Monday, February 22, 2021

"I am large, I Contain Multitudes" -- The Internet vs Splinternets

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself,

(I am large, I contain multitudes.)

--Walt Whitman, channeling the Internet in one grain of humanity.

The Internet is in crisis as a medium for human communications in a "global village," as Shira Ovide nicely summarizes in "The Internet is Splintering:"

[2BE Splinternet movie]

Each country has its own car safety regulations and tax codes. But should every country also decide its own bounds for appropriate online expression?

If you have a quick answer, let me ask you to think again. We probably don’t want internet companies deciding on the freedoms of billions of people, but we may not want governments to have unquestioned authority, either.

...a messy set of trade offs with no easy solutions. ...Is there a middle ground? The splinternet fear is often presented as a binary choice between one global Facebook or Google, or 200 versions. But there are ideas floating around to set a global baseline of online expression, and a process for adjudicating disputes.

...If you’re thinking all of this is a mess — yes, it is. Speech on the internet is a relatively new thing, and we’re still very much figuring it out.

Ovide focuses on political divides in the global village, but that is just one dimension of splintering... 

Sam Lessin focuses on cultural divides in "Clubhouse and the Future of Cult-Driven Social Platforms." He provides a scary dystopia where the ideal of “places where people value the viewpoints and stories of other group members and care about their standing in the minds of those others” is giving way to “places where people want to hear from a powerful leader and care about their standing in the eyes of the leader but not necessarily other cult members.”

There is a way to deal with this messiness -- humans have been doing that for millennia. Ovide observes that "Speech on the internet is a relatively new thing, and we’re still very much figuring it out," but I suggest we already have -- we have just not had the clarity or will to build it into our Internet media.

Humanity has always had a messy competitive battle in our marketplace of ideas. Sometimes authority dominates, other times it is the unruly mob, but on balance, the marketplace contains multitudes of ideas at varying levels of commonality and splintering and yet we haltingly evolve toward an emergently mediated consensus.  

What we have failed to properly address is how the Internet greatly amplifies voices, and how that amplification has fallen into the hands of a few media platform oligarchies seeking to keep control while assuaging government concerns. We have forgotten that these are services for users, and that it is users who should have primacy in controlling what information their media feed them.

A number of proposals have recently converged on a powerful structural remedy for letting these multitudes of views work through the process of mediating consent more freely and effectively -- to whatever level is feasible at any given time. My recent post Making Social Media Serve Society outlines these proposals (with links to some running updates). Aside from my own work, other key advocates are Francis Fukuyama and Barak Richman (in Foreign Affairs and The WSJ), Stephen Wolfram (in Senate testimony), and Jack Dorsey’s Bluesky initiative on Twitter.

Free our feeds!

The solution becomes clear when we identify the true nature of the problem: Social media oligarchs have seduced us -- giving us bicycles for the mind that they have spent years and billions engineering to "engage" our attention. The problem is that they insist on steering those bicycles for us, because they get rich selling advertising that they precisely target to us. Democracy and common sense require that we, the people, keep control of our marketplace of ideas. It is time to wrestle back the steering of our bicycles, so that we can guide our attention where we want. 

The best way to restore facts, reason, and civility is to be smarter about the viral spread of ideas, not to censor them (even though some authorities may want the power to censor). Users should have control over their filters, so that - in the eye of each receiver - desirable content is promoted, and desirable communities are proselytized. Giving users an open market in filtering “middleware” that works within the platforms is the best way to do that -- by enabling competition that stimulates diversity and innovation to meet the multitude of user needs

Even Jack Dorsey sees the logic in that. Of course we could try to achieve the same effect within the monolithic platforms, but as Ovide says, "We probably don’t want internet companies deciding on the freedoms of billions of people, but we may not want governments to have unquestioned authority, either." The "global baseline of online expression, and ...process for adjudicating disputes" that she refers to are helpful steps, but far too slow and inflexible to make much of a dent in this problem without a deeper structural change to who controls filtering.

Letting users decide among independent middleware services that can help them steer their bicycles in accord with their individual desires is the best way to augment our marketplace of ideas. Unless we find and emergent and flexible way to contain an Internet of multitudes, our marketplace of ideas, democracy, and human society as a whole will splinter into a new dark age. My recent post explains how to do better.

[Update 2/23:] I should add that the effort to create new social media platforms that have "better" values and quality is laudable and valuable, but fails to address the deeper problem of getting both quality and diversity. Only by being large and containing multitudes can we maximize the power of our marketplace of ideas. We must tolerate fringe views, but limit their ability to do harm -- only by being cautiously open to the fringe do we learn and evolve. Flexible filters can let us decide when we want to stay in a comfort zone, and when to cast a wider net -- and in what directions. Niche services can take the form of walled-garden communities that layer on top of a universal interconnect infrastructure. That enables the walls to be semi-permeable or semi-transparent, to a degree that we can vary to suit our tastes and moods at any given time.

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