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The Internet Doesn’t Have to Be Awful

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Highlights

  • Americans were good at democracy because they practiced democracy. They formed what he called “associations,” the myriad organizations that we now call “civil society,” and they did so everywhere:
  • Tocqueville reckoned that the true success of democracy in America rested not on the grand ideals expressed on public monuments or even in the language of the Constitution, but in these habits and practices.
  • “As soon as several of the inhabitants of the United States have conceived a sentiment or an idea that they want to produce in the world, they seek each other out; and when they have found each other, they unite.”
  • Instead of participating in civic organizations that give them a sense of community as well as practical experience in tolerance and consensus-building, Americans join internet mobs, in which they are submerged in the logic of the crowd, clicking Like or Share and then moving on. Instead of entering a real-life public square, they drift anonymously into digital spaces where they rarely meet opponents; when they do, it is only to vilify them.
  • We don’t have an internet based on our democratic values of openness, accountability, and respect for human rights.
  • We must alter the design and structure of online spaces so that citizens, businesses, and political actors have better incentives, more choices, and more rights.
  • What Fukuyama and a team of thinkers at Stanford have proposed instead is a means of introducing competition into the system through “middleware,” software that allows people to choose an algorithm that, say, prioritizes content from news sites with high editorial standards.
  • Algorithms, by contrast, change as human behavior changes. They resemble not the cars or coal mines we have regulated in the past, but something more like the bacteria in our intestines, living organisms that interact with us.
  • Matias thinks we have to not just take control of our own data, but also help oversee the design of algorithmic experiments, with “individual participation and consent at all decision levels possible.”
  • Lemos advocates for a system known as “self-sovereign identity,” which would accrue through the symbols of trust built up through different activities—your diploma, your driver’s license, your work record—to create a connective tissue of trusted sources that proves you are real. A self-sovereign identity would still allow you to use pseudonyms online, but it would assure everyone else that you are an actual human,
  • Aren’t we all addicted to the rage and culture wars available on social media? Don’t we use social media to perform, or to virtue signal, or to express identity—and don’t we like it that way?
  • super-users—people who use Twitter more than other social media—rate the platform highly for making them “feel connected,” but give it low marks for “encouraging the humanization of others,” ensuring people’s safety, and producing reliable information.
  • As the great urban thinker Jane Jacobs wrote, the best urban design helps people interact with one another, and the best architecture facilitates the best conversation. The same is true of the internet.
  • Our new internet would also embrace all of the lessons we have so bitterly learned, not only in the past 20 years but in the almost two centuries since Tocqueville wrote his famous book.
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