The ‘techlash’ is shaping the next phase of the digital revolution


Nathan Gardels is the editor-in-chief of Noema Magazine.

In a stunningly quick turnaround over the past couple of years, the one-time darlings of the digital age are being recast as the Darth Vaders of a dystopian future. As this “techlash” gains momentum, new and more radical ways to curb the abuses of the big tech and social media giants are taking hold. Worried behavioral scientists are also now raising concerns over the impact on our daily lives of growing social media addiction.

Proposals that Facebook, Google and other major platforms need the kind of regulation slapped on the financial industry after the 2008 crisis are gaining ground. Congress is contemplating legislation that would require transparency of the sponsors of online political ads. Germany already has laws that impose stiff fines for hate speech and fake news on social media if not immediately deleted. On May 25, the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) regime, which protects privacy by giving users control over their personal data, will go into effect in the European Union.

More structural alternatives that directly challenge the big tech business model based on mining personal data and prioritizing virality over trustworthy content are in the works. Among others, the creator of the World Wide Web, Tim Berners-Lee, has joined a growing chorus of critics who believe that secure, distributed ledger technologies like blockchain can re-decentralize web connectivity by enabling people to take back control from the platform. “The web is already decentralized,” Berners-Lee says. “The problem is the dominance of one search engine, one big social network, one Twitter for microblogging. We don’t have a technology problem, we have a social problem.”

The WorldPost this week examines responses to the techlash that will help shape the next phase of the digital revolution.

Andrew Keen, author of “How to Fix the Future,” draws an analogy to the pioneering consumer activist Ralph Nader’s “Unsafe at Any Speed” campaign to make cars safer by calling for a “safety belt for the Internet.” “In the half-century since Nader’s book, the car industry has, indeed, been held accountable for its products. But now there is a need for a new kind of safety belt. The contemporary equivalent of the out-of-control American auto industry of the past is today’s equally out-of-control big tech industry,” he writes.

Keen argues that the regulations spearheaded by the European Union — ranging from challenging Google’s search engine monopoly to prohibiting hate speech or fake news on social media to the new rules on privacy — should be a model for the U.S.

“Good regulation always stimulates innovation,” Keen observes.” The introduction of the GDPR in Europe is already triggering a new wave of digital start-ups that take advantage of this new law to provide consumers with services that protect their data privacy instead of exploiting it. The same explosion of entrepreneurial innovation will accompany effective antitrust regulation that enables start-ups to take on dominant powers.”

But beyond regulation, he continues, the safety belts must be designed, and we must wear them. “Just as with tobacco, fast food or gambling, it’s our job as responsible adults with free will to make sure that we are buckled up for the digital journey. This requires self-discipline and personal accountability. It means that we each have to personally confront and master our digital demons. Most importantly, it means that we have to pass on self-regulatory wisdom to our kids and students. However, just as car seat belts were eventually developed in Detroit, our digital seat belts are going to need to be designed in Silicon Valley.”

Wallace Lynch takes on the design challenge. His aim is to use blockchain technology to create an alternative online business model that enables users to control and monetize their own data instead just hand it over to the big platforms. “Our opinions, our thoughts and our behaviors are valuable. We need to recapture that value by recapturing our data,” he writes. “Everyone who spends time looking at ads and commercials should be compensated. Everyone who chooses to let other parties use personal data or digital content should be compensated.”

To that end, he and his colleagues created the Alpha Browser. “A decentralized platform such as this,” he argues, “guarantees a personalized, secure data space — whether a digital file or a physical storage space such as a hard drive on your computer — to which you and only you have access. By ensuring that your data is secure, this allows the content creator to reel in the financial value of that content — whether within one minute or one century from when it is created.”

For Lynch, the stakes couldn’t be higher. “We have arrived at a crucial tipping point that will either liberate or further oppress our digital freedom. The solution is simple: to control our fate, we must control our data.”

Control of our fate is not only a technical matter. It entails critically detaching from the social media to which many are becoming reliant. Karl Marx famously called religion “the opiate of the masses.” “Homo Deus” author Yuval Harari has declared “dataism” the new god to which we have become similarly dependent. “If you have a problem in life, whether it is what to study, whom to marry or whom to vote for, you don’t ask God above or your feelings inside, you ask Google or Facebook. If they have enough data on you, and enough computing power, they know what you feel already and why you feel that way. Based on that, they can allegedly make much better decisions on your behalf than you can on your own.”

Writing from Nottingham, England, behavioral scientists Mark Griffiths and Daria Kuss discuss the detrimental effects of the digital opiate of social media. “Most people’s social media use is habitual enough that it spills over into other areas of their lives,” they report. “It results in behavior that is problematic and dangerous, such as checking social media while driving. While the majority of our behaviors around social media may be annoying rather than dangerous, they are nonetheless indicative of a societal problem. Steps need to be taken now, while the number of social media addicts is still small. We shouldn’t wait to see if it becomes an epidemic.”

To preemptively stem such an epidemic, they call for a range of responses: prohibiting the use of smartphones, as is already done in some places, while driving or in other instances where bodily harm can result; limiting if not prohibiting smartphone use in work places or schools where the focus should be on “required tasks and activities;” and educational curriculums that teach digital literacy and awareness of the consequences of excessive social media use.

“More controversially,” they argue, “social media operators like Facebook could start using their behavioral data to identify excessive users and provide strategies to limit time spent on their products. This is already being used in the online gambling industry. Why can’t we apply it to social networking sites as well?”

Just as with political revolutions, technological revolutions tend to unfold in phases. First comes the liberating breakthrough from the old order burnished with utopian ideals. Next comes the reaction to abuses that inevitably arise from embarking on a new path for which there are no rules, especially for the first movers who become the new masters. Finally, a new governing order is established that sorts out and tempers the mistakes and excesses from the benefits of transformational change. This, it seems – let’s hope – is where we are today.

This was produced by The WorldPost, a partnership of the Berggruen Institute and The Washington Post.