Daily Archives: 20 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.