Why the internet has started to stink, and what you can do about it.
Despite the many wonderful things the internet has done for us, most people today seem to share the nagging feeling that something has gone awry.
And while they may not be able to put their finger on it, no one seems surprised anymore when a former Facebook VP blames social media for eroding our social fabric, or when we discover that we’re living in filter bubbles, or when Twitter confesses that at least 15% of its users are fake. In fact the only thing surprising thing about these revelations is that no one seems surprised. Instead we hear a chorus of “Well, I told you so”, and “I knew it all along.”
But if everyone seems to agree that things have gone wrong, then why aren’t we doing anything about it?
The symptoms are always more visible than the disease.
A few weeks ago, after taking a client meeting at a co-working space across town, I ran into a couple friends I hadn’t seen in a while. None of us had planned to see each other, but we were all pleasantly surprised by the encounter, and decided to go to a nearby pub for happy hour to catch up on life. No need to search yelp for a suitable spot, no need to text friends, no need to use technology at all. It was a perfectly spontaneous and delightfully analog moment.
Once the beer kicked in, the conversation flowed easily, from relationships to work, from politics to religion, to the eagles recent Super Bowl victory, and eventually to social issues. Finally, pounding his fist on the table one guy posed the question, “So what do you think internet is doing to our society? What is it doing to our generation?”
Thanks to the growing collection of Belgian beers and sweet potato fries that littered our table, the answer came quite easily from all sides.
“I feel like the internet is making things worse,” said Sarah. “Its exacerbating the problems we already had.”
“I feel like social media is rotting our brains,” said Brian. “Sometimes I find myself scrolling through my bottomless Instagram feed, suddenly wondering, how the hell did I get here? If I didn’t have a smart phone, what would I be doing right now?”
”I feel like people are forgetting how to talk to each other,” said Zach. ”We’re replacing real conversation with emoji’s, likes, and swiping right. Its like we’re becoming the machine.“
I sat there in shock for a moment. Not because I was surprised by what was said, but because it really hit me how incredible it is that everybody already knows what’s wrong. The problem is so pandemic that nearly everyone can clearly see the effects, yet it still seems difficult to articulate the root causes. After all, the internet can’t be all bad, can it? We can intuitively recognize the good that comes from it, but at the same time we recognize that in some fundamental way, the internet is hurting us.
After a brief silence, one of the guys at the table turned to me and asked, “John, you write about this stuff don’t you? Tell us what you think. Where did it all go wrong?”
If that’s what you build, then that’s what you get
Here’s the reality, folks. The problem with the internet is that it does exactly what its supposed to do. It collects information, concentrates wealth, and centralizes power.
Now I know what you’re thinking. I’ve got it all wrong. The internet was supposed to make things better, not worse. It was supposed to decentralize power. It was supposed to disseminate information. And it was supposed to distribute wealth.
Well, yes, in theory it was supposed to do that. Or at least if you were one of the early champions of the internet (and stood to benefit from its widespread adoption) then thats exactly what you would have claimed. And if you were one of the early adopters who really bought into that idealistic vision, then you too would claim the internet’s inevitable saving graces, and avoid thinking about possible negative side effects.
But as usually happens in history, the new technology was commandeered by those in power, and largely became a tool to perpetuate the status quo, a longer lever for the proverbial fulcrum of capitalism.
But just so we’re not missing anything, lets break it down.
The internet collects information
We’ve all know how it feels to get lost browsing the web, and then suddenly wake up and wonder what we’ve done for the past two hours. “Where did the time go?” we ask ourselves. “What was I trying to do in the first place? Did I even learn anything worthwhile?” That, dear reader, is the now ubiquitous feeling of having your data harvested.
In case you missed it, the simplest to make money these days is to collect information, and thats exactly what all the most profitable companies in the world are doing right now. And I’m not just talking about the biggest tech companies in the world, I’m talking about the biggest companies in the world, period.
(Incidentally, the 4 biggest companies in the world – and 6 of the top ten companies in the world – are american tech companies, and they desperately need to be broken up, but thats a whole other conversation.)
While each of these companies may have their own unique business models and products, essentially the all engage in the same profit stream, i.e. “Create an valuable interactive experience, grow the user base, collect free user data, sell it back to them via advertising.” This is the standard for new tech companies. This is why a company like Instagram was valued at over $1 billion, before it ever made a dollar of profit.
Ok, so the internet is used to collect information, but isn’t it also helping to disseminate information? Well, yes, but not to the same degree. Let’s take a look.
One of the biggest accomplishments of the internet was to create the expectation that information should be free, meaning that as individual consumers, we fully expect to be able to find any information we want, whenever we want, where ever we want, without having to pay a dime. And to a large extent this has actually happened. Not to say that all the world’s information is available, or that the best information is available, but merely that there is more information available than any one person could ever hope to consume. So for the moment, the appetite is sated, and the user feels content. Information feels free.
The problem here is that if content is “free” to the consumer, then the producer of that content must devise some other way of monetizing it.
Presently, there are 3 primary ways that content is monetized on the internet.
- Content is free to produce and consume, but user data is collected and sold or used for advertising purposes. Examples include Facebook, Google, Twitter, Youtube, Tumblr, Instagram, etc…
- Content is free to consume, but producer makes money by advertising to the viewer. Examples include most news sites and online magazines, like FOX News, CNN, Wired, Vice, Vox, Buzzfeed, etc…
- Content is paid for directly by the consumer. This category is by far the smallest share of content on the web, and to make things more complicated, most of this content also falls into categories 1 & 2, where user data is collected for advertising purposes. Examples include The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Apple Music, Spotify, etc…
The thing to notice here is that unless a content producer has a direct incentive to produce quality content for the viewer (i.e. by charging them directly), the content producer always has an indirect incentive to prioritize data collection over the quality of their content. And since data collection requires user interaction, content producers and platforms alike are incentivized to compete for your attention, and your clicks. In this world, its quantity over quality, distraction over satisfaction. There are of course many notable exceptions, like WikiPedia, but for the most part, this is how it works.
In sum, the economics of the internet always prioritizes the collection of data over the creation of information, and its the viewers who ultimately pay the price.
The internet concentrates wealth
The fact that the internet aids in further concentrating wealth for those who already have it is utterly indisputable. Wealth has always flowed more easily to the wealthy than to the needy, but the internet – and related technologies – have taken this trend to a whole new level.
As countless economists have pointed out, ever since the the mid 1970’s the real wage levels (adjusted for inflation) for top earners has risen steadily, while levels for the rest of the population have actually declined. And by almost any other way of measuring it, inequality has been climbing rapidly and steadily ever since corporations started harnessing communication and automation technologies to increase profit margins. (Yes, some tax policies and globalization were also involved, that’s another story for another time.)
Ok, pause. Here’s the part where someone asks, “But doesn’t technology create growth? Aren’t YouTube and UBER and AirBnB good for our economy?”
Well, sort of, except that these systems always benefit the owner much more than they they benefit the user, and those benefits are increasingly shared by a smaller and smaller number of people. Meanwhile, the phenomenon of the overnight, self-made, online millionaire – who doesn’t need anyone’s help to build his wealth – is further proof of the fact that in the tech-enabled economy, wealth can be made without being shared.
According to Chris Benner, a regional economist at the University of California, Davis, “there has been no net increase in jobs in Silicon Valley since 1998; digital technologies inevitably mean you can generate billions of dollars from a low employment base.”
Some might argue that other sources of wealth, like inheritances, and ownership of resources can equally contribute to the perpetuation of wealth disparity, but the key difference here is that nothing in history has ever produced profits as high or as fast as those profits enabled by the scale of new tech.
The internet centralizes power and influence
The first way the internet concentrates power and influence is through the phenomenon of “super-users.” Just think about these numbers. A the time of writing this….
- Selena Gomez has 133 million Instagram followers, or roughly 1 out of every 5 users on the platform.
- Beyonce has 110 million Instagram followers – the equivalent of one third of US population – and her most popular post claims 11.2 million likes.
- Katy Perry has 109 million Twitter followers.
- Meanwhile Taylor swifts music video for "Look What You Made Me Do" racked up over 43 million views in just the first 24 hours after its release.
- According to eMarketer, 63 percent of 13 to 17-year-olds use Instagram daily.
Up close, these numbers are staggering, but in aggregate they are even more impressive. While it may be true that the internet allows each of us to have voice in the global conversation, it also means that the loudest voices wield disproportionate amounts of influence.
This is no one’s fault really. It’s more of an inevitable consequence of working at such as extreme scale. If all of us has the freedom of what to watch and who to follow, the network effect means that eventually a few big players will rise to the top. Whats true about the consolidation of big business is also true of influential individuals. And make no mistake, these “influencers” are extremely powerful. They can sway markets with sponsored photo. Then can start a mass movement with a simple hashtag. Sometimes for a good cause. Other times for profit.
The second way the internet centralizes power, is by enabling the surveillance state. We really don’t have to go very deep into this one. The important takeaway is that if the the internet machine is designed to collect data which most users provide for free, and if government has the power and means to obtain or hijack that information as it sees fit, then we always run the risk of enabling a surveillance state. To a large extent China is already a surveillance state, and to a lesser extent many claim that the US is not really far off.
First we shape our tools, and then our tools shape us
So how did this all happen? The answer to that really doesn’t have to be complicated. As Marshall McLuhan once said, “First we shape our tools, and then our tools shape us.”
McLuhan also coined the phrase, “The medium is the message,” which is taken to mean that no technology is ever neutral, but instead always comes with its own value system baked in. Every technology, every tool, in its most fundamental form suggests a value, a motive, and narrative. The embedded narrative of the internet is unfolding as we use it, and many of us have realized that we don’t like it as much as we used to.
So what can we do about it?
There’s really only two things you can do about systemic problems. The first, is to opt out. The second is construct something better. Or if you really want to make a difference, you can do both! Lets talk about how that would work.
Opting Out of the Feeding Frenzy
What do I mean by “opt out?” Well, as you’ve clearly noticed by now, its pretty freakin hard to just “opt out” of the internet. I mean, theoretically its possible to become a hermit and go back to the stone age, but for the rest of us a full boycott is simply not an option. Luckily there are better ways for us to opt out, and its not so much about technology as it is about behavior. The internet creates a variety of patterns of negative behaviors, each of which you can eliminate from you life.
For starters, you can stop consuming social media feeds. You don’t necessarily have to stop using social media – although that would probably be a great idea too – you just have to stop consuming feeds. Your Facebook feed, your Twitter feed, your Instagram feed, your Google news feed, your Snap Feed, even the suggested “Next Video” in your YouTube account. You can stop using all of them.
What is a feed? In the digital age, a feed is any algorithmically generated content stream that is designed to be both captivating and endless. In other words, a feed is a time waster. A distraction. A hypnosis machine. A mind control device that puts trash on a conveyor belt and shovels it into your mouth faster than you can say filter bubble. A feed is the opposite of free thinking. The antithesis of exploration. It is a guided walk down the digital equivalent of the supermarket cereal aisle. The feed is the great ball and chain to which we’ve blindly shackled ourselves. But its also one that you can escape. Just opt out.
Believe it or not, getting yourself off the feeds is a lot easier than it sounds. And if you really need/want to continue to use social media because you enjoy making the content, well you can still do that. Almost all platforms allow you to post without viewing. And if they don’t, there’s almost surely a 3rd party app that allows you to do so. For example, I run my Twitter entirely through the buffer app, and I never view my feed.
And after you opt of our feeds, you can start to opt out of behaviors. Once you rid your mind of the the latest “sensational” news stories, and the latest controversy, you can start to extricate yourself from the mess. You can escape the noise, and you can stop contributing to the confusion. Instead of regurgitating commentary on the latest thing, you can start to think for yourself. And when have conversations with your friends (which you’ll now have more time for) you can engage that person in their unique perspective, instead of engaging the digital masses awash in their algorithms.
Constructing something better
Look, the world has lots of problems, many of which have been around for centuries. Some have been solved by technology, but most haven’t. And it’s not because we haven’t tried, it’s because most of the worlds biggest problems were never technological to begin with. And to make things more complicated, many of our technologies create new problems as they solve old ones. Just look at the disastrous effect that smartphones are having on the next generation.
Yes, the internet has done some wonderful things for the world. And no, not everything that comes out of silicon valley is a waste of time. But if you want to innovate, if you want to contribute to the collective wellbeing, remember that real value always sits offline. People flock to tech jobs because the pay well, but you don’t have to be a sheep. Theres so much work that needs to be done – in healthcare, education, conservation, human rights, public health, local governance, the list really is endless. You can do good work, and make good money, without paying tithe to the tech gods.
So if the internet bothers you, if you’re tired of technology, if you want to build a better tomorrow, start by investing in your offline life. You really have nothing to lose. As the futurist Gerd Leonard once said, “in a world where everything is reaching perfection, there’s only one place left to innovate in, you.”