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MacManus: How to fix a broken internet

The internet was broken by the 'move fast and break things' brigade of unicorns. Newsroom Technology columnist Richard MacManus argues AI and blockchain may be the tools to help fix it.

For many years, Facebook’s motto was “move fast and break things”. Indeed, that pretty much describes the ethos of all of Silicon Valley over the past couple of decades.

The goal of companies like Facebook, Google, Amazon and Apple – at least for online services – has been to grow rapidly and fix any mistakes later.

The trouble is, some of those mistakes were ruthlessly exploited before they could be fixed; the manipulation of Facebook during the 2016 US election, for example. Many other things broken on the internet have never been fixed. You can’t export your Facebook friends list to another social network, as just one example. So much for the open web we were promised in the early 90s.

It’s gotten so bad that technologists are now questioning whether they’ve not only broken the web, but society too. In a recent episode of the All Turtles Podcast, hosted by former CEO of Evernote Phil Libin, a trio of Silicon Valley venture capitalists pondered the question “what went wrong with the World Wide Web?”

“Well, we did build this generation of companies with the mantra that we should move fast and break things,” answered Hemant Taneja, managing director at General Catalyst and author of a new book called Unscaled: How AI and a New Generation of Upstarts are Creating the Economy of the Future.

“So it’s not surprising that we moved fast, we organised content, community and commerce online – and we’ve broken a bunch of stuff.”

In particular, said Taneja, Silicon Valley failed to manage bad actors and it encouraged discrimination and bias among the rest of us.

Sociopathic unicorns

Let’s not forget the bad behaviour by some of the “unicorn” startups.

Uber is the prime example. It expanded rapidly around the world, in large part because it ignored local taxi and transportation regulations. Airbnb is another unicorn that grew fast by openly flouting rules – in its case, for the hospitality industry.

Finally, good behaviour is rewarded

We’re now seeing evidence that cities around the world are fighting back against these upstart rule-breakers. The latest craze in San Francisco is scooters, but this time Uber wasn’t able to cash in. Instead two little-known scooter start-ups, Scoot Networks and Skip, were awarded lucrative city contracts in San Francisco ahead of Uber and other better funded rivals.

According to Skip CEO Sanjay Dastoor, his startup got a scooter contract because they played by the rules. He told FT.com that the ‘move fast and break things’ approach of Uber no longer works.

How can it be fixed?

But let’s get back to what’s broken in online products. I’ve discussed the adverse effects of web 2.0 a number of times in my columns – how your Facebook feed only shows you content you already like, the inability to have nuanced discussions on Twitter, the accumulated bugs and cruft common in Google and Apple products, and so on. The question now is: what to do about it?

The good news is that several breakthrough technologies are providing hope.

As the subtitle of Hemant Taneja’s book implies, AI is a key driver of online innovation in 2018. Indeed, Facebook is now relying on AI software to help solve problems like fake news and manipulation of the feed by bad actors. At its annual developer conference in May, Facebook CTO Mike Schroepfer said that “AI is the best tool we have to keep our community safe at scale.”

Blockchain is another relatively new technology that aims to fix much of what’s been broken on the internet. Although blockchain comes with its own problems, of course. Cryptocurrency has developed a bad reputation over the past year or two, mainly due to the many scams and false promises of crypto startups.

But one thing you can’t fault the leading blockchain organisations for is their earnestness about wanting to fix governance on the internet. In particular, by using decentralization technology as a way to route around centralised services like Facebook and Google.

Public goods and decentralisation

The founder of Ethereum, Vitalik Buterin, is even trying to bring the decentralisation model to “public goods” – such as open source software, political campaign financing, and supporting independent news media.

white paper published last week by Buterin and two researchers described “a decentralised, self-organising ecosystem of public goods.” Their solution involves some complicated mathematical formulas, but in a nutshell it’s a way of distributing money to worthy public projects without the direct involvement of a centralised authority (such as the Government, or a large corporation). For news media, the paper asserted that its system would allow governments and philanthropists to more fairly “match donations to news creators”.

If this model was applied to New Zealand’s media ecosystem, for example, it would likely result in less funding for centralised media organisations (like Radio NZ) and more funds being allocated to innovative, independent media startups (like, say, Newsroom).

Ready for 'liberal radicalism'

This is all theoretical though and I’m not sure the world is ready for Vitalik Buterin’s high-minded “liberal radicalism” (as the white paper dubbed this approach). But it’s a good illustration that the new era of Internet technologists are at least trying to come up with solutions to the broken systems of web 2.0.

Lastly, it’s worth pointing out that Facebook dropped the “move fast and break things” motto back in 2014. It replaced it with a more staid motto, “move fast with stable infrastructure”. At the time, Mark Zuckerberg explained that its shift to a more slow-moving, stable development culture was “so people can rely on us as a critical infrastructure for building all of their apps across every mobile platform”.

Just four years later and even that statement looks out of date now. In 2018, we’ve come to realise that Facebook is anything but “critical infrastructure”. Just as those two small scooter companies beat out Uber earlier this year, Facebook’s position as a dominant internet company no longer looks invincible.

The fact is, many online systems are broken and people are demanding solutions. We won’t know what those solutions are until experiments involving AI, blockchain and other new technologies fully play out. All I can say for now is: watch out Uber and Facebook.

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