If you really want to make the internet great again, then you’re suggesting that there was some moment of greatness. And I’m old enough to remember what that moment was. It was in the early 1990s, where the internet was a place where people brought their very best selves. And they wanted other people to think of them as articulate and having good ideas, and the whole point was to construct better approaches to everything. We were having discussions, and trying to figure out how to do government better, how to do economics better, how to understand physics and space travel and everything.
To use the internet, you had to sign a digital agreement saying you would use it for research and non-business purposes only, that this was like a public park. And because of that, it engendered a collaborative, cooperative, prosocial intellectual spirit. But when the internet was opened up to commercial interests, then the objective was to use these platforms to make as much money as possible.
Unlike most internet applications, which were about communication and sharing, the web looked more like television. And the way television understood how to make money was to get people’s attention and sell them things. You got companies like Google, Facebook, Yahoo! and Amazon taking something that’s like a turbo-charged television as they saw it. So people compulsively clicked and bought more stuff and revealed more about themselves.
This is not good, because when the object of the technology is to extract as much data, money and fear as possible, it makes people less happy and productive than if you’re optimising a technology to enhance our ability to communicate, collaborate and cooperate with each other. The big platforms made more money by antagonising people. And that’s because if people actually spend time with each other making love or playing cards or something, the megacorps lose engagement and money.
I always thought it was a stupid idea to put businesses online. The internet was like a play space – it was a bit like a fantasy role-playing game or a rave. And all of a sudden banks and companies are coming in to do fantasy role-playing.
The GameStop and AMC story is really interesting: it shows one of the ways that we get the internet back is by playing online. The kids did a short squeeze on AMC or GameStop, with no intention of really making money – most of them just wanted to take down the bad guys. So one possibility is that we just go all in as activists and playfully hack people and start destroying the megacorps.
Another possibility is we just let them [the megacorps] have the internet. Now everybody’s online, maybe we take back the real world.
And the other possibility is we make another net. It would be built on the original net principles, but maybe having two-way linking so it’ll have a different dynamic. If everybody who links is linked back to, then it becomes a more of a genuine peer-to-peer thing than just having all of your value extracted and linked. To prevent the megacorps from misbehaving or dominating, it would require rules, so you can kick someone off if they don’t behave.
The current net is almost killed anyway because of all the streaming media on there – the net is not a good place to be doing Netflix and Disney+. It’s just too much bandwidth for the net to handle, which is why it’s suffering in the COVID era. Imagine how fast a new network would be if you don’t have these giant television companies trying to use it!
We could easily handle the entire internet as a peer-to-peer open web, rather than using these proprietary cloud services. We could be the cloud: everyone’s computers joined as a giant torrent network. This would distribute all of the files, so all the stuff of the internet ends up on all our machines – not in the desert on the massive air-conditioned server farms of Amazon or Google or Facebook. The only reason you need those farms and all that is because of the massively inefficient way that this data is served to us.
The megacorps kind of sowed the seeds of their own destruction. There’s karma. It will come back and bite you, which is what these big hedge funds are seeing now. They’re like, “Oh my god, for all of our ultrafast trading, some kids on Reddit can actually cost us $5bn. This isn’t right!” But that’s the f**king internet. What did you expect? This is a play space. This is not a power space.
Interviewed by Alice Lipscombe-Southwell
- This article first appeared in issue 361 of BBC Science Focus Magazine – find out how to subscribe here
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