IP Expo: how to fix the future

News by Tony Morbin

Visionary author Andrew Keen first explained why our future needs fixing before addressing how we might constrain the winner-takes-all accumulation of power happening under the current digital revolution.

Day two of IP Expo began with a presentation that had the promising sounding title, How to fix the future, by visionary author and silicon valley commentator Andrew Keen, repeating the title of his recent book. But rather than being a re-run of the previous day’s optimistic astronaut, much of the presentation explained why our future needs fixing, revisiting the dystopian themes in his earlier works, The Cult of the Amateur, Digital Vertigo and The Internet is not the Answer.

My main take-away from reading the latter was that the digital revolution, while just as profound as the industrial revolution in its disruption of the existing order, creates far fewer winners and far more losers.

Hence Keen’s latest book, and this presentation, was about how we might ameliorate the impact on losers, and constrain the winner-takes-all accumulation of power that - if left unchallenged - is and will continue to happen under the current digital revolution. Just as in earlier times we constrained Kings, robber barrons, and mill or mine owners, and more recently the Murdochs, city traders or burger and sports chains, now we need to turn our attention to Facebook, Amazon and Google.

Keen explained how at the dawn of the digital age he believed the revolution would empower consumers and entrepreneurs and that it would benefit humanity. But over 25 years, he has become a disillusioned critic.

The barriers to entry did come down and Wikipedia, YouTube, and Facebook allowed everyone to publish, and Google let anyone find anything. But when you do away with gatekeepers, editors, fact-checkers and other professionals, the quality of content inevitably diminishes and professionals are economically undermined. Anyone can claim to be anyone and no one knows what is true any more. It undermines not only our sense of truth, but our democracy as seen with the Trump presidency, Brexit and use of Putin’s trolls says Keen.

The big internet companies are explicitly data companies and they know more and more about us to enrich their business model of selling advertising, drilling down into our identity and selling based on their intimate knowledge of us. It’s an assault on our sense of privacy and of ourselves which is being seized from us with this new technology, and we have become the product. The resulting wealth is increasingly concentrated in Silicon Valley. Free is not free.

The end result, suggests Keen, is that our agency not being realised; we are not as powerful as we thought we were. And dark powers are making us disempowered, making us weaker, our sense of self is being corrupted, and the notion of truth being undermined. There is the emergence of a new kind of feudalism with a ‘precariat’ of half employed people - such as Uber drivers. And with AI and machine learning we have invented tech that can beat us in chess, can out-programme us and out think us in many ways, whether spotting diseases better, or knowing the law better.

But a Luddite response is described as absurd.

Instead Keen says we should look back to the industrial revolution where we did overcome the challenges presented by destruction of the pre-industrial world. And in computing, back to Ada Lovlace who came up with the idea of software (working with Babage) and noted that software can’t think for itself, can’t have goals. And we need to reestablish what it means to be human, the notion of having goals, having agency.

The digital revolution has largely been unregulated, but now we need global regulation, with GDPR being driven by Europe as a start, to be followed up with stronger anti-trust legislation.

What we need is a ‘new Moore’s Law’ - but based on Thomas Moore, saying that we all have a responsibility to make our world a better place. And this requires following all of the following principles:

Regulation. Anti-trust to stop the tech giants undermining entrepreneurs and start ups. Data regulation to give power back to the users, giving their data back. Make companies accountable, including for the content on their platforms from which they generate revenue.As responsible citizens in the world they should be paying tax and reestablish a level playing field.

Consumers need to manifest their agency. They all have choice. Eg they can chose not to use Google, or to start paying for safer product. We need consumers to self organise and be more demanding, not becoming martyrs, but as parents we educate children, as citizens we elect politicians who take on these companies. As workers and entrepreneurs we have the opportunity to manifest agency.

In education we need to figure out ways to educate for this new world, and for creating a better world. We are educating kids to become algorithms and learn facts but increasingly that’s not relevant. So how do we prepare our kids and us for the future? It comes back to agency, focussing on the human, developing the muscle of creativity.

Keen concluded: "Ultimately I am not pessimistic. It could be a second renaissance of what it means to be human. We need citizens to shape a world they want for their future. It’s up to us, we can’t expect others to do it. We all have a responsibility."

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