Reclaim the Internet: ‘Let’s stop and start over’
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It brought us untold freedoms and opportunities for communication, but the social media ecosystem is also having a negative effect on civil society and human wellbeing, argues Ronald Deibert in his new book ‘Reset’.
We cannot address resetting the current state of affairs in the world of digital comms – especially that of social media – “by tinkering around at the edges,” says Ronald Deibert. “That’s because there is a series of interlocking mechanisms that produce the negative externalities that we experience on a daily basis. To root out those problems you have to get back to basics. And that requires asking the question: ‘What do we need to know if we are going to address it?’ That’s the idea of the reset. Let’s stop and start over.”
Deibert, who is founder of Citizen Lab, the internationally renowned digital security research watchdog, explains that he wrote ‘Reset’ to try to provide the answer to that question.
Deibert says that he came up with the title for his book before the Covid-19 pandemic was on our radars, “but it turned out to be really fortuitous, because we were forced into self-isolation. This meant that a lot of people started to take stock of their personal lives and existential things. And so the idea of ‘Reset’ as a title ended up nicely capturing the gestalt in the air that was emerging out of the pandemic.”
Even before our lives were transformed by a global health crisis, Deibert says that his antennae had detected a growing discomfort with social media. The idea that it was getting out of control, that end-users are becoming the product rather than the client, “was something I was starting to hear more and more. And I wanted to have a look at that.”
To examine this concept, Deibert took two fundamental approaches. First, he decided to “step back and look at the whole thing from the ground up”. Second, he would step out of his world of academic peer-reviewed research and instead present his analysis in a more journalistic framework in which there was room for opinion, extrapolation and “even a bit of creativity in the writing itself”.
The result is a clearly focused, methodically argued suite of extended essays on a family of interconnected subjects that coalesce to reach the conclusion that it’s time for a ‘reset’ for everyone’s sake. In fact, its subtitle – ‘Reclaiming the Internet for Civil Society’ – is a reminder that Deibert’s main ambition is to draw attention to the effect that the proliferation of our digitalised comms ecosystem is having on us, both in terms of the way we live our lives and the environment we live in. But the title isn’t just a noun, he admits; it could be a verb, and an imperative at that.
‘Reset: Reclaiming the Internet for Civil Society’
Across five sections, Deibert addresses what he calls the “pathologies” associated with the internet, including authoritarian practices, environmental degradation and rampant electronic consumerism. The idea of using specialist medical vocabulary came to him while listening, “to my friends – not necessarily academic experts in the field – who would come up to me and ask questions like: ‘should I detach from Facebook?’ I found myself scratching my head, because in order to respond to a question like that, you really have to describe all these interlocking mechanisms, these interlinked causal factors.” He goes on to say that the use of the scientific term gets to the heart of there being “something wrong with what’s going on. Part of the aim of the book was to do a diagnosis. And so, I use medical language as if I’m examining the problem clinically.”
The first of these pathologies is surveillance capitalism, the underlying business model of the internet and social media (see extract). “Once that dynamic is understood, everything else falls into place.”
It made logical sense for the author to “begin there and work my way through what those pathologies were. But I also use the expression ‘painful truths’, and I do that in recognition that there is an emerging consensus over what I am writing about. It’s not that it’s novel: I think that I’m affirming what everyone uncomfortably senses. And these ideas are so fundamentally entrenched in our lives that they require a complete rethink.”
Deibert asserts the business model is so important to what follows that it is worth dwelling on. “Some of your readers might be old enough to remember that there was a time when everyone was struggling to figure out how to make money from the internet. We were talking about micro-payments to websites, then we had the big dotcom bust because of irrational exuberance. But the real innovation was in surveillance capitalism – giving away something for nothing in order to gather data from users, and then monetise that data in various ways, whether it is through targeted advertising or simply selling it to third parties.”
As a consequence, he continues, what we are seeing within social media (and increasingly outside it) “are higher and lower-level functions of every application or tool that we use”. He defines the lower-level function as an ‘apparent’ one: “It’s warm and fuzzy. It’s the game that’s teasing our brain, or the useful app we use to order a pizza. But the higher-level function is there to acquire as much data as possible from us as we use that application or service. And you can never have too much data. Once you appreciate that, it’s hard not to see. It’s as if you suddenly put on a lens and everything becomes crystal clear. It also helps to explain the negative externalities that we see. So, in order to make their products competitive, the designers must make them as compelling as possible, which is why we see basically Pavlov’s Dog reactions going off on a large scale. Little buzzers and bells that are trying to capture and retain our interest in and dependence on these applications.”
Human nature being what it is, says Deibert, it’s hardly surprising that content gets ramped up in terms of sensationalism. “This creates the perfect environment for malicious actors; authoritarians only want to do one thing, and that is to maintain their illegitimate rule. They do that by sowing chaos and division, feeding paranoia and so on. You couldn’t create a better laboratory environment to further those goals than social media. It’s as if it was perfectly designed for it.”
If you were to sum up Deibert’s book in one sentence it would be this: ‘enough’s enough; somebody hit the imaginary total reset button now’. Which leads to the question – how? “For two decades I’ve been saying that the recipe mitigating these pathologies is not complex or new. We don’t have to invent some sort of cyber theory to deal with any of this. We just need to exercise restraint.”
‘Reset: Reclaiming the Internet for Civil Society’ by Ronald Deibert is from September Publishing, £9.99
Data farm livestock
“It’s the economy, stupid,” political strategist James Carville once remarked, and it’s a good reminder of where to begin to understand the pathologies of social media, what I see as the principal “painful truths” about social media, and by extension, the entire technological landscape. First is the economic engine that underlies social media: the personal data surveillance economy, or what political economist and business management professor Shoshana Zuboff calls “surveillance capitalism”.
Social media platforms describe themselves in many different, seemingly benign ways: “wiring the world,” “connecting friends and family members,” “all the world’s information at your fingertips,” and so on. And on the surface, they often live up to the billing. But regardless of how they present themselves, social media have one fundamental aim: to monitor, archive, analyse and market as much personal information as they can from those who use their platforms.
Constituted on the basis of surveillance capitalism, social media are relentless machines that dig deeper and deeper into our personal lives, attaching more and more sensors to more and more things, in a never-ending quest for unattainable omniscience. Over the course of the past two decades, they have done so spectacularly, accomplishing a degree of intimacy with average people’s routines that is unprecedented in human history and flipping the relationship between user and platform.
On the surface, it may seem like they’re serving us something useful and fun, but deeper down we have become their raw material, something akin to unwitting livestock for their massive data farms.
Edited extract from ‘Reset: Reclaiming the Internet for Civil Society’ by Ronald Deibert, reproduced with permission.
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