The internet is broken. But we can’t just repair it—we need to rebuild it

Trying to reassemble Mr. Dumpty was always a fool’s errand.
Trying to reassemble Mr. Dumpty was always a fool’s errand.
Image: AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar
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Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall,
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall.
All the king’s horses and all the king’s men
Couldn’t put Humpty together again.

The internet we know is breaking. And it’s not because of a technical malfunction.

Many of our dreams and expectations about technology providing a free flow of ideas, capital, and information have been met–to a point. But the litany of unintended (née negative) consequences lengthens. Some say we have created a monster that is eroding our system of government, our society, and our economy. And now we’re collectively reacting.

Governments and regulatory bodies—generally with the support of the governed—are using new laws and policies to recalibrate the largest and most important machine ever built by humans. European leaders are legislating privacy, content, and ownership rights much more aggressively, and there is a growing willingness to penalize violators. China has created a more closely governed regional internet with a “Great Firewall” in place to ensure their content is moderated and tracked in a way that works for them (but makes some users in the West uncomfortable). Russia is exploring whether they can also create their own “sovereign” internet.

These actions are primarily driven by two opposing philosophies, neither of which in the extreme serve up a truly healthy future.

  • One side is building a digital economy that is pure weaponized capitalism. In this model, your personal “code halo”–the “digital you” created by every click, swipe, buy, like, Tweet, message, post, or follow–is used almost exclusively to disconnect you from your money, your attention, and your vote. In what author and scholar Shoshana Zuboff calls “surveillance capitalism,” every bit or byte of our data is monetizable.
  • The other side is creating pure Big Brother authoritarianism, where information isn’t used as much for commercial means as it is a means of control. Social credit score systems and monitoring technologies, like those being deployed in many countries (including China), will track individual and corporate behavior and then use it to control access to social services, loans, and other aspects of life.

If you’re from the Scrooge McDuck school of capitalism, or if you yearn for an omnipotent tsar, these options will sound like good news. However, if you’ve become accustomed to an unconstrained flow of information and capital, this dichotomy feels like a forced election between two horrible choices.

As the legendary Humpty Dumpty cracked, never to be repaired, Internet 1.0 is shattering, too. Now we are hammering the internet into a splinternet of different forms. Regional digital “nations” are forming, and it’s likely that this fracturing will continue as sovereign entities apply their own rules about content, commerce, privacy, and politics.

We can’t put Internet 1.0 back together again, and we shouldn’t—because now we can build something better. To do that, we must consider what we’ll build with the pieces we have.

Putting together the pieces of the internet

There are obviously conflicting opinions about how to piece together new and complex regulation, legislation, or tech innovation. But this has been true throughout history whenever a new idea begins to be broadly adapted. Before the internet, we had to figure out how to manage cars and electricity and steam power and even the use of the written word (which many, including Socrates, actually argued against). The internet is no different.

The internet and the first 20 years of web innovation was predicated on a view of the world that was, as we can now see, Westernized idealism. Having an unfettered digital commons for commerce, learning, community, and governance sounded great to many, but in the end this model has become chaotic, addictive, and even toxic.

This toxicity extends into the arguments we’re having about the tension between regulation and innovation. But the fact that we’re yelling at each other is actually a positive. It may not be fun, but the sometimes loud, occasionally rancorous debates about privacy, data stewardship, IP protection, and even the future of capitalism are good signs. Open societies are beginning to reimagine how we manage the new engines of the digital economy.

These debates are now turning into laws that are beginning to have a profound impact. California just enacted its Consumer Privacy Protection Act to give California residents control over how their personal data is managed and monetized. In Great Britain, legislators are considering new legislation—which has been described as “one of the world’s most aggressive actions to rein in the most corrosive online content”—intended to control the more virulent content on the web. The US is also beginning to consider new federal privacy regulations, and San Fransisco just banned facial-recognition software. In many parts of the world, these debates are gaining in amplitude, which is exactly what we need.

Whether these laws and policies succeed or fail, we should recognize that this is what progress looks like. It’s messy, but we are having the right debates and taking meaningful steps to decide how we manage the new machines.

This may be anathema to many, but there is good news, and plenty of hope for a brighter future. It’s possible to find a way to balance control while protecting the free flow of capital and ideas. To navigate this path, here are three initial steps we can each take tomorrow.

  • Don’t check out. The shift to Internet 2.0 will impact every aspect of your work and home life. See this as your problem. Ultimately we are each responsible for our own path, but local and state governments, national governments, industry regulators, schools, NGOs, and tech companies all have a role to play. Checking out, not paying attention, not participating as a citizen or worker means you’re leaving your future in someone else’s hands, and that’s not how democracy, good leadership, or personal agency works best. So roll up your sleeves.
  • Keep your eyes on trust and privacy. One of the biggest drivers of change is how individuals and societies encode trust and privacy into the new machines. Policies, tax law, regulation, and embedded algorithms will first fragment and then profoundly reshape Internet 2.0. Modern democratic societies and forward-thinking companies are taking steps to build new guardrails for data monetization, privacy, and transparency to salvage trust in our digital interactions. Facebook, for example, is signaling a bold step toward “a privacy-focused vision for social networking.” Stewardship of our personal data and how we experience trust and privacy will be the main theme to watch, control, nurture, and manage.
  • Follow—and control—the money. The coin of the digital realm is still coin (and I don’t mean bitcoin). Over time, markets work. When things become too complicated, a good bet is to follow the money: tax, revenue, stock valuation, venture capital, and so on. Early-stage capital tends, eventually, to follow the best ideas. Late-stage capital (and regulation, and lawsuits) tends to protect early winners. Pay attention to the publicly traded tech companies that are now topping valuation charts. Have you watched the rise of the Trillion Dollar Club, of which companies like Apple, Amazon, Microsoft, Google, and a few others, are members? Have you observed a decacorn in the wild? These are tech start-ups with a valuation of more than $10 billion. Uber and Lyft are now public, but there are companies like Airbnb, Palantir, Go-Jek, Pinterest, ByteDance, and others that are growing into industry shakers.

The ancient poet Agathon said, “For this alone is lacking even to God, to make undone the things that have once been done.” Trying to reassemble Mr. Dumpty was always a fool’s errand, and the same is true today.

The next chapter of the fourth industrial revolution will leave us with a multi-faceted web where each domain has different characteristics. Our opportunity—as citizens, employees, and leaders—is to embrace with gusto the once-in-a-century opportunity to renegotiate the terms of our endearment with our powerful new machines.