June 25, 2024


Your Partner in The Digital Era

Will the internet’s third iteration free our virtual selves from Big Tech’s control?

Those old enough still remember when sin entered the internet. We have been trying to return to grace ever since.

When Elon Musk announced on 14 April that he is planning to acquire Twitter and turn it into a privately owned company, the message was that he wants to go back to those prelapsarian times when the internet was supposed to make us better. What has happened since then? The large platforms – Google, Facebook, Twitter and others – are no longer neutral arbiters between different world-views but impose their own values. Algorithms are used surreptitiously to manipulate public opinion and create echo chambers. Advertising corrupts thought and expression for the sake of maximum engagement. Twitter is particularly dismal, seemingly designed to promote shallow discussions and a rabid inquisitorial spirit.

Musk claims that the internet has lost its way and promises to return Twitter to a lost age when everyone could freely share ideas and access information. He is right about one thing. The internet has changed. The disagreement is over what went wrong and what to try next.

There have been two internets so far, and some believe a third is on the way. Web1 was decentralised, founded on open protocols – operating rules for the network – like the ones still used for email or websites. Web2 was the internet built by platforms such as Facebook or Google, the companies owning the data on which our economies now depend. Web3 is the internet emerging on decentralised blockchains, such as Bitcoin or Ethereum, which no one owns or controls. For its proponents – the term was introduced by Ethereum co-founder Gavin Wood – Web3 combines the best of both worlds: the decentralisation of Web1 and the immersion and interaction of Web2.

[See also: The spirit of the age: Why the tech billionaires want to leave humanity behind]

How we got from Web1 to Web2 is a complicated story, but it ultimately amounts to a failure of imagination. The creators of the open protocols of the early internet had no idea of what it would become. They still thought the internet would be a kind of entertainment medium similar to television or newspapers. They could not guess its final form: the metaverse, a wholesale replacement for the real world.

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As the internet grew, it was left to the private sector to provide the missing parts. In a virtual world, everyone needs an identity or avatar. Facebook provided them for us. Money from the real world had to be replaced with something else, so advertising filled the gap. We pay with our attention. Suddenly we were all living on the internet, but Facebook owned the data defining our identities, and the world where our lives took place was powered by targeted advertising: the springs of community life now had to serve the purpose of maximising profits for Facebook and its advertisers.

More remarkably, we now accept that these platforms have the power to delete our virtual selves if we violate what they regard as acceptable behaviour. A power of life and death in the virtual world, but how virtual is it?

As for Web3, the project is just beginning, but its intent is clear: to replace the feudal rule of the platforms with something approaching a democratic order. Everything will have to be owned by everyone, starting with their digital identities, as opposed to identities being owned by platforms and then sold to advertisers without our consent. Instead of private databases, the decentralised blockchain with no single point of control. Instead of decisions by company boards, governance models that allow all community members to vote.

[See also: Peter Thiel: Big Tech’s dark prophet]

Is this a case of “the first time as tragedy, the second as farce”, as Karl Marx put it? Perhaps not, but it does seem that we will have to relive online the same real-world historical events that took us from feudalism to modern democracy. There will be civil wars and revolutions, liberators and Bonapartes, charters of rights and heroes sacrificing their lives for the greater good. Instead of lawyers, the main characters will be computer programmers. Hegel might become the name of a cryptocurrency. But the process will often feel like a virtual re-enactment of modern European history.

The creators of the original internet thought it was no more than a product in the capitalist economy. When Musk argues that he will be able to provide a much better Twitter experience, I see the same fundamental error. The internet is no longer a product, if it ever was a product. David Bowie once called it an alien life form. It is certainly an alien planet, a new reality to which we are migrating and where the structures of the old world will have to be recreated and reinvented. Who is in charge? Who decides? Who owns the “memes of production”? How can the people be sovereign? Those questions took on an urgent character the moment the internet became what the historian-philosopher Justin EH Smith calls in his new book, The Internet Is Not What You Think It Is, “a filter, and a portal for the conduct of nearly every kind of human life today”.

One of the most disturbing elements of the current Twitter saga is how Musk has mustered a phalanx of fans ready to defend him. What they clamour for is a better product. They plausibly believe the creator of Tesla is the right person to provide it. They see themselves as consumers rather than citizens, the internet equivalent of the medieval masses asking for bread rather than freedom.

[See also: Why the billionaire space race is the colonial fantasy reborn]

This article appears in the 20 Apr 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Law and Disorder