The inventor of the web has spoken. Once again. And he is not amused. Once again. Maybe even a little scared, definately concerned, positively scrooged.
In his article on theguardian.com (March 12, 2017), Tim “HTTP” Berners-Lee, Sir TIMBL for short, sounds a little like Oppenheimer after seeing the dark side of what he had invented:
“I imagined the web as an open platform that would allow everyone, everywhere to share information, access opportunities, and collaborate across geographic and cultural boundaries. […] Over the past 12 months, I’ve become increasingly worried about three new trends, which I believe we must tackle in order for the web to fulfill its true potential as a tool that serves all of humanity:
1. We’ve lost control of our personal data.
2. It’s too easy for misinformation to spread on the web.
3. Political advertising online needs transparency and understanding.”
The Internet may not be comparable to the atom bomb, yet. But: Does it have the potential of a weapon of mass destruction, with good intentions turned bad? Is it already beyond our control, in the hands of the web’s political and business dictators? Is Big Data the new plutonium? And, if so:
Who is going to come to our, the People’s, aid to guide us and protect us from possible malfunctions of TIMBL’s invention?
Politicians? Highly unlikely. They are more or less powerless in regards to this new crime and war scene. One law enactment for the virtual world breeds ten workarounds before it’s even fully implemented. And with the likes of Trump on the rise around the world, their solution would probably be throwing bombs at foreign server farms, followed by salves of diss tweets … so that doesn’t really do the comforting job. TIMBL’s 2015 Christmas call for an online “Magna Carta” is in this regards laudable, but in my eyes unrealistic — at least in the current state of the world.
(So-called) “moral” institutions like churches, NGO’s or foundations? Just like politicians, they have not only lost their factual power and influence, but more so even their credibility and trustworthiness with an increasing public awareness and common knowledge of misconducts displaying despicable levels of corruption. Not even good men like Pope Francis will be able to change this in the short term needed, too much reputation damage done over decades and centuries.
Science? Should indeed have the potential, and the facts, and the solutions, but something went so completely wrong over the last few years is this respect: the mass of people isn’t listening anymore, and a dangerous intersection not believing anymore, and neither are many of today’s new leaders. Don’t like the fact that climate change exists, and that man caused it? Call it fake news, a complot. It’s like not listening to Galileo all over again: The world is flat, now shut up, off to the stake with you! Science has the facts, maybe even solutions, but some don’t trust anymore, most don’t listen. So currently not our saviours, sadly.
We, the People? Wasn’t the internet initially made for us? A new universe of transparency, openness, truly human interaction across borders, for the better of mankind, fostering an unprecedented level of togetherness and cross-cultural understanding? Between humans as much as between the human beings infront of and behind institutional and corporate walls, literally the end of business as usual?
While many of us are using the web exactly for this purpose and bridging real worlds in the virtual one, the history of the Internet, and especially it’s social offspring, has clearly shown that TIMBL invented a truly human monster. The Internet is the most human way of communicating since mankind learned to interact with other specimen by using language. Human in a comprehensive sense of the word: light and shadow, angel and devil, knights in white satin just as much as dark knights rising, not only in the Internet’s Mordor, the so-called Dark Net, but everywwwhere. I’m only human, after all, so don’t put the blame on me.
So, Power to the People? Pah! That was given to us in 1989, but we fucked it up big time, or at least we’re doing a good job at fucking it up. Our biggest misdemeanor? We’re letting it all happen!
What has become most obvious and transparent by taking a distant look at this spider web is the grimace of human nature and behaviour. (Wo)man’s foremost interest is egoistic and egocentic: fortune, wellbeing, success, complacency. No altruism, not really. It’s never truly about others’ advantage and gain; it’s always about my own, mine, mine, mine! In this respect, the Internet is the El Dorado for medium-savvy egomaniac leaders (and their nonetheless egomaniac executioners and followers) in the business of politics (e.g. Trump, Putin, Erdogan), the business of ideologies (e.g. islamists, right-wing political parties, fanatics), the business of business (e.g. Google, Facebook, Amazon), and even the business of transparency (e.g. Wikileaks, Snowden). All the same, in a way, driven by egoistic interests, despite all contrary avowals.
So, again: Who can help us and guide us in the right direction?
Regardless of the above and not repugnant: We, the People, can. And we must! We have to awake from our Garden Eden dream, from our careless spa life in the land of virtual milk and honey, where the web brings us everything for free right to our doorstep: services, friends, truth, anytime, anywhere. Wake up! Nothing is for free, and those out there offering you stuff for free don’t have your best interests in mind, actually not yours at all! Dream’s over, get over it. And rebel! Against data kraken. Against useless, questionable news streams, from the traditional media as well as new sources of content. Against ever more latest technological shit, must-have apps, to-die-for features. They’re all made to make money, and you pay with your freedom and identity.
Now here’s another idea, maybe far-out, but maybe also worth thinking through:
What about the role of Brands in this scenario?
I’m deliberately not saying “companies” or “enterprises”, as these titles quite rightfullyevoke the notion of capitalism. No: Brands. With their larger-than-business potential to stand for something bigger, inspire something out of the ordinary, have actual meaning — and in some cases even the potential to be role models. Brands indeed have the power and means to be guiding poles in a foggy virtual swamp of mediocrity and misanthropy, if directed in a prudent way. This at least holds true for brands who have already been taking the idea of Corporate Social Responsibility seriously in the offline world, and not just as a PR pin for their reputation lapel.
We need a movement of Digital CSR!
We need a corporate sense of responsibility for what’s happening in the digital space. The courage and farsightedness to perceive the megatrend of digitalization and the internet not as a phenomenon that allows us to make as much money as possible at any sacrifice. The idea of “Business to Society” is a great and support-worthy way of approaching a business strategy, but society is no longer just real people living in the analog world, but also real people interacting in the digital world (although with the uprising of VR, many might run danger of believing that they indeed live there, but that’s another story). The boundary between the so-called real world and its virtual counterpart is blurring.
Big corporate brands have the chance to become regulatory lightposts, offer guiding principles and places to turn to for safety, from data kraken as well as malevolent community members. Why should they? Because they can! And if they want to, they will. Many big brands have the resources to invest in projects that have nothing to do with their business, but serve a greater cause, they have been doing this in the real world, so why not extend this approach to the digital space? Such an broader, responsible attitude towards digital business will definately become a prerequisite for future generations of employees to consider working for a brand — already today, they are wanting more than just high salaries, a Senator aviation card, and a neat office.
I truly believe that brands that have started making money before and outside of the web, that have a reputation of thinking outside of the money box, and that are not built upon the business model of raping people by data extraction, will be able to build upon a community of trusting fans and supporters who would probably join them in such an venture.
As TIMBL put it:
“I may have invented the web, but all of you have helped to create what it is today. [..] It has taken all of us to build the web we have, and now it is up to all of us to build the web we want — for everyone.”
But we, the People, can’t do it alone. Neither can TIMBL with his Web Foundation. We need our brands, the brands that have the guts to be more than just money makers, the brands we trust, because we know them, because we are part of them, because we want them to be and remain part of lives, because we want to co-create our joint future together, inside and outside the web — for the better, not for the worse.