The Internet, Electricity, and the next big problem
As technologies go, there’s nothing new in opining that the internet is one of the greatest inventions of all time. But it’s easy to forget this wasn’t always the case. Shortly after the dot-com bust, the internet was quite widely written off, with comparisons being drawn to another bubble that popped — the Gold Rush. I know this because in 2003, ‘history’s-richest-man’ Jeff Bezos delivered a prescient TED talk on how the Gold Rush analogy was incorrect. He suggested that the analogy of electricity was more relevant to describe the internet and its potential. (The talk is fascinating in its clarity, humour, and candour — if you haven’t watched it yet, stop reading this and go do so)
Of course, it’s been nearly two decades since that talk, and the potential of the internet has come to pass. We now have nearly limitless information and entertainment at our fingertips, and whole businesses and industries built that would have been unimaginable just a decade ago. One of the biggest changes has been the way we interact with one another, with billions of people now connected on a daily or even hourly basis. This has affected not just the way we think but also the way we act.
Before the early 2000s, all our connections, interactions, and worldviews were centred around our neighbourhood, workplace, city, and/or country. There might have been a few additional interactions over a phone call with close family and friends, but these were exceptions and not the norm. Today social networks have allowed us to stay connected with friends & family across the world continuously, and even forge new connections across different interests and around different topics. It’s an understatement to say that today an individual is interacting with more other individuals at a scale and rate which has never before been seen in history.
It’s also natural for individuals to go where they find others like them. This is nothing new — for decades people have migrated to cities, applied for work in specific organizations, and socialised in certain circles for this very reason. But the internet doesn’t just accelerate this — it has allowed us to find others with niche interests. Without a doubt, this is a feature of and the internet and one of the many things it’s celebrated for.
But therein lies the rub. Taken to extremes, this results in people seeking out and being rewarded to engage in activities that are one-sided. The world is undoubtedly more connected, but it’s also more divided within that connection. Facebook groups extolling violence, WhatsApp forwards spreading fake news, trolling on Twitter, and banding around “doxing” activities are all real problems that we face today.
With the benefit of hindsight, it’s possible to see how we got here. For one, all online platforms are incentivised to capture our attention and increase engagement, no matter the content. This forms an echo chamber online where a person with a certain worldview will see more of the same rather than what’s on the other side of the fence. This reduces the possibility for even a reasonable person to establish a balanced opinion: once you’ve been shown 10 posts that (say) Russian interference stole the 2016 election from Hilary, you form an availability bias — any additional information with a more balanced view will be dismissed as not being accurate. You then become part of that echo chamber, attacking others who might still be on the fence.
Second, people are also undoubtedly to blame, being far from the hyperrational characters that classical economics portray them as. Study after study has shown that when confronted with a viewpoint opposite to theirs, people are more likely to harden their stance rather than actually reconsider their opinion. There’s also an element of what can simply be called laziness that comes into play — I’ve personally seen educated people share posts on social media that are factually inaccurate and which a 30-second Google search could have easily debunked. To be sure, this is often not done with malice or intent harm, but one wonders that if the educated class can fall victim to spreading “fake” facts, how easy it would be for someone to use falsified content to further their darker motives. “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty”, goes the quote. Clearly, more vigilance is the need of the hour.
Finally, the niches that the internet has enabled means that people can become famous and even earn a living by building an audience of as small as 1,000 people. Again, this definitely has upsides — for e.g. journalists can now be rewarded more proportionally to their content with platforms like Substack and Medium gaining prominence. But the concept of finding a niche audience also means that you don’t have to hold a politically correct or even rational view to gain a following — just look at the outgoing U.S. President as an example. Closer home in India, we see social media personalities abandon rationality and label those who simply question the government as anti-national — and gain a mass following for doing so.
This has all been a matter of concern for the last half-decade or so since social media has been proven to influence actions as important as turning out to vote. But 2020 and Covid-19 have acted as a digital accelerant to everything we do. This accelerant should be carefully analysed in the context of the possible effects it has on one’s mental wellbeing, relations with one’s family, and habits that form after spending entire days and weeks completely indoors. The tech world has understandably gained from the digital acceleration and is understandably optimistic, but without enough thought to the structure of incentives for platforms and individuals online, we could be unwittingly setting ourselves up for a more splintered internet in the years to come.
Solving this challenge requires a shift that isn’t easy or perhaps even possible. And it’s ironic that, going back to that Bezos TED talk, the electricity metaphor was used to describe the internet. Bezos had gone on to remark that despite several decades of houses being wired for electricity, appliances in the 1900s were still powered by light bulb sockets — the electric wall outlet being invented only much later. The wall socket is now commonplace, but a single cross-continental flight demonstrates how the human race, despite having lived with electricity for a hundred years has not yet solved the problem of a common wall socket across different nations. Granted, the electrical interoperability problem presents negligible costs, but this is definitely not the case for the online societal interoperability problem we are now faced with.
Note: The idea of this post was brewing for a while before I chanced upon a similar article in The Information by Sam Lessin. Reminded of the quote: “Hey, this thing is happening without us!”, I was prompted to finish this.