Whatever happened to our dream of an empowering Internet (and how to get it back) (en)

Early techno-utopianism envisioned an Internet filled with opportunity, where the network would empower people to become better citizens. With a world of information at our fingertips we would be able to transform lives, become more informed, better connected, more engaged in democratic processes. The reality has been unkind to this dream, with fake news, trolls, online bullying and abuse rampant, our dream of a positive Internet has taken a few hits. This talk will try to put forward several ideas of how to recapture the dream of an empowering and positive Internet.

Back in 2006, Time magazine awarded its person of the year to us. The Internet. Time writer Lev Grossman wrote the following:

“[2006 is] a story about community and collaboration on a scale never seen before. It’s about the cosmic compendium of knowledge Wikipedia and the million-channel people’s network YouTube and the online metropolis MySpace. It’s about the many wresting power from the few and helping one another for nothing and how that will not only change the world, but also change the way the world changes.”

How naive this sounds nowadays. It is true that the World Wide Web has the potential “for bringing together the small contributions of millions of people and making them matter”, as the Time article states. But it is also true that the Internet has become a cesspool of disinformation, fake news and conspiracy theories that threaten our democratic institutions.

At some point we thought that the Internet was not going to be like that. Cyber-utopianism did indeed paint a picture of a networked environment where collaboration would lead to a more open and functional society, but what we got was a set of commercial walled gardens and filter bubbles where you only read what you want to, and the algorithms will filter out anything that disagrees with your own views.

Back in 2007, Cass Sunstein had already warned about the possible dangers of “the daily me”, a Web tailored only to feed you with the information that you liked, filtering out dissenting views. But filter bubbles are just part of the problem, one of the most odious and prevalent problems about online environments is the erosion of expertise, the blurring of authority, the disappearance of gatekeepers,  and the growing belief that all opinions are equal.

In the analogue world, sources mattered. A news item from the Times, the New York Times, Le Monde, El Pais, o Der Spiegel carried weight because old media was seen as a reliable purveyor of information. The digital age has brought about an environment where everyone is a publisher, and a teenager in Montenegro can put together a believable-looking site that feeds disinformation. On the Internet, nobody knows you’re not a journalist.

The power of user-generated content is also the problem for trust and believability. We are more suspicious of mainstream media because you can find so much more online than what is available in the limited pages of a newspaper that you start to suspect that they are purposefully hiding information from you. Obscure YouTube channels become authorities, Google searches are deemed the ultimate arbitrator, and truth is measured by whether you can find a Wikipedia page that agrees with you.

Many things are happening to make the situation worse. People now find it difficult to identify reliable sources, with frightening studies conducted where teenagers are incapable of identifying whether a website is reliable or not. Another increasingly disturbing phenomenon is that experts are often ignored, or even mocked online, as anyone with a search engine feels that they are capable of making informed decisions based on the first page of their search results.

This talk will try to put forward ideas for regaining the promise of a positive Internet.