The Power of the Crowd Series – Part One: The Problem

This is the first in a series of articles offering a perspective on the internet today and its impact on society, economies and geo-politics. It is my belief that the internet is broken, but rather than engage in a proper debate about how we fix it the policy makers and regulators are simply trying to band-aid the existing infrastructures. Therefore it is up to us, the users of the internet, to take back control, because we recognise the power the open web can offer everyone on this planet. At a time when discord and disunity seem to be more common place we need to champion the opportunities, accessibility and collaboration it was originally designed to offer.

Therefore in the spirit of the Cluetrain Manifesto and the Declaration of Independence of Cyberspace we should be looking to create a new set of guiding principles. We need to frame the debate about the future of the internet, before its fate is decided for us by politicians and business people, who do not share our vision. We first need to have a discussion about the problem child that is today’s worldwide web, air the challenges and difficult decisions we need to take, because we all must accept that compromises need to be made. The internet today is not the same as it was 20 plus years ago. It will be important to hear arguments from all sides, before we attempt to achieve consensus.

Ultimately it is my belief that we need some form of new social contract about the purpose and role the internet plays in our lives. We all see its potential, its ability to be a force for positive change, but we have all seen its dark side. This discussion is an overly ambitious attempt to seek shared values about what we should expect from the internet in terms of our freedom, privacy, accessibility and opportunity….today I’m asking the power of the crowd to join in the debate and help to find solutions.

The Power of The Crowd: The Problem
When Thomas Friedman wrote “The World is Flat” in 2000 it was hailed as one of the most influential assessments of the impending impact of the Internet. Although we were just about to experience the burst of the dot com bubble there was huge optimism about its potential to level the playing fields for everyone around the world in terms accessibility to information and creating opportunities to collaborate. However, Friedman also highlighted the many in-built inequalities in the existing social, economic and political structures that could potentially have an adverse effect. While he suggested that flattening the world would create new opportunities for those who had previously had little or no chance of social mobility it would also create unpleasant consequences for established economies, such as fierce competition for jobs and downward pressure on incomes.

It could be said that he painted a less than rosy picture in which everyone could really only look forward to uncertainty and instability:

“…today’s workers need to approach the workplace much like athletes preparing for the Olympics, with one difference. “They have to prepare like someone who is training for the Olympics but doesn’t know what sport they are going to enter…”
Thomas Friedman, The World is Flat, 2000

Wind the clock forward to 2016 and we are witnessing both the positives and negatives of “The Flat World.” Economies in the developing world have grown rapidly, the global middle class has expanded, leading to greater social mobility, life expectancy and better standards of living, but equally increasing the demands on resources and the environment. Economies in the developed world have slowed down, productivity has continually declined and incomes have not grown in line with inflation. Of course if I was looking at this purely from a technology and entrepreneurial perspective I could argue it has created huge wealth, especially thanks to the first and second generation of internet companies, ranging from Amazon to Uber. Living standards have not declined in developed economies and we have very much benefited from access to the cheaper goods and workforce coming from the developing nations.

Even so, the suggestion that technology, and more precisely the Internet, has broken down barriers, redefined social norms for the better and created a more equal, fairer society would be an overstatement of the facts. In reality a small handful of technology companies (with a few minor exceptions) are the ones who have all the power and control of the infrastructure we use – you just need to look at the world’s rich list for proof that certain individuals and companies have done very nicely! As citizens and consumers we are dependent on them to give us access to services and communications tools, which originally were designed to be accessible to everyone.

Indeed we would do well to remember the words of the Cluetrain Manifesto and the Declaration of Independence of Cyberspace, because it would seem we are a million miles away from their virtuous intentions.

“We have no elected government, nor are we likely to have one, so I address you with no greater authority than that with which liberty itself always speaks. I declare the global social space we are building to be naturally independent of the tyrannies you seek to impose on us. You have no moral right to rule us nor do you possess any methods of enforcement we have true reason to fear.”
John Perry Barlow, February 8, 1996

The Cluetrain Manifesto: 95 Theses

1. Markets are conversations.
2. Markets consist of human beings, not demographic sectors.
3. Conversations among human beings sound human. They are conducted in a human voice.
38. Human communities are based on discourse — on human speech about human concerns.
39. The community of discourse is the market.
40. Companies that do not belong to a community of discourse will die.
72. We like this new marketplace much better. In fact, we are creating it.
73. You’re invited, but it’s our world. Take your shoes off at the door. If you want to barter with us, get down off that camel!
78. You want us to pay? We want you to pay attention.
89. We have real power and we know it. If you don’t quite see the light, some other outfit will come along that’s more attentive, more interesting, more fun to play with.
The Cluetrain Manifesto, 2000

Today I believe the very thing that was supposed to break down physical and virtual barriers has failed. Nearly 50% of the global population is without effective access to the internet, never mind possessing the skills and education to exploit its potential. Indeed economically the gap between the world’s richest and everyone else has continued to get worse. Some commentators argue that traditional command and control organisations are dead, because the Millennials and all subsequent generations will refuse to work in the same formal, traditional structures. Sure, in the rarefied atmosphere of Silicon Valley and other tech hubs around the world that approach may be true, but it is not generally the case. If anything it has taken away opportunities for many in established industries as disruptive technologies based on the internet have turned business models upside down.

Politically everyone pointed to the Arab Spring as a sign of “hope” that instant, unfettered communication could lead to significant political and economic change. We saw Obama become the first President to exploit social media to engage audiences and everyone said that was a good thing for democracy. Likewise some would argue Trump has used the same mechanism to give voice to those people who have been forgotten in the great tech rush. Others question whether we’re now in a situation where (allegedly) student hackers in Macedonia can create a news agenda to decide a Presidential election in return for a lucrative income from digital ad revenue.

Furthermore, the threat of cyber-attack, enabled by the internet, has encouraged governments around the world to adopt far more aggressive stances around national security. Cyber-spying is the latest fashion where any Government with enough money can employ professional hackers to steal industrial secrets or bring down the national grid of a nation state they are not getting along with. And of course if your Government doesn’t like what you’re doing they’ve probably just passed a law to allow them to spy on you without requiring much in the way of legal oversight.

So, if this has left you feeling thoroughly despondent…good. We should all be pretty disappointed with how the internet has turned out and the effect it has had or not had on all our lives. Frankly it is time, now that the internet is more than 20 years old, that we sat down and had a proper conversation about where we want it to go next. It cannot carry on as it is, but we face difficult questions with no easy answers.

Of course we could just stick our heads in the collective sand, but I’m pretty certain that will only make things worse…