There is a very good article in the MIT Technology Review that discuss how to fix the internet. The theme is a bit of a misnomer, as the “fixing” portion of the article is both wrong and very short. But the piece does do a good job of highlighting the internet’s original sin: personalized advertising.
It is indisputable that the internet is worse than it used to be. It is more dangerous, especially if you are a minority of some kind, more likely to be used for harassment, more likely to be used to lie rather than inform, more likely to be a vector for radicalization than one for community building. This is not to say that those ills never existed — of course they did. It also not to say that those ills are all that define the internet — of course they do not. But it is to say that the modern internet is much more likely to be a drag on societal and personal mental and civic health than a boon to it. And while there are many contributing factors, the underlying mechanism that allows these ills to predominate is personalized advertising.
Since the initial ethos of the internet was one of “information wants to be free” (perhaps so, but no one seems to have asked the people who produced and collated that information if they wanted to eat and live somewhere other than in a van down by the river), and since the government decided to allow commercial interests to build out and control the majority of the internet, advertising became the mechanism by which the internet financed itself. And since the internet allowed you to collect an enormous amount of information about individual users, it was inevitable that such information would be used to personalize advertising. And once that was allowed, it was inevitable that personalized advertising would be used to drive engagement, since more engagement meant more advertising dollars. And once engagement was the priority, pushing misinformation, anger inducing content, and radicalization was inevitable as well — the human psyche rewards pushing those specific buttons.
So far, so uncontroversial. The solution, however, is completely inadequate. There is some attention paid to the idea that we should collectively pay for content. Which: sure. But why would anyone do that in a time of shrinking economic reach when alternatives are available? And how, precisely, is it good to have a paid tier of the internet where truth is available and a free tier where lies and radicalization rule the day?
The other part of the suggested solution is to have people own their own servers or become part of federated systems, like Mastodon, so that less information gets out and/or people have more control over their data. Except, again, how is this supposed to work? Running your own server or service is time consuming and can be expensive. Most people do not have the technical chops to do so, and even a lot who do don’t want to be bothered. They would rather play with their kids than troubleshoot a server in their spare time. In practice, most people will outsource these functions to a provider. So, we either end up with the free vs. paid issue mentioned before or we end up with providers collecting personalized information to be used as advertising bait in exchange for these services.
These solutions will help at the edges, no doubt. But they betray a complete lack of imagination, and unwillingness to deal with the systematic issues. The author very much believes that more capitalism and personal choice will save the day:
The fix for the internet isn’t to shut down Facebook or log off or go outside and touch grass. The solution to the internet is more internet: more apps, more spaces to go, more money sloshing around to fund more good things in more variety, more people engaging thoughtfully in places they like. More utility, more voices, more joy.
This is completely wrong. The problem of the internet is a regulatory problem. Personalized advertising is data pollution problem, analogous to air pollution from a factory. Except that factories make things that provide actual value. Personalized advertising benefits no one other than the companies involved in it. In the same way that we would not let a factory spew poison into the air next to school, we should not allow personalized advertising to exist. It provides no benefits to the people it targets and has a host of already mentioned externalities that society is paying the cost for. Shutting it down would be an immediate benefit to society as a whole and make the internet a safer, freer place.
Our discourse around the internet is still too beholden to the old ideas. We cannot fix a problem of capitalism with more capitalism. A deeper hole does not get us closer to exiting the hole — we need to stop digging. That so few people are able to even imagine a world without deeper holes shows just how bankrupt our ideas have become.
It is sad that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. It is pathetic that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of internet based personalized advertising. We have to do so much better than this if we really want to save our society.