The world more or less runs on the internet these days.
But what if we’re taking the stability of the system for granted?
That’s the concern of a new theory floated by FT Alphaville’s Izabella Kaminska on her personal blog this week.
We saw in 2008 that it just took a few bad assumptions, and the human fallibility to exploit them, to bring the world financial system to its knees. It’s not a stretch to imagine that the world communication system may be just as vulnerable. It’s complex enough that even a minor failure could prove catastrophic.
Here’s a bit from Kaminska’s post:
The hypothesis very loosely speaking is that the Internet revolution was founded on an extremely precarious and highly politicised social equilibrium which may not be as robust as we like to think it is. Our failure to understand this presents us with a false sense of security.
Don’t get me wrong. We’ve clearly benefited from the Internet in amazing ways and it has allowed us to achieve things that were previously unthinkable.
But…. I am increasingly concerned that we have all overlooked the precarious nature of the system we have created, how dependent it is on collaboration and how vulnerable that makes us in the long run if those social systems fall apart.
There are two different things going on in Kaminska’s argument.
This is how I understand it, with a bit of my own added comment in brackets:
Structural System: The structural system of the internet more often than not relies on an open source framework that allows people to construct new things out of pre-fabricated blocks of code that have already been built by other people. In some instances these important pieces of code were created by volunteers who have never been fully compensated for their work, and may at some point want to give up go home. This has allowed for far more complexity than any one person or team could do alone. But if a vulnerability goes unnoticed, it could end up being systemically dangerous (see: Heartbleed).
[For what it’s worth, there’s an opposing argument about open source, which is that it allows people to build upon and check each other’s work, leading to a safer system. Depending on who and what and where and why, these two ideas are not mutually exclusive within a single system.]
- Economic System: The economic system that led to a boom in middle class life in the United States has started to break down. This isn’t really the fault of the internet, but the techno-libertarians in Silicon Valley are capitalising on it in a way that is unsustainable. Silicon Valley is trying to privatize (and extract rents from) much of what has always been public. The sharing economy, without some sort of power given back to the workers (by that I mean Uber drivers, not Uber programmers), threatens to take us back to the serfdom dynamic between capital and labour. For this part, Kaminska leans heavily on Andrew Keen’s new book, “The Internet Is Not the Answer.”
These aren’t really new ideas, but together they are alarming dystopian. “The web Revolution has led to the creation of a very weird form of capitalism (which in my humble experience resembles increasingly the story of Animal Farm),” Kaminska writes.
Maybe she’s right, maybe she’s wrong. But it’s worth digging a little deeper.
This is the first in a series of posts about the dystopia of the internet economy.
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