This year the Worldwide Web is thirty years old. For the first time since 1435, a citizen from Brazil could exchange their views and information with another in Finland. The Internet, the communications infrastructure for the Web is a little older. It was developed from the ARPANET, a US Defense Department project under the Advanced Research Projects Agency; the military designing it to decentralize communications in the case of a military attack. That network enabled scientists to communicate over email in universities. Then in 1989 Tim Berners-Lee at CERN in Switzerland invented the Hyperlink and the Worldwide Web (the Web) rapidly moved from scientists automating information sharing between universities and research institutions to the first Websites now available to the general public. In 2002 the first social media sites began as specialised websites. LinkedIn launched in 2003 then FaceBook in 2004, Twitter in 2006, Instagram in 2010 and so on…
My generation regarded the arrival of the Web as a great prospect for democracy. We come from the Gutenberg era, an era that in 1435 changed the world. From manuscripts drafted by monks to be read by a few people in monasteries, the invention of reusable movable type meant that in just 20 years already eight million copies of printed books went all across Europe. Among many other things it also meant the creation of information. People who heretofore had merely a scant horizon beyond their immediate surroundings, could suddenly access information about their country, and even the entire world. The first newspaper was printed in Strasbourg in 1605. From then until 1989, the world was filled with information.
Information had a very serious limit. It was a vertical structure. Just a few people sent news to a large number of recipients; there was little feedback. It wasn’t participatory, it required large startup investments, it was easily used by economic and political powers. In the Third World, the media system was part of the State. In 1976, 88% of World news flows emanated from just three countries: the US, the UK and France. International news agencies based in these three countries included Associated Press (AP), United Press International (UPI), Reuters and Agence France Press (AFP). The world’s media were dependent on their news services. Some alternative news agencies, like Inter Press Services, were able to put a dent in their monopoly. But what this Western media published, by and large was a biased window on the world.
Then came the Internet, and with it, came horizontal communication. Every receiver was also a sender. For the first time since 1435, media were no longer the only window on the world. Like-minded people could take part in social, cultural and economic interactions. This change was evident in the United Nations Woman’s World Conference in Beijing, 1995. Women created networks prior to the conference, and came with a common plan of action. Governments were not so prepared, so the Declaration of Beijing was a turning point, one which was entirely unlike the bland declarations from the previous four World Conferences. Another good example is the campaign to eliminate anti-personnel landmines, started by the Canadian activist Jody Williams in 1992. This soon blossomed into a large coalition of Non-Governmental Organizations from more than 100 countries. Under mounting pressure Norway decided to introduce the issue to the UN, where the US, China, and other manufacturers of landmines like the USSR, tried to block the debate, declaring that they would vote against it. The activists did not care, and 128 countries adopted the Mine Ban Treaty in 1997 with the US, China and the USSR voting against. A vast global movement was more powerful than the traditional role of the Security Council. The Internet had become the tool to create world coalitions.
Those are just two examples of how far the Internet could change the traditional system of Westphalian state sovereignty as defined at the Conference of Westphalia in 1648. The Internet spanned national frontiers to bring on a new era. Let’s say, for the sake of symbolism, that the Internet brought us from the Gutenberg Era, to the Zuckerberg Era, to cite the inventor of Facebook and a leading instance of what went wrong with this medium.
The Internet came upon us with an unprecedented force. It took 38 years for the radio to reach 50 million people: television took 13 years; and the Web just four years. It had a billion users in 2005, two billion in 2011, and it now has three and a half billion users, three billion of those using social media. So the two traditional pillars of power, the political system and the economic system, also had to learn how to use the Internet. The US provides a good example. All of American media (national and regional publications) involves printing 50 million copies daily. Quality newspapers — both the conservative broadsheets like the Wall Street Journal, and progressive ones like the Washington Post or the New York Times — together print ten million copies a day. Trump has sixty three million followers on Twitter; they read Trump’s tweets but don’t buy newspapers.
The Web has had two unforeseen developments. One was the dramatic reinforcement of the consumer society. Today advertising budgets are ten times larger than budgets for education, and education only lasts a few years compared with a lifetime of advertisement. With the development of social networks, people — now more consumers than citizens — have become objects for marketing goods and services, and recently also for political campaigns. All systems of information and communications extract our personal data, selling us on as consumers. Now the TV can see us while we watch it. Smartphones have become microphones that listen in on our conversations. The notion of privacy is gone. If we could access our data, we would find out that we are followed every minute of the day, even into our bedrooms. Secret algorithms form profiles of each and every one of us. Based on these profiles platforms provide us with the news, the products, and the people that these algorithms believe we will like, thus insulating us in our own bubbles. Artificial intelligence learns from the data that it accumulates. China, with 1.35 billion people, will provide its researchers with more data than Europe and United States together. The Internet has given birth to a digital extractive economy, where the raw material is no longer minerals, but we humans.
The other development that went awry is that the digital extractive economy has created unprecedented wealth.
Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos was recently divorced from his wife. In the settlement she received 36 billion dollars yet Bezos remains among the 10 richest people in the world. This is just one story from an increasingly sad reality of social injustice, where 80 of the world’s richest persons hold the same wealth as nearly three billion poor people.
A new sector is evolving, the “surveillance capitalism” sector, where money is made not from the production of good and services, but from data extracted from people. This new system exploits humans to give to the owners of this technology, a concentration of wealth, knowledge and power without precedent in history. The ability to develop facial recognition and other surveillance instruments no longer lies in the realms of science fiction. The Chinese government has already given every citizen a digital number, where all their ‘good’ and ‘bad’ behaviours converge. If a citizen goes below a level, their children will not be allowed to go to a good school, and the citizen themselves, though they may still be able to travel by train, won’t have access to planes. These technologies will soon be in use all over the planet. London town now has 627,000 surveillance cameras, one for every fourteen citizens; in Beijing it’s one for every seven. A study conducted by The Rand Corporation estimates that by 2050, Europe too would also have one camera for every seven citizens.
The interrelationship between democracy and the Internet is now creating a belated awareness in the political system. The European Parliament has just released a study, about the negative impact of the Internet. These impacts are:
- Internet Addiction
There is unanimity among doctors and sociologists that a new generation is coming, one which is very different from the previous one. Over 90% of those aged 15-24 uses the Internet, as against 11% for those over 55. Young people spend 21 hours per week on the PC, and 18 hours on a smart phone. This leaves little time for social and cultural interaction. 4.4% of European adolescents now show pathological Internet use “that affects their lives and health”. The American Academy of Psychology has officially included Internet Addiction as a new ailment. Magnetic resonance studies of those with Internet Addiction Disorder (IAD) show that they exhibit the same brain structure alterations as those who suffer from drug or alcohol addiction.
- Harming cognitive development
A particular warning is given about children under two years of age. More than 20 minutes a day of screen use reduces some of their neural development. People pushed to isolation tend to develop symptoms of distress, anger, loss of control, social withdrawal, familial conflicts, and an inability to act in real life. Internet users in tests were faster than non-users at finding data, but they were less able to retain data.
- Information Overload
The condition of having too much information hampers the ability to understand an issue, or to make effective decisions, an important issue for managers, consumers, and social media users. According to Microsoft, attention span for a title has gone from 12 seconds in 2000 down to 8 seconds in 2016. The attention span for reading has gone from 12 minutes to 8 minutes. Two new terms can be used: one, the ‘popping brain’, describes a brain less adept to adapt to a slower pace of real life and then there is ‘Neuroplasticity’; i.e. the ability to alter one’s behaviour after a new experience. Frequent immersion in virtual worlds can reduce neuroplasticity and also make it more difficult to adapt to the slower pace of real life. The need to compete in speed between social media channels is well known. For example Amazon estimates that one second of performance delay would cost 1.16 billion losses per year in sales.
- Harmful effects in knowledge and belief
The fact that social media deliberately tends to gather together users with similar views, tastes and habits, is fragmenting society in a negative way for democracy, resulting in closed systems that don’t allow for alternative viewpoints. Adolescents no longer discuss significant subjects. They go to their virtual world, and if they come across somebody from another group, they tend to insult each other. The Internet is full of fake news and misleading information, and users have great difficulty distinguishing accurate from inaccurate information. Echo chambers appear to be far more pervasive, and may unite those with more extreme and partisan political and ideological positions, therefore undermining possibilities for civil discourse and tolerance, supporting radicalization.
- Harming public/private boundaries.
The Internet blurs the distinction between the private and the public. Private life becomes public. This is especially negative for teenagers who lose the concept of privacy, for example by sending private photos across the Internet. One important observation is that teenagers now get their sexual education from pornography, where women are always an object to satisfy men’s sexual phantasies. This is in turn creating a lack of respect for women, and a new generation that risk, for new reasons, returning to a patriarchal society. Group violations of teenage girls are clearly a result of this trend.
- Harming social relationships
The Internet is clearly a powerful instrument to create new communities. However, when used negatively, it can also damage communities, because of the migration to Internet of many human activities such as shopping, commerce, socialising, leisure, professional activities and personal interaction. That migration creates impoverished communication, incivility and a lack of trust and commitment.
- Harming democracy
The Internet has been a powerful tool for participation, and therefore for democracy. However the study notes with concern that a growing number of activities are also harmful to democracy. These include: a) The incivility of many online political discourses, b) Political and ideological polarisation, uniquely possible using the Internet. c) Misinformation, and, in particular, fake news, d) Voter manipulations through profiling based on harvested social media information. We all know what happened in the US elections with Cambridge Analytica data, gathered by Facebook, and how thousands of false web users and bots now heavily interfere in elections.
We should add to this study some other considerations. The first is that finance now is now also run by algorithms. The algorithms do not only decide when to sell or buy shares, but now also decide where to invest. The Exchange-Traded Funds (ETFs) last month reached 14,400 billion dollars in trades, more than that traded by humans. This trend will continue with the development of artificial intelligence and soon finance will become even more dehumanized. Even when Internet users invest themselves they too will be directed by machines and algorithms.
A second consideration is that young people read less and less. Reading a book is very different to scrolling a screen. We are experiencing a progressive reduction in levels of culture. It’s not uncommon to have university students that make grammar and spelling mistakes. Let us remember that when the Internet was still new, its proponents told us: it is not important to know, rather it is important to know how to find. We are more and more dependent on search engines, learning less and less, and we are unable to connect that data in a personal holistic logical system.
There is clearly a need for regulation to reduce the negative aspects of the Internet and to reinforce positive values. The owners of social media platforms are now under increased scrutiny so they have taken the road of self-regulation. Twitter, for instance, has decided that it cannot be used for political purposes. Zuckerberg is an exponent of market myths telling us that good news will automatically prevail over fake news. Except that platforms help users to read and find only what they like, to maintain our attention, providing us what is striking, unusual and provocative. This is not a free market.
The Zuckerberg era is clearly creating an entirely different generation, very different from the generations of the Gutenberg era. This raises many questions, from privacy to freedom of expression (now in private hands), from who will regulate, what to regulate and how. A five year-old child is now very different from a Gutenberg five year-old. We are in a period of transition. The meaning of democracy is changing.
International relations are moving away from the search for common values via multilateralism, to a tide of nationalist, xenophobic and selfish views of the world. Terms like peace, cooperation, accountability, participation and transparency are becoming outdated. What is clear is that the present system is no longer sustainable. Policies disappear from debate, now referred to only as ‘politics’. Vision and paradigms are getting scarce. Over and above all of this the threat of climate change is looming; yet last year toxic emissions from the five largest countries increased by 5%. Young people are largely absent from political institutions as is shown by the vote on Brexit where only 23% of the 18-25 age group participated. At this very moment we have large demonstrations in thirteen countries all over the world. In those streets young people do participate, frequently demonstrating rage, frustration and violence. If we cannot bring back horizontal communication to the Internet and we do not free it from the commercial fracturing of young people, the future is hardly rosy. Yet as the marches against Climate Change clearly demonstrate, if young people want to change the world, values and vision will return. It is evident that the Internet can be a very powerful tool. But who will redress these failings? Will the Internet become a tool for participation? How will this be done? These are questions that political institutions, if they really care for democracy, must address as soon as possible. The Zuckerberg era must make this choice now, in a few years time it will already be too late…