credit scoring system is Big Brother in action, and will inevitably lead to people being weeded out of society for purely posting the wrong view.
He believes that platform firms like Uber and Airbnb destabilise the world, as there is no dignity in work anymore. We live in a gig economy, where no one has stability in employment. As a result, a few rich get richer whilst the populous get poorer. He hates that fact that you have millionaires, multi-millionaires, billionaires and multi-billionaires living in Silicon Valley (where Andrew is based) alongside former teachers, armed forces and police men and women, who are now sleeping in their cars and on the street because their jobs have gone.
He believes the internet allows for control and structure to be undermined, and that the extremities of society are being allowed to express themselves like never before. In this instance, he cited Donald Trump calling the US media “enemies of the people” which will likely result in the first journalist being killed by some extremist in a hate crime stoked by social media.
It was a depressing presentation …
… or rather, it was depressing for me as I had to follow Andrew and talk about how wonderful this digital world is.
I thought about changing my presentation a little, but I didn’t. However, if I had, I would have said the following.
First and foremost, if we don’t like the fact that there are a few internet giants around, tough. The horse is out the gate and it’s too late. We’ve allowed the Amazon’s and Alibaba’s to become behemoths that own the world, and you cannot go back.
Second, there are many who are doing something to try to correct this. For example, Tim Berners-Lee and his mates have been working for a while on a decentralised network. In this new internet world our data would be owned by us, and Facebook would just be a browser into our social data. It would own no data itself.
Third, if these companies are so evil, they would not succeed. The very fact that they succeed is that they serve a need that people want. It may be evil to have such internet giants, but people would boycott them if they thought they were truly evil. It is interesting, for example, that the young are boycotting Facebook. It doesn’t serve a need they want in that way. So, they ditch them.
Fourth, if we were worried about Big Brother, we would stop ourselves allowing ourselves to be duped into using these services. We didn’t use them before, so we do not have to use them. Nowhere is forcing us to allow the government to snoop on our digital lives. It is just our need to be online that gives them permission to do this. If you don’t like it, don’t use the internet.
In fact, I come back to a view that says the internet, digital, connectivity, networking is beautiful. It’s not evil. It has allowed evil things to happen, but evil things happen whether we like it our not. I end up with a view that the world is changing non-stop and sometimes it changes in the wrong way. We have climate change, an abundance of plastic, a huge amount of waste, carbon emissions, fossil fuels and internet giants. These things are all conspiring to ruin our world and kill our planet. But will we let it? Will it happen?
I’m an optimist and I don’t think so. I think humans, as a species, see when things are going to an extreme and work out how to regulate the extremes. I hope so anyway, and I’m fairly sure that the internet giants will be pulled back from their great heights and regulated to behave in the interests of their users and society as a whole. I hope so anyway.