Monthly Archives: November 2012

The Internet Giants and the Future of Society: A Tiny Topic for a Short Research Paper

As I mentioned in my last post, I am at the moment particularly interested in looking at the Internet giants and how they handle themselves with regard to the public good.  With all the disruption – some good, some less so – created by the technological revolution in which our global society finds itself, and inspired by the examples of Rebecca MacKinnon and Ethan Zuckerman, I would like to discover whether there is any serious attempt being made by these companies to look beyond their short-term interests, to show leadership and to protect the rights of their customers for the long-term good of society.

What I have learned in recent months is that while there are pockets of long-term thinking, and a basic sympathy within these companies with the idea of protecting the common good in a wired society, it seems that they are overwhelmingly focused on the immediate priorities of maintaining and increasing market share, maximizing shareholder value and protecting their intellectual property.  This is in some ways entirely understandable, as these are some of the blind-spots generated by the market-capitalist economic model, and are in no way limited to tech companies.  But if your company motto is “Don’t be evil”

  • from Google’s IPO prospectus: “Our goal is to develop services that significantly improve the lives of as many people as possible. In pursuing this goal, we may do things that we believe have a positive impact on the world, even if the near term financial returns are not obvious… Don’t be evil. We believe strongly that in the long term, we will be better served—as shareholders and in all other ways—by a company that does good things for the world even if we forgo some short term gains. This is an important aspect of our culture and is broadly shared within the company…”

and your products shape the way billions of people all over the planet access information every day, you have a responsibility to at least try to live up to it.  For the common good.

We are at the beginning of a new era.  No one really knows what is going to happen, what society will look like in 10 or 20 years.  What is crystal clear is that revolutionary technologies and their applications are up-ending sector after sector – in the process, shaking the very foundations of our culture – and the pace of change is continually accelerating.  So the stakes are high.  We cannot afford to be short-sighted.  We need to tread carefully.  We need to avoid making dumb mistakes.  The Internet giants can and must learn that doing so is in their own short-, medium- and long-term best interest, and that they can and must be part of the solution.

I don’t have any of the answers, nor do I think I will find any in the near future.  Far smarter and more experience thinkers than I have been grappling with these concerns for years.  But I do want to look into what can be done by the companies themselves, and am interested (possibly) in being involved in their efforts to police themselves – at best because they come to believe it’s the right thing to do; at worst because they come to understand that it’s the right thing to do… for their own bottom lines.

All that said, the research paper I intend to write will look at examples of the past and try to see if there are lessons there for us today.  Specifically, I would like to investigate the development of journalistic codes of conduct, ethics and professionalism in the United States over a century ago, which followed an information revolution of sorts (the ability to print cheaply and mail newspapers).  There may be something in that development which is applicable to the situation we face now.  Noting that I do not yet have an argument, here is a basic outline for sections of the paper.

  • Introduction
  • Statement of problem
  • State of newspaper industry in +/- 1900
  • What were the precipitating events that caused the moral compass to twitch
  • Parallels between internet and newspapers industries
  • Parallels between precipitating events
  • Recommendations
  • Conclusion

I intend to lean heavily on Paul Starr’s The Creation of the Media: Political Origins of Modern Media, but would welcome suggestions for other relevant readings, as well as ideas and debate about the thesis.

WikiLeaks, The Arab Spring and the Whole Ball of String

I found this week’s set of articles and longer readings to be fascinating, if somewhat bewildering.  In previous comparisons, I have generally been able to come out the back end with a reasonably strong sense of what I believe, and who I agree with – more or less.  The task was made easier because the readings often focused on subjects where there seemed to be two main camps.  This time, the readings approach the issues from more nuanced perspectives (i.e. many ways of looking at the same issues), from the macro and micro levels.  So it is harder for me to form a strong opinion, as I agree with arguments made by several authors, while others I just have to take on faith as observations of fact.

One interesting thing that I have gleaned from the reading this time is unrelated to the debates.  I’ve learned something that I really needed to know (and probably should have known): that hyper-qualified people are already doing the job I had been dreaming up for myself.  Drag.

The pieces this week include:

The readings can be roughly divided into three sets.  Khatchadourian and Lanier deal with the WikiLeaks phenomenon (and the philosophy that inspires and protects them).  Kirkpatrick & Sanger, Fathy and Tufekci all focus on various aspects of how the web-tech enabled the Egyptian (and Tunisian) Arab Spring revolutions.  And Morozov, Zuckerman and MacKinnon use the Arab Spring and other examples to discuss the macro level of what the Internet has enabled – good and bad, for citizens, activists, corporations and governments – and what we ought to be doing about it.

Regarding WikiLeaks, the New Yorker piece made me think twice about my gut reaction of distaste to the organization’s raison d’etre.  I did not come away from the piece with any more sympathy for Assange than before I read it.  It is not a flattering piece.  But I did leave it feeling mildly unsettled, because some of the (Wiki)leaks mentioned in the article really did – at least in my moral universe – need to see the light of day.  I think of the Apache gun camera video (which I had seen some time ago, but never knew that it came via WikiLeaks).  I think of the reports of corruption in Kenya.

But I am inclined to agree with Lanier, insofar as I can understand him.  In short, who elected Julian Assange, or Anonymous, or any of the hacker community to do this work of exposure and resistance?  Why are the more open and democratic governments subject to punishment by these groups, while the most secret get away with what they do?  Why are the hackers and leakers themselves not subject to the same kind of transparency?  And importantly, what about the collateral damage that these groups cause?  And all that’s only if you accept their various theses that more information equals more truth, and that no secrets are good secrets.  Like Lanier, I don’t.

So I don’t know what the answer is.  I agree that some WikiLeaks actions needed to happen.  I don’t think I agree that WikiLeaks needed to be the one to make them happen.  And I certainly do not support the indiscriminate abuse of the information wants to be free argument in this context, nor many of the actions of the hacker community which seems to be using these arguments as their raison d’etre.

The Arab Spring articles I don’t really need to analyze.  They show different perspectives of the impact of web-tech.  I wasn’t there, and I don’t think any of the observations are particularly controversial.  The New York Times piece discusses the use of technology in the context of the whole Egyptian revolution – in the local eco-system, as Zuckerman might say.  The Fathy piece focuses on the history of activism in the ten years prior, and shows how the use of tech improved over time (but was never the lead). And the Tufekci blog glorifies the use of (mainly) Twitter to rapidly create a powerful ad hoc network to save a journalist from the hands of the Egyptian police.  While I can see that Twitter helped, it may also be that it seemed much more powerful because the author was far away from the action.

My two favorite pieces were the Zuckerman lecture and the Morozov afterword, likely because I am still slightly repulsed by the Clay Shirky and cyber-utopian pieces I have been reading of late.  Zuckerman talks about keeping things in perspective – neither agreeing with Shirky nor Gladwell, and realizing that the truth is probably somewhere in the middle.  His concept of the eco-system within which web-tech operates I found highly logical.  Similarly – if more cynically – Morozov wants us to “perceive Internet technologies as they are situated in the socio-technological world” and “evaluate, augment, or fight them” with a clear mind.

I also found it quite interesting that Zuckerman and MacKinnon are clearly attempting to advise (and are being taken seriously by) the internet giants.  Zuckerman’s description of how he is trying to convince those companies to act in the long term public good, but also their own shareholders’ interest, perfectly describes the space that I had wanted to carve out for myself in some way.  But it seems that I have been beaten to the punch.  By years.