Why we must change our mindsets to change the internet

Geoff Mulgan

Chief Executive of Nesta, Geoff Mulgan

The Internet has become our nervous system – the connective tissue for a world heading towards 10 billion people. Its long-term potential is to make collective intelligence - shared thought and action on everything from how we bring up children to how we avert climate change - possible at a truly global scale. But that requires far more than connections – it also depends on structures, processes and cultures. And it requires us to be clear-eyed about the uneven, messy and contradictory nature of the Internet we now use everyday.

That Internet was born in paradox. It was a response to the US military’s anxieties about resilience after a nuclear strike, and in many ways was a classic top-down exercise. But it also embodied the radical vision of decentralisation, openness and freedom that inspired the many designers leading its development, influenced by the counterculture of 1960s and 70s California. Twenty years later the web too, had a contradictory birth, started as an internal tool for one of the ultimate centres of big science, CERN, but soon offering an open, free service to billions.

So a protean character was there at the origins of the Internet as an infrastructure and during the early days of the web as a platform for applications. Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that this protean character is even more apparent today as the Web has mutated into so many different forms.

In some places it’s an ultimate expression of predatory business based on surveillance, a triumph for the ‘locust’ tendencies of capitalism, and a rare example of big businesses doing their best to hide their underlying business model. Yet similar platform tools are also fantastically useful ways of mobilising mass entrepreneurship – the ‘bee’ qualities of capitalism – offering lower barriers to entry, the cornucopia of the cloud, and chances for huge numbers of people to be their own boss.

The same contradictory complexity can be seen in the varied relationships of government to the Web. Some remain happily laissez faire. But China has pioneered very detailed control over messaging and is now experimenting with much more deliberate influence over behaviour through the many social credit experiments. Other governments – from Russia to parts of Africa – are eager to exercise control and squeeze out dissent.

Yet while there is much to deplore in their authoritarian tendencies it’s no longer plausible to present the Internet just as a battleground between bullying states and free citizens. The libertarian dream of a lawless web has also become, at times, a nightmare, with the Dark web a home for organised crime and worse. For citizens too, the Web is the site of extraordinary displays of collective intelligence and solidarity, but also of extraordinary displays of vindictiveness, hatred and envy; the site of great creativity and weird serendipity but also of cruelty and deception.

If nothing else this should remind us that there are choices to be made. No future is destined and inevitable. The Internet is an artificial construct – which means that it is made and shaped by humans.

That doesn’t mean that a new blueprint can simply be decreed and implemented, like the design of a bridge or road. But the next stages of development can be nudged in a more positive direction, through how R&D is organised, through laws and regulations and through how we, as citizens, choose to use the technologies around us.

In the very recent past the Internet passed the important milestone of connecting some 50% of the world’s population. To that extent it is still an emerging technology, and we are only starting to reap some of the benefits. For example, the internet has still not had much of the positive impact on health, learning or democracy that it could have.

But as our most important connecting tissue, our shared nervous system, we should all care deeply about the forms it takes next. We should all want underlying structures that can amplify the best freedoms but not the worst. We should all want to benefit as much as possible from its economies of scale and scope, and from its network effects, without having to become dependent on corporate monoliths with little sense of accountability or ethics. We should all want to have access to secure encryption - but not in forms that empower evil more than it empowers good.

The internet was rightly championed for removing gatekeepers and democratising voice: but we’ve learned, as in offline meetings, that without careful design the loudest and most opinionated can be disproportionately empowered. And of course we have to learn from the ways that a technology that was expected to be a force for equality has helped breed the huge inequalities of a world where the world’s 26 richest people own as much as the poorest 4 billion.

So we need to think in fresh ways. The biggest barrier to getting this right is one-dimensional thinking. Seeing the Internet now and in the future only through the lens of conspiracy; holding too tightly to fairy tale stories of freedom; or seeing digital markets as facts of nature rather than human made. These are the mindsets we need to escape. Beyond them lies the possibility of a shared infrastructure that really can take us to the next stage of human collective intelligence.

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