Preserving an Open Internet

The problem we're discussing here is just one glaring manifestation of a larger, toxic mindset which I see reaching pandemic proportions on-line. It seems to afflict those who are innovators-by-nature most, usually in proportion to their success. How quickly they forget the accelerated learning-curves and ease-of-implementation that the open-source knowledge-base (which originated in the 1970's) provided them. As for ordinary end-users, their obvious willingness to invest their lives in venues like Facebook and Twitter -- in order to get attention, or the illusion of fame – is a sad commentary on our inability to appreciate the value of real-world, face-to-face relationships.

I've been in this biz since 1978 (when 'the Internet' was not much more than a program called UUCP). After spending 20 years (1980-2000) pushing back against a de-facto monopoly over desktop computing – successfully created by Microsoft’s combination of deliberately defective software, and predatory marketing practices -- I can’t fully describe the sick feeling I experienced when I found out Microsoft had picked-off GitHub. (Admittedly, thanks to the brilliance of their new CEO, Satya Nadella.)

 

Unfortunately, in spite of the game-changing contributions made by Google, Netscape, Mozilla, and most of all, Linus Torvalds, I believe the Internet, as we have come to know it over the last couple of decades, is under siege to a degree I never imagined possible. The pursuit of total-hegemony has become the prevailing strategic paradigm, driven primarily by major corporate stake-holders: software, telecom, and hardware -- Intel in particular -- in concert with entrenched public-sector special interests, which recognize the threat an open-global-network poses to the profoundly corrupt, but tacitly sacrosanct status-quo they depend upon, aka: 'geo-political business as usual'.

In a larger sense, its also a war on the right of ordinary people to define and enjoy their own private lives, enabled (ironically) by our ability to operate anonymously on-line. The ability to engage in free-enterprise anonymously effectively weaponizes commerce, by making actual customer relationships a liability, and turns ‘customers’ into a commodity to be exploited. The proof of that is obvious, and its getting worse.

 

An amusing case in point: at first, many large corporate CRM websites, while attempting to totally automate customer-support, found it necessary to augment their automated-decision-trees with on-line chat options, as an alternative to forcing their customers to call an 800-number, and talk to a live person. And unless you pay attention, you may not realize you’re talking (texting) a conversation with an ‘AI-bot’. Lately, I’ve been finding that just indicating you want to have a ‘text conversation’ with a real-person isn’t enough to actually get one. Now, I often have to fight my way through a ‘conversation’ with a ‘virtual person’, just to get into a ‘wait queue’, for a real person.

 

As annoying as those experiences are, the subliminal sub-text (so to speak) is, in my view, a destructive  impulse/strategy, which undermines a core-principle of free enterprise: a mutually agreed upon transaction between two human beings. The message is clear: the objective of the corporate entity is to completely automate all interactions with their customer if possible. And in so doing, they effectively eliminate any last vestige of mutuality in the transaction. If we follow that logic to its absurd extreme, do we not end up with a thoroughly bifurcated civilization, consisting of providers and, consumers, with little or no common-ground?

 

Politically, this trend raises core-questions as to the nature of republican democracy. By imbuing citizens with the default-ability to exploit their First Amendment rights in an ‘anonymous town squareare we not relieving individuals of personal responsibility for their supposed views, and is not that obligation prerequisite to the ‘unalienable right’ itself?

 

Culturally speaking, is it possible that anonymity is also toxic to the formation and preservation of a humane culture? Having grown up in a tight-knit neighborhood in the suburbs of a major west-coast city, I am acutely aware of the material value of real-world, face-to-face relationships. Anyone who has that frame of reference understands the stark difference between an ‘on-line conversation’, and those which take place in the real-world. I wonder if the more recent generations who were born into a world where on-line communication is taken for granted, and perceived to be the dominant, or at least preferred means of communicating with one’s peers, recognize how different the two modes actually are?

 

What to do about it?

1. Recognize what's at stake. Do you really want to live your lives under 24x7 surveillance?
(Searches: dna profiling, facial recognition, drop-boxes, municipal video networks, Argus, mandatory corporate id-profiles, mandatory electronic thumb-prints.)

2. Find a way to support and compensate (legitimate) open-source developers, without turning open-source into a de-facto commercial enterprise.

3. Set aside fantasies of getting rich enough to leave the turmoil of the 21st Century behind – there is no place to hide, we either fix it, or suffer the consequences.