A Better World Online

The other day, I finished Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus by Douglas Rushkoff, a neat little book about the tech economy, inequality, and capitalism. It was good, and, among other things, it reminded me that our digital lives could be very, very different.

We take a lot of things for granted in our internet economy that are not natural or inevitable but are in fact the result of human action and human-made systems. 

For instance, consider social media. 

We're surrounded by stories of how Twitter and Facebook are addictive and that we can't turn off our dependence on them. Many of us groan at our news feeds and the crap they turn up, at least from time to time. As my New Years' Resolution, I decided to quit Twitter for three months because I had grown too addicted to the product. I loved so many things about the platform but I couldn't stop how it sucked me in for hours on end. 

We should remind ourselves that this social media does not need to be this way. It is not the result of "technology" or "human nature" that Americans spend, on average, 4.7 hours on their phones per day and check their social media accounts, on average, at least seventeen times a day. This is the result of human design, motivated by profit-seeking.

Facebook and Instagram and Pinterest and Twitter design their products to be as necessary and ubiquitous in our lives as possible; they design them to be continually rewarding, so that we go back to them again and again; they design them to be hard-to-ignore, pushing notifications and friend requests and features on us that we don't ask for, so that we can't ignore them. This is all to generate one thing: revenue, via advertising and data collection.

And, though it likely sounds a bit far-fetched, it wouldn't be impossible to design an internet economy which didn't force social media companies to always seek out larger audiences and bigger profit margins via data and advertising. Facebook wants to grow big and profitable, I'm sure, but the venture capitalists who first funded Facebook pushed it to grow HUGE and profitable, and those funders are the ones with the real power. They're the ones who can stop putting up funding or try to force the ouster of a CEO who pursues a strategy they don't like. 

I'm not saying it would be easy to change the internet economy, but things like antitrust law (that challenge consolidation and bigness); finance regulation (that govern shareholders' and investors' power); labor law (that would empower workers over executives and shareholders); and privacy rules (to empower users over the companies that currently own their data) are all policy regimes that could be used to redirect and reform our internet economy.

So next time you're annoyed at your news feed; next time you wonder why you're on your phone so much; next time you curse a company whose service you can't stop using, just remember: it's not you, it's them. These are human-made systems, and they can be changed by humans.