If Big Tech Is Toxic, How Do We Build Something Better?

Last week I participated in a meetup titled “If Big Tech is toxic, how do we build something better”. In this article I discuss some of the views expressed in that meetup. I provide a few observations of my own, but this article is not intended as a holistic analysis.

Toxic Icons - Download Free Vector Icons | Noun Project

Big Ideas

  • Concentration of power: concern of Liberalism.
  • Concentration of information: high ROI for undesirable activity.
  • Information mining business model: whose data is it anyway?
  • Information persuasion business model: who is persuading who?
  • Centralized processing and storage: easily enable social media experiences
  • Distributed processing and storage: a public commons
  • Free market vs public sector remedies

Concentration of power

The concentration of power is a classic, post-enlightenment, Liberal concern. We are all Liberals in this sense (fear of either concentration of power in government/a royal family or business). There is an aspect of political philosophy involved here, and an aspect of historical experience; unchecked power has had consequence.

Concentration of information

(this point was not discussed at DWEB meetup, placed in here for completeness, based on other work done in this area).

If everyone’s information is concentrated in one place, then there is a high return on investment (ROI) for criminals breaking into one place – mountains of information can be extracted. If information was distributed, criminals would have to go to more places. There is a high ROI on persuasion campaigns: many people can be potentially influenced quickly, efficiently, and cost effectively.

Concentration of information is a magnet for “fuckery”, excuse the language.

Information mining business model

Has each person given their explicit permission for their personal information to be monetized? Has each person implicitly given permission by using a free service, and continuing to use a free service that they know is monetizing their personal information?

Information persuasion model

If entities can buy the ability to persuade large populations of people, does this raise a concern with respect to misinformation and civil unrest? What voices are heard in this model?

Centralized processing and storage

Technical problems are much easier to solve when all the information is served and stored in one place. Good experiences are much easier to create.

Distributed processing and storage

A public commons with potentially higher levels of privacy and protection is possible when storage and processing is distributed. The centralized information problem may also be mitigated. At the same time, technical problems, and reproducing the same experience as a centralized platform, becomes much harder.

Free market vs public sector remedies

What is the best response to perceived problems: entrepreneurship or public sector intervention. Will entrepreneurs have the capacity to overcome barriers to entry? Will public sector compliance just result in regulatory capture – the incumbent model gets codified and locked in, increasing the barriers to entry for entrepreneurs.

The Problem (Asserted)

(Sub-bullets were raised during the DWEB meetup, the groupings were done as a result of analyzing the discussion).

  • Business Model
    • Personal information is constantly being sucked up – people are the product
    • People are constantly being prodded in certain directions – either malevolent directions or simply the direction of what gets most attention (what is sensational for example)
  • Information quality
    • Misinformation is increasing
    • How to stop spread of misinformation without creating balkanization
    • Bad Press habits do not help – bad/missing content attribution, battle for eyeballs, battle to publish as much content as humanly possible – quantity vs quality
    • Incendiary gets more attention than the “truth” – information “pornography” sells: junk diet.
    • How to achieve effective content moderation
  • Impediments to change
    • It is difficult to leave an existing social network because of all the links previously created – when Power Ventures created a social media aggregation tool / service, they were sued by FaceBook.
    • Can small companies compete with the user experience created by Big Tech that have enormous budgets?
    • Any open source tech created to challenge Big Tech can be sucked into Big Tech and used by Big Tech.
    • There is no incentive for Big Tech to create an open, portable, distributed Web.
  • Government & Culture
    • Slow processes of democracy not acting at the pace of technological change
    • Fines do not change behavior – cost of doing business
    • Compliance can lead to regulatory capture – only the big companies have the resources to meet all the compliance obligations and the regulation solidifies existing models in the market
    • Private companies should not own the social commons – this has always been a complaint about a commercial Internet
    • Systems are not elevating marginalized people, locally or globally
  • Digital Addiction
    • Our gadgets are designed to keep us constantly engaged – impacting mental health and creating digital addiction

The Solution (proposed)

The lens that technologists bring to the table is one of centralized vs distributed. Solution proposals:

  • Individuals own their data
  • Individuals own their social graph
  • Interoperability
  • Open and independent identity
  • Open decentralized communication
  • Trust-based moderation systems
  • Easy to use hardware and hosting-based solutions

Analysis / Discussion

Business Model

Business model IS the root of system properties. Value proposition ==> value chain ==> overall system dynamics. Using most social media platforms is free to the prosumer (an information consumer and producer), so that does not leave many monetization options, for what are expensive and technically challenging operations / applications / services. As prosumers are used to a free service, it is not clear what would happen if they were required to pay for the service.

Did prosumers opt-in to this arrangement? They get a free service in exchange for the platform monetizing their data. Interesting debate. From a literal sense, NO, prosumers did not explicitly opt-in. Monetization crept into business models over time (maybe they agreed to a long set of terms & conditions with much fine print). However, every prosumer has the ability to stop using a platform, any time they want, and/or use them in limited ways. Continued use is seen by some as an implicit opt-in; perhaps even more so as documentaries like “The Social Dilemma” are widely available and viewed.

There is a need, in many public square issues, for individuals to stand up, and simply stop frequenting businesses they do not approve of. Saying this, is not a politically religious statement against other means of remedy, for example laws. Saying this is simply acknowledging the obvious. If people keep using something, it provides a feedback loop to the supply of that something.

OTOH, there are not obvious, easily usable, and friend/connection-rich alternatives, and that does not make social media alternatives easy. They are possible though, and they exist.

The addiction is two-way, and when social media is disrupted by a different business model, change will be hard for current Big Tech, if not impossible. They will be trapped in an old way of conducting business they cannot change. Business model is at least as important, if not more important, than technology, when it comes to disrupting the status quo.

Can the business model of the press also be changed? That is not clear, and generally does not get enough attention. Over decades we came to rely on the press as the “fourth estate”, but the nature of the press has changed. In addition, people are also now used to free information, so the resistance to paying for information, is high.

Information Quality

The problems listed above on information quality are taken here as self-explanatory

Impediments to Change

Current business models will not change unless compelled to by competition or law. Social media platforms may not be enjoying the current attention they are getting, but unless they themselves are motivated to go in a different direction, they will not.

There is merit to the idea that it is difficult to leave an existing social network because established links are lost. That said, over many generations of Internet applications, many people have moved at some point, so it is not impossible. No platform makes it easy, it is certainly a Distributed Web principle that applications be interoperable, and it would not be surprising to see some level of government engagement on this issue.

Can small companies and open source software compete with Big Tech? Some say no, they say the asymmetry in money/power and the ability to use/acquire anything that becomes a threat will prevent competition from emerging. Those are legitimate issues to discuss. OTOH, the bigger issue is business model, not tech, that is where the disruption needs to be. A new model that does not lead to emerging concerns, may be the ultimate remedy.

Government and Culture

Compliance is a much bigger burden for entrepreneurs than for big companies. Think about this for a minute. Government has the good intention to remedy a situation, and only makes it worse. Regulation should be specific, and it should ask the question “will this lead to more competition”.

Regulation often assumes more competition is not possible, and makes the environment for competition harder in the process. If there is regulation, then it should focus on enabling competition, not just codifying an existing model in compliance that only Big Tech can afford.

Fines will be treated as the cost of doing business, they are not effective in changing fundamental business models. Can fines be used to fund government initiatives though? Perhaps. May not be the best long term approach though, creating a moral hazard within public sector.

One of the points made in the meetup was that most platforms/Big Tech companies only ever made one or two things that people actually liked, the rest of their financial bulk came from acquiring the competition. Breaking up Big Tech giants would not address the essential business model challenge, but industry concentration is a perennial discussion, especially for advocates of structure-conduct-performance (SCP).

The idea that a “commons” should not be owned by private companies is an essay all by itself, fraught with conclusions based on political philosophy. If the argument is made that Telcos should be regulated like utilities, and then the follow-on argument is made that all, or the most successful applications on top of Internet transport should be part of a public commons, what is left of the Internet that is in the private sector? It was the investment of the private sector that created and discovered that social media had value. Should the goal be to limit, confiscate, and discourage the energy and vitality of the private sector?

If there is to be a commons, it is perhaps best created by those that believe in a commons. Is there a role for government setting some rules of the road when it comes to the Internet and privacy? No doubt there is.

Digital Addiction

There is probably no more fuzzy issue than digital addiction. It is the portrayal of addiction in “The Social Dilemma” that is one of the most frequently critiqued aspects of the documentary. Is addiction real? Probably. Is it something that people can learn to manage? Probably. Is it something the government needs to step into? That is a big question.

Every company, in every industry, wants to make “addictive” products. Some are more successful than others. The addiction of social media is a combination of both its inherent positive value, people actually do get value from it, and things that can mess with people’s minds – craving more likes for example.

Previous generations have worried about children becoming addicted to radio, and the “idiot” box (TV). Is this new challenge somehow different? Sugar is becoming one of the most hated and “evil” substances known. Has the response been to regulate sugar out of existence, or has the response been a growing wave of awareness and individual choices in favor of consuming products that do not have sugar?

The complication in this issue is that driving prosumer engagement is directly beneficial to the business model of social media platforms. Once again, the business model.

The Technical Lens

  • Prosumers should have the option to own their data
  • Prosumers should have the option to own their social, and other, graphs
  • Interoperability should be a goal
  • The option to use platform independent identity should be a goal
  • There are already communication tools that exist outside of social media platforms. Their availability provides benefit.
  • How to filter the stuff I feel is dangerous but you do not, remains a hard problem.
  • Easy to use personal hardware that supports a distributed web, has more applicability to the aspiration of a distributed web, than other concerns noted in this article.

Conclusion

To say the least, 2020 is a year of stress: global pandemic, historic fires on the West Coast of America, bitterly divided politics with an upcoming election, high unemployment, and more. Within this context, Big Tech companies have increased in value, as valued by public stock markets. Technology has been the strongest sector in the period of recovery following the shutdown of the economy. The highest valuations of any companies in the world, has placed a bullseye on the back of Big Tech, in a turbulent time. Emotions run high.

At the same time, society’s experience with Big Tech, especially social media, is relatively new. There has not been much time to process its impact, and there are concerns that should be discussed. Data breaches are too frequent. The impact on the lives of children and teenagers is apparent to many. And there is an uneasy implicit opting in to business models that emerged slowly over time. All this combined with the growing use of machine learning, and ultimately artificial learning, have triggered new fears about this new concentration of information and power.

GDPR and similar frameworks indicate that the public sector is ready to act. Entrepreneurs are developing new approaches to identity and data ownership. The distributed Web movement aspires to a commons where information and power is distributed. Which of these responses will be most impactful is a matter of debate & speculation. Entrepreneurs that can find success with a business model that is unappealing to Big Tech, while also solving the engineering problems associated with distributed applications, have the potential to be disruptive. Those voices in favor of regulation and/or a distributed commons, may not be willing to give entrepreneurs much time to find success, especially in this highly animated and politically emotional time, where people are looking for solutions to the violence and chaos they see, and perceive, around them.

Appendix A – Distributed Web Tools

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.