Every generation has their myths – men and women (mostly men) who have exploited new technologies to create opportunities and processes that change the very nature of society. Henry Ford’s car went beyond reshaping personal transportation, serving to sculpt a landscape with asphalt roads and mass production we now understand to be the norm. Early tech giants, Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, typified the mass consumption of technology through positioning it as a tool for the individual instead of a robotic overlord in waiting. And today’s giants, Mark Zuckerberg and Larry Page, have focused on the value of the internet in building a network, in connecting the world and becoming the “third space” outside of work and home we so need when defining our own identity. With each, access to information and our contacts sits at our fingertips at any connection point. It’s impossible to now imagine a world without connection and networks to the degree we have now.
The first step in the spread of technology to the consumptive mainstream was reducing it’s inherent sci-fi fear factor. The second was making it cool. The third was making it intrinsic in our daily lives. So what comes next? Marketing campaigns batter consumers each day about the value of the next technology, but some focus is also given to the existing problems faced in our new accessible era. Monetization for content developers is still minuscule and targeted advertising has resulted in the ideological silo-ing of consumer bases. Technology in networks has, at times, resulted in the best of humanity being exponentially spread through our family and friends. But such stories are shared with same vigor as memes about cats and sports teams. Technology has not provided a panacea to replace the compassion and trust we must place in each other, nor has increased connection seen this process become an ingrained norm. But is it reasonable to expect that we can simply innovate our way towards a more utopian humanity?
Some believe so – Blockchain, an encrypted ledger recording transactions currently underpinning Bitcoin and one of the top buzzwords of the last 36 months, has been touted as a solution to “automate trust”. A bold claim – the theory goes that the ledger technology will shift networks towards a more decentralized model that tracks content posted and uses an open-data model out of the control of any single party. Users can add new “transactions” to the ledger but it’s history, once entered, cannot be changed, making the entire ledger (record of transactions) public, readable and traceable back to the source. If someone shares dubious content on a network, it can be traced back to the source account. If someone is curious about the source of an advertisement, it can be traced back. In theory, we can all access all information to hold all people accountable all the time.
A privacy argument is often made here – it lacks the context that users who sign up for Facebook agree to terms and conditions stating Facebook owns any content posted and sells it onwards to advertisers. Information revealed will simply be publicly available as opposed to available only to Facebook, who can choose to sell it to anyone they please (hence the targeted advertising seen on networks). Facebook faces a trust deficit unlike that seen since the launch of the network in 2005. A lack of transparency into the giant’s internal operations for decision-making and ad-reviewing, as well as a too-late push away from the stance that Facebook faces no responsibility for the content shared on it’s site, have positioned it as a dubious operator in the eyes of public institutions and public opinion. The question of which fickle party can inflict greater damage remains to be seen.
Different pundits advocate for the use of Blockchain in different ways – some call for an inter-company ledger for user data that can be sold to advertisers, thereby placing an objective value on consumer data currently disproportionately valued by firms and consumers, some call for the creation of an ad-tech protocol using the ledger that is managed by independent actors so consumers can see exactly where content comes from, and others call for a complete re-invention of social networks towards a decentralized model to remove biased actors and ensure data is owned by those who create it.
Within this, a risk emerges – every technology positioned as capable of solving the world’s problems has solved some and created others. The attractiveness of Blockchain stems from the increased transparency embedded, which does have applicability outside of tracking transactions – it’s use as a tool in development to overcome the fallibility of humanity is well-noted. But building a decentralized social network would serve only to remove the current intermediaries, giving more power to content creators. There is no guarantee that power would be used more responsibly, or that decentralization will result in a better-off society. Anarchistic and network theory are abound with examples of self-organization collapsing without a common set of rules of engagement.
But more distinctly, a moral question emerges: has innovating our way past our humanity ever actually worked? Choosing to address the deficits in networks by installing technologies that bypass these flaws and automate our processes seems an expensive alternative that may not solve our actual problem. Social networks were supposed to democratize information, not result in further ideological splitting. Access to information was supposed to make everyone better informed, not differently informed. Ford and Jobs wanted to change the world to suit their visions, and their mythos has shaped the way we view our world. A shame they didn’t seek instead to focus on how pushing their world towards a technological utopia in ours could serve to bring the rest of us with it as well.