Who are the grownups in the room?

This week’s New Yorker profiles the leadership of Reddit and its efforts to “detoxify” the internet from behind the curtains of systems administration and human judgement. As the author recounts the experience of Reddit employees going through the manual process of identifying and banning reprehensible subreddits dedicated to murdering Jews, child pornography or beastiality, I couldn’t help but feel like there’s something seriously wrong with this picture – that the adults have somehow left the room over the past couple of years, leaving behind a cadre of underqualified, but technically-literate people to pick up the pieces and inherit our global order.

The current state of the internet, and in turn of society, is a failed experiment on the part of our leadership and governing bodies – full stop. Watching the highly trained general counsels of our foremost tech companies capably dodge the well-intentioned but ultimately ignorant questions of our legislature under oath, one can easily conclude that there is a real need for a true governing body, one that can take measured, well-informed action to regulate the internet, ensure that backdoors are accounted for, and manage the fallout.

While the answer certainly does not lie in Chinese mass censoring of content deemed objectionable by Chinese standard, it does show, with minor and isolated exception, that attempts to control and/or regulate the internet are not impossible, and can be done. We cannot leave this task to likes of the Zuckerbergs, Brin/Page/Pichais, and the Dorseys of the world, CEOs responsible for their publicly-traded companies’ financial performance and long-term viability at the expense of all else (it’s literally their job description). It is unrealistic and unreasonable to ask them to be the “good guys,” the individuals responsible for ensuring the safety of our democracy and the state of our discourse online (and increasingly bleeding offline). It’s like putting healthcare and pharmaceutical executives in charge of solving health care, or making car executives responsible for ensuring the health of our planet – regulations and their modus operandi are diametrically opposed.

One of my favorite blogs of late, ribbonfarm, wrote a post the other day that went to great lengths to try and document and taxonomize the culture war currently taking place on the internet, which the author characterizes as the key aspect behind an era “as consequential in reshaping the future of the United States and the world as the Civil War.” While the article is definitely a worth effort, it felt like a byproduct of a moment in time, rather than a permanent zeitgeist that will looked back upon by historians and consumers of history books generations from now.

However, where his article really began to resonate with me was its conclusion, where it sought to tackle the herculean question of “what is to be done?” The author takes on the individuals who claim that the culture wars are just cast stones of words hurled across the echo chamber of social media, and the way to win the war is to log off (but not drop out.)

The author responds:

My general conclusion is that the people who respond with denial are rationalizing a personal retreat by pretending that there isn’t an actual serious conflict underway. That even momentous events like the rise of Trumpism are one-off accidents and that we’ll return to “normalcy” once the damn millennials get jobs and settle down instead of wasting time tweeting and eating avocado toast.

I have no problem with people who feel they have to retreat from the fray simply as a matter of personal mental health (normalizing mental-health self-care is one of the good things that might come out of all this). Or those who find peace of mind by unplugging and meditating more. That does not mean there is no conflict or that those who stay in the fray are fighting an imaginary war that’s all in their heads, or that it won’t matter in the end.

In fact, this kind of retreat is precisely the reaction many of the hardier combatants are looking to provoke among adversaries. To retreat without even realizing that retreat has been forced on you, rather than chosen by you, is to lose without even realizing you were in a fight. And cede access to public territory you didn’t know you had a right to (and need for).

This is a scary, but all too true, reality. When I read a column from NYTimes everyman tech columnist Farhad Manjoo on “subsisting” on print media for two months, my initial impulse was to agree with Mr. Rao, the author of the ribbonfarm post. While there’s definitely clarity to be gained from only subjecting oneself to the news of record, “all the news that’s fit to print,” you’re simultaneously minimizing the harmful and toxic reality of our current information consumption, spoon-fed to us by the purveyors of internet fast food and their slaughterhouse-esque subcontractors generating auto-playing videos that are paid per click because that’s what the system incents them to do.

As former Youtube engineer Guillaume Chaslot explains to NYTimes columnist Zeynep Tufekci, more extreme videos and opinions are the ones that maximize Youtube’s viewer retention, thereby its advertiser revenue, and thereby its search and recommendation algorithms. And yet we’re shocked by what our youth are able to find on the internet.

Watching the documentary The Final Year, which documents the final year of the Obama foreign policy administration, I was struck by the maturity and wisdom being deployed by Obama and his staff to the betterment of the World, using their lived experience (Kerry in Vietnam, Power in Rwanda and elsewhere, and Obama and Rhodes in Iraq and Afghanistan) to project broader values and rise above personal self interest or profit to greater aims. Call me starry eyed, naive, or nostalgic, but I am a huge believer in the power of government, and the power of individuals in service of a higher calling, a greater good.

It’s clear that President Trump and our legislature are ill equipped to manage the current state of the Internet. Maybe it’s the Europeans that can make some headway, as they already in have some ways via anti-monopoly efforts and legislation to reign in the power of the tech giants, or Tim Berners-Lee and a group of benevolent technocrats. All I know for sure is that opting out is no longer an answer, and the onus is on us as US and global citizens to take a stand against this cycle of pervasive and harmful hegemony – through our online activity, our voting power, and even our pocket books.

2 thoughts on “Who are the grownups in the room?”

  1. Provocative and necessary article. Hats off to EPH. One internet element needing regulation, for instance, is cryptocurrency. I believe the author (EPH) realizes that the current US administration has no interest in regulating the internet.
    respectfully
    Katashi Oita, in Haverford, PA

    Like

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