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Week 25 (June 17, 2024)

We Need To Rewild The Internet
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We Need To Rewild The Internet

The internet has become an extractive and fragile monoculture. But we can revitalize it using lessons learned by ecologists.

By Maria Farrell and Robin Berjon April 16, 2024

“The word for world is forest” — Ursula K. Le Guin

In the late 18th century, officials in Prussia and Saxony began to rearrange their complex, diverse forests into straight rows of single-species trees. Forests had been sources of food, grazing, shelter, medicine, bedding and more for the people who lived in and around them, but to the early modern state, they were simply a source of timber.

So-called “scientific forestry” was that century’s growth hacking. It made timber yields easier to count, predict and harvest, and meant owners no longer relied on skilled local foresters to manage forests. They were replaced with lower-skilled laborers following basic algorithmic instructions to keep the monocrop tidy, the understory bare.

Information and decision-making power now flowed straight to the top. Decades later when the first crop was felled, vast fortunes were made, tree by standardized tree. The clear-felled forests were replanted, with hopes of extending the boom. Readers of the American political anthropologist of anarchy and order, James C. Scott, know [what happened](https://files.libcom.org/files/Seeing Like a State - James C. Scott.pdf) next.

It was a disaster so bad that a new word, Waldsterben, or “forest death,” was minted to describe the result. All the same species and age, the trees were flattened in storms, ravaged by insects and disease — even the survivors were spindly and weak. Forests were now so tidy and bare, they were all but dead. The first magnificent bounty had not been the beginning of endless riches, but a one-off harvesting of millennia of soil wealth built up by biodiversity and symbiosis. Complexity was the goose that laid golden eggs, and she had been slaughtered.

The story of German scientific forestry transmits a timeless truth: When we simplify complex systems, we destroy them, and the devastating consequences sometimes aren’t obvious until it’s too late.

That impulse to scour away the messiness that makes life resilient is what many conservation biologists call the “pathology of command and control.” Today, the same drive to centralize, control and extract has driven the internet to the same fate as the ravaged forests.

The internet’s 2010s, its boom years, may have been the first glorious harvest that exhausted a one-time bonanza of diversity. The complex web of human interactions that thrived on the internet’s initial technological diversity is now corralled into globe-spanning data-extraction engines making huge fortunes for a tiny few.

Our online spaces are not ecosystems, though tech firms love that word. They’re plantations; highly concentrated and controlled environments, closer kin to the industrial farming of the cattle feedlot or battery chicken farms that madden the creatures trapped within.

We all know this. We see it each time we reach for our phones. But what most people have missed is how this concentration reaches deep into the internet’s infrastructure — the pipes and protocols, cables and networks, search engines and browsers. These structures determine how we build and use the internet, now and in the future.

They’ve concentrated into a series of near-planetary duopolies. For example, as of April 2024, Google and Apple’s internet browsers have captured almost 85% of the world market share, Microsoft and Apple’s two desktop operating systems over 80%. Google runs 84% of global search and Microsoft 3%. Slightly more than half of all phones come from Apple and Samsung, while over 99% of mobile operating systems run on Google or Apple software. Two cloud computing providers, Amazon Web Services and Microsoft’s Azure [make up](https://www.hava.io/blog/2024-cloud-market-share-analysis-decoding-industry-leaders-and-trends#:~:text=Amazon Web Services (AWS) maintains,in the Asia-Pacific market.) over 50% of the global market. Apple and Google’s email clients manage nearly 90% of global email. Google and Cloudflare serve around 50% of global domain name system requests.

Two kinds of everything may be enough to fill a fictional ark and repopulate a ruined world, but can’t run an open, global “network of networks” where everyone has the same chance to innovate and compete. No wonder internet engineer Leslie Daigle termed the concentration and consolidation of the internet’s technical architecture “‘climate change’ of the Internet ecosystem.”

Walled Gardens Have Deep Roots

The internet made the tech giants possible. Their services have scaled globally, via its open, interoperable core. But for the past decade, they’ve also worked to enclose the varied, competing and often open-source or collectively provided services the internet is built on into their proprietary domains. Although this improves their operational efficiency, it also ensures that the flourishing conditions of their own emergence aren’t repeated by potential competitors. For tech giants, the long period of open internet evolution is over. Their internet is not an ecosystem. It’s a zoo.

Google, Amazon, Microsoft and Meta are consolidating their control deep into the underlying infrastructure through acquisitions, vertical integration, building proprietary networks, creating chokepoints and concentrating functions from different technical layers into a single silo of top-down control. They can afford to, using the vast wealth reaped in their one-off harvest of collective, global wealth.

​ “That impulse to scour away the messiness that makes life resilient is what many conservation biologists call the ‘pathology of command and control.’”

Taken together, the enclosure of infrastructure and imposition of technology monoculture forecloses our futures. Internet people like to talk about “the stack,” or the layered architecture of protocols, software and hardware, operated by different service providers that collectively delivers the daily miracle of connection. It’s a complicated, dynamic system with a basic value baked into the core design: Key functions are kept separate to ensure resilience, generality and create room for innovation.

Initially funded by the U.S. military and designed by academic researchers to function in wartime, the internet evolved to work anywhere, in any condition, operated by anyone who wanted to connect. But what was a dynamic, ever-evolving game of Tetris with distinct “players” and “layers” is today hardening into a continent-spanning system of compacted tectonic plates. Infrastructure is not just what we see on the surface; it’s the forces below, that make mountains and power tsunamis. Whoever controls infrastructure determines the future. If you doubt that, consider that in Europe we’re still using roads and living in towns and cities the Roman Empire mapped out 2,000 years ago.

In 2019, some internet engineers in the global standards-setting body, the Internet Engineering Task Force, raised the alarm. Daigle, a respected engineer who had previously chaired its oversight committee and internet architecture board, wrote in a policy brief that consolidation meant network structures were ossifying throughout the stack, making incumbents harder to dislodge and violating a core principle of the internet: that it does not create “permanent favorites.” Consolidation doesn’t just squeeze out competition. It narrows the kinds of relationships possible between operators of different services.

As Daigle put it: “The more proprietary solutions are built and deployed instead of collaborative open standards-based ones, the less the internet survives as a platform for future innovation.” Consolidation kills collaboration between service providers through the stack by rearranging an array of different relationships — competitive, collaborative — into a single predatory one.

Since then, standards development organizations started several initiatives to name and tackle infrastructure consolidation, but these floundered. Bogged down in technical minutiae, unable to separate themselves from their employers’ interests and deeply held professional values of simplification and control, most internet engineers simply couldn’t see the forest for the trees.

Up close, internet concentration seems too intricate to untangle; from far away, it seems too difficult to deal with. But what if we thought of the internet not as a doomsday “hyperobject,” but as a damaged and struggling ecosystem facing destruction? What if we looked at it not with helpless horror at the eldritch encroachment of its current controllers, but with compassion, constructiveness and hope?

Technologists are great at incremental fixes, but to regenerate entire habitats, we need to learn from ecologists who take a whole-systems view. Ecologists also know how to keep going when others first ignore you and then say it’s too late, how to mobilize and work collectively, and how to build pockets of diversity and resilience that will outlast them, creating possibilities for an abundant future they can imagine but never control. We don’t need to repair the internet’s infrastructure. We need to rewild it.

What Is Rewilding?

Rewilding “aims to restore healthy ecosystems by creating wild, biodiverse spaces,” according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature. More ambitious and risk-tolerant than traditional conservation, it targets entire ecosystems to make space for complex food webs and the emergence of unexpected interspecies relations. It’s less interested in saving specific endangered species. Individual species are just ecosystem components, and focusing on components loses sight of the whole. Ecosystems flourish through multiple points of contact between their many elements, just like computer networks. And like in computer networks, ecosystem interactions are multifaceted and generative.

Rewilding has much to offer people who care about the internet. As Paul Jepson and Cain Blythe wrote in their book “Rewilding: The Radical New Science of Ecological Recovery,” rewilding pays attention “to the emergent properties of interactions between ‘things’ in ecosystems … a move from linear to systems thinking.”

It’s a fundamentally cheerful and workmanlike approach to what can seem insoluble. It doesn’t micromanage. It creates room for “ecological processes [that] foster complex and self-organizing ecosystems.” Rewilding puts into practice what every good manager knows: Hire the best people you can, provide what they need to thrive, then get out of the way. It’s the opposite of command and control.

​ “The complex web of human interactions that thrived on the internet’s initial technological diversity is now corralled into globe-spanning data-extraction engines making huge fortunes for a tiny few.”

Rewilding the internet is more than a metaphor. It’s a framework and plan. It gives us fresh eyes for the wicked problem of extraction and control, and new means and allies to fix it. It recognizes that ending internet monopolies isn’t just an intellectual problem. It’s an emotional one. It answers questions like: How do we keep going when the monopolies have more money and power? How do we act collectively when they suborn our community spaces, funding and networks? And how do we communicate to our allies what fixing it will look and feel like?

Rewilding is a positive vision for the networks we want to live inside, and a shared story for how we get there. It grafts a new tree onto technology’s tired old stock.

What Ecology Knows

Ecology knows plenty about complex systems that technologists can benefit from. First, it knows that shifting baselines are real.

If you were born around the 1970s, you probably remember many more dead insects on the windscreen of your parents’ car than on your own. Global land-dwelling insect populations are dropping about 9% a decade. If you’re a geek, you probably programmed your own computer to make basic games. You certainly remember a web with more to read than the same five websites. You may have even written your own blog.

But many people born after 2000 probably think a world with few insects, little ambient noise from birdcalls, where you regularly use only a few social media and messaging apps (rather than a whole web) is normal. As Jepson and Blythe wrote, shifting baselines are “where each generation assumes the nature they experienced in their youth to be normal and unwittingly accepts the declines and damage of the generations before.” Damage is already baked in. It even seems natural.

Ecology knows that shifting baselines dampen collective urgency and deepen generational divides. People who care about internet monoculture and control are often told they’re nostalgists harkening back to a pioneer era. It’s fiendishly hard to regenerate an open and competitive infrastructure for younger generations who’ve been raised to assume that two or three platforms, two app stores, two operating systems, two browsers, one cloud/mega-store and a single search engine for the world comprise the internet. If the internet for you is the massive sky-scraping silo you happen to live inside and the only thing you can see outside is the single, other massive sky-scraping silo, then how can you imagine anything else?

Concentrated digital power produces the same symptoms that command and control produces in biological ecosystems; acute distress punctuated by sudden collapses once tipping points are reached. What scale is needed for rewilding to succeed? It’s one thing to reintroduce wolves to the 3,472 square miles of Yellowstone, and quite another to cordon off about 20 square miles of a polder (land reclaimed from a body of water) known as Oostvaardersplassen near Amsterdam. Large and diverse Yellowstone is likely complex enough to adapt to change, but Oostvaardersplassen has struggled.

​ “Our online spaces are not ecosystems, though tech firms love that word. They’re plantations; highly concentrated and controlled environments … that madden the creatures trapped within.”

In the 1980s, the Dutch government attempted to regenerate a section of the overgrown Oostvaardersplassen. An independent-minded government ecologist, Frans Vera, said reeds and scrub would dominate unless now-extinct herbivores grazed them. In place of ancient aurochs, the state forest management agency introduced the famously bad-tempered German Heck cattle and in place of an extinct steppe pony, a Polish semi-feral breed.

Some 30 years on, with no natural predators, and after plans for a wildlife corridor to another reserve came to nothing, there were many more animals than the limited winter vegetation could sustain. People were horrified by starving cows and ponies, and beginning in 2018, government agencies instituted animal welfare checks and culling.

Just turning the clock back was insufficient. The segment of Oostvaardersplassen was too small and too disconnected to be rewilded. Because the animals had nowhere else to go, overgrazing and collapse was inevitable, an embarrassing but necessary lesson. Rewilding is a work in progress. It’s not about trying to revert ecosystems to a mythical Eden. Instead, rewilders seek to rebuild resilience by restoring autonomous natural processes and letting them operate at scale to generate complexity. But rewilding, itself a human intervention, can take several turns to get right.

Whatever we do, the internet isn’t returning to old-school then-common interfaces like FTP and Gopher, or organizations operating their own mail servers again instead of off-the-shelf solutions like G-Suite. But some of what we need is already here, especially on the web. Look at the resurgence of RSS feeds, email newsletters and blogs, as we discover (yet again) that relying on one app to host global conversations creates a single point of failure and control. New systems are growing, like the Fediverse with its federated islands, or Bluesky with algorithmic choice and composable moderation.

We don’t know what the future holds. Our job is to keep open as much opportunity as we can, trusting that those who come later will use it. Instead of setting purity tests for which kind of internet is most like the original, we can test changes against the values of the original design. Do new standards protect the network’s “generality,” i.e. its ability to support multiple uses, or is functionality limited to optimize efficiency for the biggest tech firms?

As early as 1985, plant ecologists Steward T.A. Pickett and Peter S. White wrote in “The Ecology of Natural Disturbance and Patch Dynamics,” that an “essential paradox of wilderness conservation is that we seek to preserve what must change.” Some internet engineers know this. David Clark, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor who worked on some of the internet’s earliest protocols, wrote an entire book about other network architectures that might have been built if different values, like security or centralized management, had been prioritized by the internet’s creators.

But our internet took off because it was designed as a general-purpose network, built to connect anyone.

Our internet was built to be complex and unbiddable, to do things we cannot yet imagine. When we interviewed Clark, he told us that “‘complex’ implies a system in which you have emergent behavior, a system in which you can’t model the outcomes. Your intuitions may be wrong. But a system that’s too simple means lost opportunities.” Everything we collectively make that’s worthwhile is complex and thereby a little messier. The cracks are where new people and ideas get in.

Internet infrastructure is a degraded ecosystem, but it’s also a built environment, like a city. Its unpredictability makes it generative, worthwhile and deeply human. In 1961, Jane Jacobs, an American-Canadian activist and author of “The Death and Life of Great American Cities,” argued that mixed-use neighborhoods were safer, happier, more prosperous, and more livable than the sterile, highly controlling designs of urban planners like New York’s Robert Moses.

​ “As a top-down, built environment, the internet has become something that is done to us, not something we collectively remake every day.”

Just like the crime-ridden, Corbusier-like towers Moses crammed people into when he demolished mixed-use neighborhoods and built highways through them, today’s top-down, concentrated internet is, for many, an unpleasant and harmful place. Its owners are hard to remove, and their interests do not align with ours.

As Jacobs wrote: “As in all Utopias, the right to have plans of any significance belonged only to the planners in charge.” As a top-down, built environment, the internet has become something that is done to us, not something we collectively remake every day.

Ecosystems endure because species serve as checks and balances on each other. They have different modes of interaction, not just extraction, but mutualism, commensalism, competition and predation. In flourishing ecosystems, predators are subject to limits. They’re just one part of a complex web that passes calories around, not a one-way ticket to the end of evolution.

Ecologists know that diversity is resilience.

On July 18, 2001, 11 carriages of a 60-car freight train derailed in the Howard Street Tunnel under Mid-Town Belvedere, a neighborhood just north of downtown Baltimore. Within minutes, one carriage containing a highly flammable chemical was punctured. The escaping chemical ignited, and soon, adjacent carriages were alight in a fire that took about five days to put out. The disaster multiplied and spread. Thick, brick tunnel walls acted like an oven, and temperatures rose to nearly 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit. A more than three-foot-wide water main above the tunnels burst, flooding the tunnel with millions of gallons within hours. It only cooled a little. Three weeks later, an explosion linked to the combustible chemical blew out manhole covers located as far as two miles away.

WorldCom, then the second largest long-distance phone company in the U.S., had fiber-optic cables in the tunnel carrying high volumes of phone and internet traffic. However, according to Clark, the MIT professor, WorldCom’s resilience planning meant traffic was spread over different fiber networks in anticipation of just this kind of event.

On paper, WorldCom had network redundancy. But almost immediately, U.S. internet traffic slowed, and WorldCom’s East Coast and transatlantic phone lines went down. The region’s narrow physical topography had concentrated all those different fiber networks into a single chokepoint, the Howard Street Tunnel. WorldCom’s resilience was, quite literally, incinerated. It had technological redundancy, but not diversity. Sometimes we don’t notice concentration until it’s too late.

Clark tells the story of the Howard Street Tunnel fire to show that bottlenecks aren’t always obvious, especially at the operational level, and huge systems that seem secure, due to their size and resources, can unexpectedly crumble.

In today’s internet, much traffic passes through tech firms’ private networks, for example, Google and Meta’s own undersea cables. Much internet traffic is served from a few dominant content distribution networks, like Cloudflare and Akamai, who run their own networks of proxy servers and data centers. Similarly, that traffic goes through an increasingly small number of domain name system (DNS) resolvers, which work like phone books for the internet, linking website names to their numeric address.

All of this improves network speed and efficiency but creates new and non-obvious bottlenecks like the Howard Street Tunnel. Centralized service providers say they’re better resourced and skilled at attacks and failures, but they are also large, attractive targets for attackers and possible single points of system failure.

On Oct. 21, 2016, dozens of major U.S. websites suddenly stopped working. Domain names belonging to Airbnb, Amazon, PayPal, CNN and The New York Times simply didn’t resolve. All were clients of the commercial DNS service provider, Dyn, which had been hit by a cyberattack. Hackers infected [tens of thousands](https://coverlink.com/case-study/mirai-ddos-attack-on-dyn/#:~:text=Impacted internet platforms included PayPal,platforms in approximately two hours) of internet-enabled devices with malicious software, creating a network of hijacked devices, or a botnet, that they used to bombard Dyn with queries until it collapsed. America’s biggest internet brands were brought down by nothing more than a network of baby monitors, security webcams and other consumer devices. Although they all likely had resilience planning and redundancies, they went down because a single chokepoint — in one crucial layer of infrastructure — failed.

​ “Crashes, fires and floods may simply be entropy in action, but systemically concentrated and risky infrastructures are choices made manifest — and we can make better ones.”

Widespread outages due to centralized chokepoints have become so common that investors even use them to identify opportunities. When a failure by cloud provider Fastly took high-profile websites offline in 2021, its share price surged. Investors were delighted by headlines that informed them of an obscure technical service provider with an apparent lock on an essential service. To investors, this critical infrastructure failure doesn’t look like fragility but like a chance to profit.

The result of infrastructural narrowness is baked-in fragility that we only notice after a breakdown. But monoculture is also highly visible in our search and browser tools. Search, browsing and social media are how we find and share knowledge and how we communicate. They’re a critical, global epistemic and democratic infrastructure, controlled by just a few U.S. companies. Crashes, fires and floods may simply be entropy in action, but systemically concentrated and risky infrastructures are choices made manifest — and we can make better ones.

The Look & Feel Of A Rewilded Internet

A rewilded internet will have many more service choices. Some services like search and social media will be broken up, as AT&T eventually was. Instead of tech firms extracting and selling people’s personal data, different payment models will fund the infrastructure we need. Right now, there is little explicit provision for public goods like internet protocols and browsers, essential to making the internet work. The biggest tech firms subsidize and profoundly influence them.

Part of rewilding means taking what’s been pulled into the big tech stack back out of it, and paying for the true costs of connectivity. Some things like basic connectivity we will continue to pay for directly, and others, like browsers, we will support indirectly but transparently, as described below. The rewilded internet will have an abundance of ways to connect and relate to each other. There won’t be just one or two numbers to call if leaders of a political coup decide to shut the internet down in the middle of the night, as has happened in places like Egypt and Myanmar. No one entity will permanently be on top. A rewilded internet will be a more interesting, usable, stable and enjoyable place to be.

Through extensive research, Nobel-winning economist Elinor Ostrom found that “when individuals are well informed about the problem they face and about who else is involved, and can build settings where trust and reciprocity can emerge, grow, and be sustained over time, costly and positive actions are frequently taken without waiting for an external authority to impose rules, monitor compliance, and assess penalties.” Ostrom found people spontaneously organizing to manage natural resources — from water company cooperation in California to Maine lobster fishermen organizing to prevent overfishing.

Self-organization also exists as part of a key internet function: traffic coordination. Internet exchange points (IXPs) are an example of common-pool resource management, where internet service providers (ISPs) collectively agree to carry each other’s data for low or no cost. Network operators of all kinds — telecoms companies, large tech firms, universities, governments and broadcasters — all need to send large amounts of data through other ISPs’ networks so that it gets to its destination.

If they managed this separately through individual contracts, they’d spend much more time and money. Instead, they often form IXPs, typically as independent, not-for-profit associations. As well as managing traffic, IXPs have, in many — and especially developing — countries, formed the backbone of a flourishing technical community that further drives economic development.

Both between people and on the internet, connections are generative. From technical standards to common-pool resource management and even to more localized broadband networks known as “altnets,” internet rewilding already has a deep toolbox of collective action ready to be deployed.

The New Drive For Antitrust & Competition

The list of infrastructures to be diversified is long. As well as pipes and protocols, there are operating systems, browsers, search engines, the Domain Name System, social media, advertising, cloud providers, app stores, AI companies and more. And these technologies also intertwined.

But showing what can be done in one area creates opportunities in others. First, let’s start with regulation.

You don’t always need a big new idea like rewilding to frame and motivate major structural change. Sometimes reviving an old idea will do. President Biden’s 2021 “Executive Order on Promoting Competition in the American Economy” revived the original, pro-worker, trust-busting scope and urgency of the early 20th-century legal activist and Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis, along with rules and framings that date back to before the 1930s New Deal.

​ “Rewilding an already built environment isn’t just sitting back and seeing what tender, living thing can force its way through the concrete. It’s razing to the ground the structures that block out light for everyone not rich enough to live on the top floor.”

U.S. antitrust law was created to break the power of oligarchs in oil, steel and railroads who threatened America’s young democracy. It gave workers basic protections and saw equal economic opportunity as essential to freedom. This view of competition as essential was whittled away by Chicago School economic policies in the 1970s and Reagan-era judges’ court rulings over the decades. They believed intervention should only be permitted when monopoly power causes consumer prices to rise. The intellectual monoculture of that consumer-harm threshold has since spread globally.

It’s why governments just stood aside as 21st-century tech firms romped to oligopoly. If a regulator’s sole criterion for action is to make sure consumers don’t pay a penny more, then the free or data-subsidized services of tech platforms don’t even register. (Of course, consumers pay in other ways, as these tech giants exploit their personal information for profit.) This laissez-faire approach allowed the biggest firms to choke off competition by acquiring their competitors and vertically integrating service providers, creating the problems we have today.

Regulators and enforcers in Washington and Brussels now say they have learned that lesson and won’t allow AI dominance to happen as internet concentration did. Federal Trade Commission Chair Lina Khan and U.S. Department of Justice antitrust enforcer, Jonathan Kanter, are identifying chokepoints in the AI “stack” — concentration in control of processing chips, datasets, computing capacity, algorithm innovation, distribution platforms and user interfaces — and analyzing them to see if they affect systemic competition. This is potentially good news for people who want to prevent the current dominance of tech giants being grandfathered into our AI future.

In his 2021 signing of the executive order on competition, President Biden said: “Capitalism without competition isn’t capitalism; it’s exploitation.” Biden’s enforcers are changing the kinds of cases they take up and widening the applicable legal theories on harm that they bring to judges. Instead of the traditionally narrow focus on consumer prices, today’s cases argue that the economic harms perpetrated by dominant firms include those suffered by their workers, small companies and the market as a whole.

Khan and Kanter have jettisoned narrow and abstruse models of market behavior for real-world experiences of healthcare workers, farmers and writers. They get that shutting off economic opportunity fuels far-right extremism. They’ve made antitrust enforcement and competition policy explicitly about coercion versus choice, power versus democracy. Kanter told a recent conference in Brussels that “excessive concentration of power is a threat … it’s not just about prices or output but it’s about freedom, liberty and opportunity.”

Enforcers in Washington and Brussels are starting to preemptively block tech firms from using dominance in one realm to take over another. After scrutiny by the U.S. FTC and European Commission, Amazon recently abandoned its plan to acquire the home appliance manufacturer, iRobot. Regulators on both sides of the Atlantic have also moved to stop Apple from using its iPhone platform dominance to squeeze app store competition and dominate future markets through, for example, pushing the usage of CarPlay on automakers and limiting access to its tap-to-pay digital wallet in the financial services sector.

Still, so far, their enforcement actions have focused on the consumer-facing, highly visible parts of the tech giants’ exploitative and proprietary internet. The few, narrow measures of the 2021 executive order that aim to reduce infrastructure-based monopolies, only prevent future abuses like radio spectrum-hogging, not those already locked in. Sure, the best way to deal with monopolies is to stop them from happening in the first place. But unless regulators and enforcers eradicate the existing dominance of these giants now, we’ll be living in today’s infrastructure monopoly for decades, perhaps even a century.

Even activist regulators have shied away from applying the toughest remedies for concentration in long-consolidated markets, such as non-discrimination requirements, functional interoperability and structural separations, i.e. breaking companies up. And declaring that search and social media monopolies are actually public utilities — and forcing them to act as common carriers open to all — is still too extreme for most.

But rewilding a built environment isn’t just sitting back and seeing what tender, living thing can force its way through the concrete. It’s razing to the ground the structures that block out light for everyone not rich enough to live on the top floor.

​ “Ecologists have reoriented their field as a ‘crisis discipline,’ a field of study that’s not just about learning things but about saving them. We technologists need to do the same.”

When the writer and activist Cory Doctorow wrote about how to free ourselves from the clutches of Big Tech, he said that though breaking up big companies will likely take decades, providing strong and mandatory interoperability would open up innovative space and slow the flow of money to the largest firms — money they would otherwise use to deepen their moats.

Doctorow describes “comcom,” or competitive compatibility, as a kind of “guerrilla interoperability, achieved through reverse engineering, bots, scraping and other permissionless tactics.” Before a thicket of invasive laws sprung up to strangle it, comcom was how people figured out how to fix cars and tractors or re-write software. Comcom drives the try-every-tactic-until-one-works behavior you see in a flourishing ecosystem.

In an ecosystem, diversity of species is another way of saying “diversity of tactics,” as each successful new tactic creates a new niche to occupy. Whether it’s an octopus camouflaging itself as a sea snake, a cuckoo smuggling her chicks into another bird’s nest, orchids producing flowers that look just like a female bee, or parasites influencing rodent hosts to take life-ending risks, each evolutionary micro-niche is created by a successful tactic. Comcom is simply tactical diversity; it’s how organisms interact in complex, dynamic systems. And humans have demonstrated the epitome of short-term thinking by enabling the oligarchs who are trying to end it.

Efforts are underway. The EU already has several years of experience with interoperability mandates and precious insight into how determined firms work to circumvent such laws. The U.S., however, is still in its early days of ensuring software interoperability, for example, for videoconferencing.

Perhaps one way to motivate and encourage regulators and enforcers everywhere is to explain that the subterranean architecture of the internet has become a shadowland where evolution has all but stopped. Regulators’ efforts to make the visible internet competitive will achieve little unless they also tackle the devastation that lies beneath.

Next Steps

Much of what we need is already here. Beyond regulators digging deep for courage, vision and bold new litigation strategies, we need vigorous, pro-competitive government policies around procurement, investments and physical infrastructure. Universities must reject research funding from tech firms because it always comes with conditions, both spoken and unspoken.

Instead, we need more publicly funded tech research with publicly released findings. Such research should investigate power concentration in the internet ecosystem and practical alternatives to it. We need to recognize that much of the internet’s infrastructure is a de facto utility that we must regain control of.

We must ensure regulatory and financial incentives and support for alternatives including common-pool resource management, community networks, and the myriad other collaborative mechanisms people have used to provide essential public goods like roads, defense and clean water.

All this takes money. Governments are starved of tax revenue by the once-in-history windfalls seized by today’s tech giants, so it’s clear where the money is. We need to get it back.

We know all this, but still find it so hard to collectively act. Why?

Herded into rigid tech plantations rather than functioning, diverse ecosystems, it’s tough to imagine alternatives. Even those who can see clearly may feel helpless and alone. Rewilding unites everything we know we need to do and brings with it a whole new toolbox and vision.

Ecologists face the same systems of exploitation and are organizing urgently, at scale and across domains. They see clearly that the issues aren’t isolated but are instances of the same pathology of command and control, extraction and domination that political anthropologist Scott first noticed in scientific forestry. The solutions are the same in ecology and technology: aggressively use the rule of law to level out unequal capital and power, then rush in to fill the gaps with better ways of doing things.

Keep The Internet, The Internet

Susan Leigh Star, a sociologist and theorist of infrastructure and networks, wrote in her 1999 influential paper, “The Ethnography of Infrastructure”:

“Study a city and neglect its sewers and power supplies (as many have), and you miss essential aspects of distributional justice and planning power. Study an information system and neglect its standards, wires, and settings, and you miss equally essential aspects of aesthetics, justice, and change.”

The technical protocols and standards that underlie the internet’s infrastructure are ostensibly developed in open, collaborative standards development organizations (SDOs), but are also increasingly under the control of a few companies. What appear to be “voluntary” standards are often the business choices of the biggest firms.

The dominance of SDOs by big firms also shapes what does not get standardized — for example, search, which is effectively a global monopoly. While efforts to directly address internet consolidation have been raised repeatedly within SDOs, little progress has been made. This is damaging SDOs’ credibility, especially outside the U.S. SDOs must radically change or they will lose their implicit global mandate to steward the future of the internet.

We need internet standards to be global, open and generative. They’re the wire models that give the internet its planetary form, the gossamer-thin but steely-strong threads holding together its interoperability against fragmentation and permanent dominance.

*Make Laws & Standards Work Together*

In 2018, a small group of Californians maneuvered the Legislature into passing the [California Consumer Privacy Act](https://oag.ca.gov/privacy/ccpa#:~:text=The California Consumer Privacy Act,how to implement the law.). Nested in the statute was an unassuming provision, the “right to opt out of sale or sharing” your personal information via a “user-enabled global privacy control” or GPC signal that would create an automated method for doing so. The law didn’t define how GPC would work. Because a technical standard was required for browsers, businesses and providers to speak the same language, the signal’s details were delegated to a group of experts.

In July 2021, California’s attorney general mandated that all businesses use the newly created GPC for California-based consumers visiting their websites. The group of experts is now shepherding the technical specification through global web standards development at the World Wide Web Consortium. For California residents, GPC automates the request to “accept” or “reject” sales of your data, such as cookie-based tracking, on its websites. However, it isn’t yet supported by major default browsers like Chrome and Safari. Broad adoption will take time, but it’s a small step in changing real-world outcomes by driving antimonopoly practices deep into the standards stack — and it’s already being [adopted](https://usercentrics.com/knowledge-hub/what-is-global-privacy-control/#:~:text=United States and state-level laws and GPC,-Six new data&text=The laws in California%2C Connecticut,to respect Global Privacy Control.) elsewhere.

GPC is not the first legally mandated open standard, but it was deliberately designed from day one to bridge policymaking and standards-setting. The idea is gaining ground. A recent United Nations Human Rights Council report recommends that states delegate “regulatory functions to standard-setting organizations.”

Make Service-Providers — Not Users — Transparent

Today’s internet offers minimal transparency of key internet infrastructure providers. For example, browsers are highly complex pieces of infrastructure that determine how billions of people use the web, yet they are provided for free. That’s because the most commonly used search engines enter into opaque financial deals with browsers, paying them to be set as the default. Since few people change their default search engine, browsers like Safari and Firefox make money by defaulting the search bar to Google, locking in its dominance even as the search engine’s quality of output declines.

This creates a quandary. If antitrust enforcers were to impose competition, browsers would lose their main source of income. Infrastructure requires money, but the planetary nature of the internet challenges our public funding model, leaving the door open to private capture. However, if we see the current opaque system as what it is, a kind of non-state taxation, then we can craft an alternative.

Search engines are a logical place for governments to mandate the collection of a levy that supports browsers and other key internet infrastructure, which could be financed transparently under open, transnational, multistakeholder oversight.

Make Space To Grow

We need to stop thinking of internet infrastructure as too hard to fix. It’s the underlying system we use for nearly everything we do. The former prime minister of Sweden, Carl Bildt, and former Canadian deputy foreign minister, Gordon Smith, wrote in 2016 that the internet was becoming “the infrastructure of all infrastructure.” It’s how we organize, connect and build knowledge, even — perhaps — planetary intelligence. Right now, it’s concentrated, fragile and utterly toxic.

Ecologists have reoriented their field as a “crisis discipline,” a field of study that’s not just about learning things but about saving them. We technologists need to do the same. Rewilding the internet connects and grows what people are doing across regulation, standards-setting and new ways of organizing and building infrastructure, to tell a shared story of where we want to go. It’s a shared vision with many strategies. The instruments we need to shift away from extractive technological monocultures are at hand or ready to be built.

Jonathan Haidt Talks His New Book ‘The Anxious Generation’
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Social Media Messed Up Our Kids. Now It Is Making Us Ungovernable.

Jonathan Haidt talks to Noema about “The Anxious Generation” and how technology is upending democracy.

InterviewDigital Society June 13, 2024

In a conversation with Noema editor-in-chief Nathan Gardels, the social psychologist Jonathan Haidt discusses the impact of social media on truth in politics, the mental health crisis of today’s youth, and what to do about it.

Nathan Gardels: For those who haven’t read your book, “The Anxious Generation,” can you summarize the main thesis?

Jonathan Haidt: It all begins with a mystery: Why is it that mental health statistics for American teenagers were pretty flat, with no sign of any problem, from the late ’90s through 2010 to 2011? That is true whether we look at depression, anxiety or self-harm. And then, all of a sudden, in 2012, it’s as though someone flipped a switch, and the girls began getting much more anxious, depressed and self-harming. It was true of boys too, but it’s not been so sudden. It was more gradual in the early 2010s.

We first discovered this on college campuses because the students who entered universities from 2014 to 2015 were very different from our stereotype of college students who want to have fun, who want to drink and party.

The students arriving in 2014 to 15 were much more anxious. And they were especially triggered by words or jokes, speakers or books. It was that observation that led Greg Lukianoff to propose the hypothesis that college is doing something to kids to make them think in this distorted way. That was the basis of our book “The Coddling of the American Mind.”

But now it’s becoming clearer that what we saw and wrote about in that book wasn’t just happening to college students, but actually to all teenagers born after 1995. And it was not only observable in the U.S., Britain and Canada but a lot of other countries as well. What happened? Why was it so sudden? So that’s the mystery.

Was it some chemical dropped in the water supply all over North America and Northern Europe, along with the South Pacific? Or was it the massive change in the technological environment of childhood in all these countries simultaneously? This seemed the obvious hypothesis.

So, the first chapter of “The Anxious Generation” discusses what actually happened to teen mental health. And then the rest of the book seeks to unravel the mystery. It’s not just about “social media is destroying everybody.” It’s a more subtle and interesting story about the transformation of childhood — a tragedy that occurred in three acts.

Act I, which I only hinted at in the book, was the loss of community. So, if you look at America, especially in the years just after World War II, social capital was very high. The best way to make people trust each other is to have someone attack them from the outside — come together, fight a war and win. Social capital was very high in the U.S. in the 1940s and 1950s, and then it begins to drop over succeeding decades for many reasons.

Robert Putnam talked about this in “Bowling Alone.” You have smaller family sizes; people retreat inside because now they have air conditioning and TV and they’re not out in the front yard socializing as much. So, for a lot of reasons, we begin to lose trust in each other. We begin to lose social capital. That’s Act I of the tragedy.

Because of that, Act II happens, which is when we take away play-based childhood. Children used to always play together. It didn’t matter if it was raining or snowing, if there was a crime wave or drunk drivers, kids went out to play. Like all mammals, we evolved to play, in order to wire up our relatively large brains.

But in the ’90s, we decided it was too dangerous for kids to be out and about. They’ll get kidnapped or sexually abused, we thought, because we no longer trusted our neighbors. So, we locked our kids up out of fear of each other. In other words, over protection. This is the coddling part.

Then, after losing strong communities and play-based childhoods, we’re ready for the third act in the tragedy: the massive, sudden transformation of childhood between 2010 and 2015 into a phone-based childhood.

In 2010, the vast majority of teens across the developed world had cell phones. But they were flip phones or basic phones, with no internet browser. All you could do with them is text and call. That was pretty much it aside from some games. It wasn’t for constant communication. And that’s good. Kids could text their friends and say, “Let’s meet up at 3 p.m.” It was a simple tool. There was very little high-speed internet then and no front-facing camera. There was Facebook, but no Instagram. That’s the way things were in 2010.

“All of a sudden, in 2012, it’s as though someone flipped a switch, and the girls began getting much more anxious, depressed and self-harming.”

In 2010, kids in the U.S. and other Anglo countries still had a recognizably human childhood. They would meet up in person, even if they now had less freedom to roam. By 2015, that all changed when about 80% of those kids had a smartphone with a front-facing camera and a bunch of social media apps. So now we have the selfie culture. Almost everyone now has high-speed internet and now everyone can display video.

In short, by 2015 we have what I call “the great rewiring of childhood.” And that’s why in 2012, which is the year, incidentally, that Facebook bought Instagram, when online life changed, especially for girls, who flocked onto Instagram. And it was right after that when we first noticed the widespread upsurge in anxiety, depression and self-harm.

Gardels: The main criticism of your thesis is that you are mistaking correlation for cause and being too technologically determinist. How do you respond to that?

Haidt: First of all, my story is not just about technology, it is sociological. It’s a cultural psychology story. It’s about the change of childhood and human development.

To those who argue these changes could have been caused by any number of factors, I say a couple of things. First, whatever other factor you might think was more determinative, did that happen in New Zealand and Iceland and Australia all at the same time? No one can identify such a factor. Nobody has proposed an alternative theory that works internationally.

Second, it is true that the data is mostly correlational. If you have 300 correlational studies and 25 experimental studies, I would say the data is mostly correlational. The scientific debate has been focused on a very, very narrow question: Do the hours spent on social media tell you anything about the level of mental illness, especially depression and anxiety? There’s a clear correlation in these studies.

But we also have experimental studies, which I cite in the book. I go into great detail about the difference between correlation and causation. Every week, every month, we have more experiments indicating the causality of anxiety-inducing technology.

There are so many causal pathways by which a phone-based childhood harms different kids in different ways. Let me just take the example of sextortion, a very common crime online. There are international sextortion gangs that display avatars of beautiful, sexy young women. An avatar flirts with a boy that she finds, usually on Instagram. And then she convinces him to swap nude images. Boom. Then the sextortionist reveals himself, not as a sexy girl but as a man who now has all the content he needs to ruin you: “I’m going to show this picture of you and your penis to everyone, because I have all your contacts, unless you pay me $500 in two hours.”

The boys panic, and some of them have killed themselves because of the shame. The FBI has identified 20 suicides that were direct results of sextortion, which means there are probably hundreds of cases they didn’t catch, and far more kids who were traumatized by the experience and the shame. Now, is that just a correlation? Would these boys have killed themselves anyway, even if they had not been sextorted? I don’t think so.

Gardels: What are the specific remedies you propose for parents to protect their kids?

Haidt: The key to the whole book is understanding collective action problems, which are sometimes referred to as “the tragedy of the commons,” where each person acting in their own interest ends up bringing about an outcome that’s bad for everyone. If you’re the only one who doesn’t put your sheep out to graze, if you’re the only one who doesn’t fish in the pond, you suffer while everyone else continues to do what they’re doing.

One of the main reasons that we all are giving our kids phones now at age nine or 10 — it gets younger all the time — is because the kid comes home from school and says, “Mom, everyone else has an iPhone, I have to have an iPhone, or I’ll be left out.”

This is a collective action problem because any parent who does the right thing and says, “No, you’re not going to get one until you’re mostly done with puberty,” is imposing a cost on their child. All over the developed world now, family life has devolved into a struggle over screen time and phones. This is terrible. So, the trick is to realize we’re in this problem because everybody else is in this problem.

“All over the developed world now, family life has devolved into a struggle over screen time and phones.”

We’re so deep into this that it is very hard for any family to get out of it by themselves. Some parents are tough and just say “no,” but the status environment doesn’t change for the kids.

What I’m trying to do with the book is to say, if we team up with a few other families, if a small group of parents can get the whole school or school district to say “no,” then they escape and we can change the situation very, very quickly.

What we need is the adoption of four norms that can break the back of the collective action problem.

One: No smartphone before high school. Just keep it out of middle school. Let the kids at least get through early puberty, which is the most sensitive period. You can give them a flip phone if you absolutely need to text. I understand the need to coordinate.

Two: No social media before the age of 16. Social media is entirely inappropriate for children, it cannot be made appropriate because what you’re basically doing is saying, “How about we let the entire world get in touch with you? Let’s let all the companies try to sell things to you, let men all over the world who want to have sex with you contact you, and try to trick you into sending photos.” There’s no way to make this safe. So just recognize that social media is a tool for adults. Eleven-year-olds don’t need to network with strangers.

Third: Schools need to be phone-free. Imagine that when I was a kid growing up in the ’70s, if we had been allowed to bring in our television sets and our radios along with all sorts of toys and games and put them on our desk and use them during class. That’s what teachers are facing today. Disgusted and frustrated that they can’t get through to students, teachers are quitting.

Also, global test scores have been dropping, since 2012. This did not begin with Covid. It began around 2012. The result is a massive destruction of human capital. So, it’s just kind of obvious. You can’t have kids have the greatest distraction device ever invented in their pockets while they’re in class. All kids must check their phones during the day. If others are texting, they have to be texting back. So, just lock up the phone in the morning to give it back at the end of the day.

Four: We need to restore a play-based childhood. Kids need more independence, free play and responsibility in the real world. If you’re going to roll back the phone and don’t restore play, a child can have no childhood. So, roll it back and instead, give them adventure and fun with other kids.

Us parents need to overcome our own fears and let our children learn how to play with each other. Kids playing in groups are very safe. That’s how they learn to get along. That’s how they’re going to resolve disputes in life.

If we do these four things I’m pretty confident that rates of mental illness will come down within two years. Experience so far shows that phone-free schools get great results within a month. In various childhood independence projects, you get results within a month. If any community does all four of these, I believe they’re going to see pretty big drops in depression, anxiety, self-harm and other problems in short order.

Gardels: Do you worry that more prosperous parents with the means and time to be attentive to their kids will follow your advice, while the less well-off, busy working two jobs with less time for their kids, won’t? That this will just create a greater gap in society?

Haidt: Yes, I do expect that it will begin this way, with the most educated and wealthy families. But I think it will spread quickly as parents begin to see and hear about the benefits. Also, I should note that the most educated families apply the most limits, whereas children in low socioeconomic status, single-parent, or Black or Hispanic families have one- to two- hours more screen time per day, so going phone-free will disproportionately help them.

Gardels: Implicit in your remarks is you don’t have any faith in the Instagrams or TikToks of the world to be able to regulate themselves so they do less harm?

“What we need is the adoption of four norms that can break the back of the collective action problem.”

Haidt: Right now, as long as you’re old enough to lie about your age, you can go to Pornhub. You can open 20 Instagram accounts, you can open TikTok accounts. The law says you have to be 13 to sign a contract with a company to give away your data without your parents’ knowledge. But the law is written in such a way that there’s no responsibility for the companies if they don’t know your real age. As long as they don’t know your real age, they can’t be held liable for serving you eating disorder content or sex and violence.

We’re talking about five to 10 companies here that own our children’s childhood. They have a lot more influence over our kids than we do in some ways. And they have no responsibility. They are literally protected from lawsuits by Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which shields them from liability for the content on their platforms.

This is a completely insane situation. And they’re making huge amounts of money. So no, I don’t expect them to do anything until they’re forced by legislation, or by enormous losses in court.

Gardels: Your book has obviously hit a chord with parents and with school authorities. Do you have any sense of how the TikTok crowd or kids themselves see it?

Haidt: When you survey kids who’ve been through this, it’s really hard to find members of Gen Z who are opposed to what I’m saying. In fact, I actually haven’t found any. They almost always say, “Yeah, you know, you’re right. This really messed us up. But, you know, what are you going to do? This is just the way things are, and I can’t quit because everyone else is on.” There’s just an extraordinary sense of fatalism. We don’t find any young people organizing to protect their rights to have these things. The older kids generally say, if we could get everyone off, we should do that.

Gardels: The Chinese cyberspace authorities have no qualms about imposing limits on social media. Here are the rules:

  • Children under 8: Can only use smart devices for 40 minutes per day and can only consume content about “elementary education, hobbies and interests, and liberal arts education”
  • Children aged 8 to 15: Can use their phone for no more than one hour per day
  • Children aged 16 to 17: Can use a handset for a maximum of two hours per day
  • Minor mode: Requires mobile devices, apps and app stores to have a built-in mode that would bar users under 18 from accessing the internet on mobile devices from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m.

Perhaps they will produce more mentally healthy kids?

Haidt: China is engaged in a battle with the United States for cultural and economic supremacy. Since our young people are giving away all of their available attention, there’s a good chance that they will be less creative and less productive. They don’t have any spare attention to actually do anything. I imagine that makes the Chinese government happy.

The worst single product for American children is TikTok. It sucks up more of their time, energy and attention than any other product. And it harms them. It doesn’t do anything good for them. TikTok has more influence over our kids than any other organization on the planet. So, there are many reasons to think that that is a danger not only to our kids, but to our country.

It seems the Chinese are doing the right thing by using their authoritarian system to reduce the damage to their own children.

Of course, authoritarian solutions are not right for us, but we can do similar things through democratic solutions, through community and civil society. One thing Tocqueville praised Americans about is that when something needs doing, say the townspeople need to build a bridge, they just do it. They don’t wait for the state like in France. They don’t wait for the King like in Britain. Americans come together as citizens, elect a leader, raise money and then they do it.

So, I’m hopeful that my book presents norms that we adopt ourselves, even if we never get any help from Congress or lawmakers. Doing it ourselves — in groups of parents organized around schools — is a very American solution to what I think is one of the largest problems facing America today.

“TikTok has more influence over our kids than any other organization on the planet.”

Gardels: To go back to the coddled generation argument. What do you make of all these kids in college today putting up barricades, occupying administration buildings protesting the war in Gaza?

Haidt: Most of the activism of the college kids has moved online. That tends to be very ineffective and creates a culture that is bad for activists. I put some research in the book showing that before 2010, being politically active was actually associated with better mental health. You were engaged, you were part of a group, you were energized. After 2010, activists, especially progressive activists, are the least happy people in the country. They are marinating in beliefs about oppressor versus victim and embracing the untruths of the coddled. That was certainly true until very recently.

Now it’s true these protests are in person. That’s at least better psychologically for them. They are physically present and interacting with others on campus.

Even so, I think there are signs that it’s different from previous generations. One is that the present protestors are expecting accommodation, often seeking not to be punished for missing classes and for delayed exams. In other words, they are expecting a low cost to themselves. In previous periods of activism, civil disobedience meant if you break the law, then you pay the consequences to show how committed you are to the cause.

To be sure, today’s actions are communal, which is always very exciting. It’s not as though Gen Z is incapable of acting in person; though, I would point out, it’s overwhelmingly at the elite schools that this is happening.

Gardels: One of the reasons that we have such a paralyzed and polarized society is that the public square has virtually disappeared. Until social media turbocharged fragmentation, there was a common space where competing ideas could be contested in the full gaze of the body politic.

As the philosopher Byung-Chul Han has observed, the peer-to-peer connectivity of social media redirects the flow of communication. Information is spread without forming a public sphere. It is produced in private spaces and distributed to private spaces. The web does not create a public.

The possibility of arriving at a governing consensus through negotiation and compromise is being shattered by a cacophony of niche propagandists egging on their own siloed tribe of the faithful to engage in an endless partisan battle. Indeed, Rene DiResta at Stanford calls the niche ideologues “the new media goliaths” who have supplanted mainstream platforms in terms of influence.

In short, the digital media ecosystem is disempowering the public sphere.

In this sense, social media is not only messing up our kids but undermining the basis of democratic discourse.

Do you agree with that?

Haidt: Absolutely. In an article for the Atlantic in 2019, I made the case, basically along the lines of Han, that massive changes in information flows and the way we connect people change the fundamental ground within which our democratic institutions are operating. And it’s quite possible that we are now so far outside the operating range of these institutions that they will fail.

I’m extremely alarmed about the future of this country. If you read Federalist #10, the Founding Fathers, who were excellent social psychologists, were very afraid of the passions of the people. They didn’t want us to have a direct democracy. They wanted cooling mechanisms of deliberation through reason. The system of governance they devised, with its checks and balances, is really like a complicated clock that they thought could last a very long time precisely because it was realistic about human frailties. And they were right.

Then all of a sudden in the later post-war era — first with television, then the internet and, especially, now peer-to-peer media, it is all going awry. With television, at least there were editors. Jonathan Rauch wrote an amazing book called “The Constitution of Knowledge,” both about the Constitution and how knowledge is constituted.

He discussed how we make knowledge in universities and science and medicine. But he also discussed the U.S. Constitution and how the community of knowledge makers are governed by certain rules and checks and balances. We developed editors, filters and other mechanisms to vet truth.

All that’s going away now. Or at least the institutions are so weakened as to be feeble. I’m very alarmed. And, at the same time, what’s replacing them are the sorts of peer-to-peer networks that you’re talking about.

“Until social media turbocharged fragmentation, there was a common space where competing ideas could be contested in the full gaze of the body politic.”

In the history of humanity, when you connect people, there could be disruptions. But in the long run, that’s good. It increases the flow of knowledge and increases creativity. You get more value when you connect people. So, the telephone was great, the postal system was great.

Social media is not like those earlier innovations. I think the best metaphor here is to imagine a public square in which people talk to each other. They debate ideas or put forth ideas that may not always be brilliant. They may not always be civil, but people can speak while others listen. Sometimes people are moved by persuasion or dissuasion.

I think the Founding Fathers assumed that’s about the best we can hope for. Imagine one day, and I’ll call it 2009, that all changes. There’s no more public square. Everything takes place in the center of the Roman Colosseum. The stands are full of people who are there to see blood. That’s what they came for. They don’t want to see the lion and the Christian making nice; they want the one to kill the other. That’s what Twitter is often like.

It all becomes performative and comes at a superfast pace. Just as television changed the way we are and made us into passive consumers, the central act in social media is posting, judging, criticizing and joining mobs. Donald Trump is the quintessential person who thrives in that environment. If not for Twitter, Trump never could have been president. So, when our politics moved into the Roman Colosseum, I think the Founding Fathers would have said, “Let’s just give up. There’s no way we can build a democracy in this environment.”

Gardels: Just as republics have historically created institutional checks and balances when too much power is concentrated in one place, so too don’t we need to foster checks and balances for an age when power is so distributed that the public sphere is disempowered?

What I have in mind are the citizens’ assemblies indicative of the public as a whole, which deliberate issues in a non-partisan environment and, outside the electoral sphere where partisans vie for power by any means necessary, are able to come to a consensus through pragmatic, common sense solutions?

Haidt: It’s possible to create these small artificial communities where you lock citizens away together for a week and have them discuss something. They work pretty well from what I know, and they come up with solutions. But it’s not clear to me how you could use that to run a country. The way people feel about let’s say, Donald Trump, has very little to do with some ascertainment of fact.

If you use the word power, then I’m a little bit confused. But I think I see what you’re getting at. If we change the word to authority, it is clearer to me. When I wrote “The Righteous Mind,” I was on the left then and really tried to understand conservatives. Reading conservative writings, especially Edmund Burke and Thomas Sowell, was really clarifying on the idea that we need institutions. We need religion, we need gods, even if it is not true. We need moral order and constraint.

The progressive impulse is to tear things down and make things new. The conservative impulse is to protect authority structures because we need them. Without them, we have chaos. Of course, there are times to tear things down. But I think during the 2010s everything has been torn down, to some extent. This is a time we need to build.

I am very concerned that there is no longer any source of authority. There is no trusted authority, there is no way to find consensus on truth. It seems that the truth-seeking mechanisms, including the courts, came up with the answer that the last presidential election in the U.S. was not stolen. But there’s no real way to spread that around to the large portion of society that believes that it was.

With AI coming in, the problem of the loss of authority is going to be magnified tenfold or even a hundredfold when anyone can create a video of anyone saying anything in that person’s voice. It’s going to be almost impossible to know what’s true. We’re in for a wild ride if we’re going to try to run a democratic republic with no real authority. My fear is that we will simply become ungovernable. I hope not, I hope we find a way to adapt to living in our world after the fall of the tower of Babel, the fall of common understandings and common language.

This interview was edited for brevity and clarity.

Pop Culture Has Become an Oligopoly - by Adam Mastroianni

Pop Culture Has Become an Oligopoly

A cartel of superstars has conquered culture. How did it happen, and what should we do about it?

Adam Mastroianni May 02, 2022

You may have noticed that every popular movie these days is a remake, reboot, sequel, spinoff, or cinematic universe expansion. In 2021, only one of the ten top-grossing films––the Ryan Reynolds vehicle Free Guy––was an original. There were only two originals in 2020’s top 10, and none at all in 2019.

People blame this trend on greedy movie studios or dumb moviegoers or competition from Netflix or humanity running out of ideas. Some say it’s a sign of the end of movies. Others claim there’s nothing new about this at all.

Some of these explanations are flat-out wrong; others may contain a nugget of truth. But all of them are incomplete, because this isn’t just happening in movies. In every corner of pop culture––movies, TV, music, books, and video games––a smaller and smaller cartel of superstars is claiming a larger and larger share of the market. What used to be winners-take-some has grown into winners-take-most and is now verging on winners-take-all. The (very silly) word for this oligopoly, like a monopoly but with a few players instead of just one.

I’m inherently skeptical of big claims about historical shifts. I recently published a paper showing that people overestimate how much public opinion has changed over the past 50 years, so naturally I’m on the lookout for similar biases here. But this shift is not an illusion. It’s big, it’s been going on for decades, and it’s happening everywhere you look. So let’s get to the bottom of it.

(Data and code available here.)

Movies

At the top of the box office charts, original films have gone extinct.

I looked at the 20 top-grossing movies going all the way back to 1977 (source), and I coded whether each was part of what film scholars call a “multiplicity”—sequels, prequels, franchises, spin-offs, cinematic universe expansions, etc. This required some judgment calls. Lots of movies are based on books and TV shows, but I only counted them as multiplicities if they were related to a previous movie. So 1990’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles doesn’t get coded as a multiplicity, but 1991’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze does, and so does the 2014 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles remake. I also probably missed a few multiplicities, especially in earlier decades, since sometimes it’s not obvious that a movie has some connection to an earlier movie.

Regardless, the shift is gigantic. Until the year 2000, about 25% of top-grossing movies were prequels, sequels, spinoffs, remakes, reboots, or cinematic universe expansions. Since 2010, it’s been over 50% ever year. In recent years, it’s been close to 100%.

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Original movies just aren’t popular anymore, if they even get made in the first place.

Top movies have also recently started taking a larger chunk of the market. I extracted the revenue of the top 20 movies and divided it by the total revenue of the top 200 movies, going all the way back to 1986 (source). The top 20 movies captured about 40% of all revenue until 2015, when they started gobbling up even more.

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Television

Thanks to cable and streaming, there's way more stuff on TV today than there was 50 years ago. So it would make sense if a few shows ruled the early decades of TV, and now new shows constantly displace each other at the top of the viewership charts.

Instead, the opposite has happened. I pulled the top 30 most-viewed TV shows from 1950 to 2019 (source) and found that fewer and fewer franchises rule a larger and larger share of the airwaves. In fact, since 2000, about a third of the top 30 most-viewed shows are either spinoffs of other shows in the top 30 (e.g., CSI and CSI: Miami) or multiple broadcasts of the same show (e.g., American Idol on Monday and American Idol on Wednesday).

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Two caveats to this data. First, I’m probably slightly undercounting multiplicities from earlier decades, where the connections between shows might be harder for a modern viewer like me to understand––maybe one guy hosted multiple different shows, for example. And second, the Nielsen ratings I’m using only recently started accurately measuring viewership on streaming platforms. But even in 2019, only 14% of viewing time was spent on streaming, so this data isn’t missing much.

Music

It used to be that a few hitmakers ruled the charts––The Beatles, The Eagles, Michael Jackson––while today it’s a free-for-all, right?

Nope. A data scientist named Azhad Syed has done the analysis, and he finds that the number of artists on the Billboard Hot 100 has been decreasing for decades.

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Chart by Azhad Syed

And since 2000, the number of hits per artist on the Hot 100 has been increasing.

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Chart by Azhad Syed

(Azhad says he’s looking for a job––you should hire him!)

A smaller group of artists tops the charts, and they produce more of the chart-toppers. Music, too, has become an oligopoly.

Books

Literature feels like a different world than movies, TV, and music, and yet the trend is the same.

Using LiteraryHub's list of the top 10 bestselling books for every year from 1919 to 2017, I found that the oligopoly has come to book publishing as well. There are a couple ways we can look at this. First, we can look at the percentage of repeat authors in the top 10––that is, the number of books in the top 10 that were written by an author with another book in the top 10.

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It used to be pretty rare for one author to have multiple books in the top 10 in the same year. Since 1990, it’s happened almost every year. No author ever had three top 10 books in one year until Danielle Steel did it 1998. In 2011, John Grisham, Kathryn Stockett, and Stieg Larsson all had two chart-topping books each.

We can also look at the percentage of authors in the top 10 were already famous––say, they had a top 10 book within the past 10 years. That has increased over time, too.

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In the 1950s, a little over half of the authors in the top 10 had been there before. These days, it’s closer to 75%.

Video games

I tracked down the top 20 bestselling video games for each year from 1995 to 2021 (sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7) and coded whether each belongs to a preexisting video game franchise. (Some games, like Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, belong to franchises outside of video games. For these, I coded the first installment as originals and any subsequent installments as franchise games.)

The oligopoly rules video games too:

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In the late 1990s, 75% or less of bestselling video games were franchise installments. Since 2005, it’s been above 75% every year, and sometimes it’s 100%. At the top of the charts, it’s all Mario, Zelda, Call of Duty, and Grand Theft Auto.

Why is this happening?

Any explanation for the rise of the pop oligopoly has to answer two questions: why have producers started producing more of the same thing, and why are consumers consuming it? I think the answers to the first question are invasion, consolidation, and innovation. I think the answer to the second question is proliferation.

Invasion

Software and the internet have made it easier than ever to create and publish content. Most of the stuff that random amateurs make is crap and nobody looks at it, but a tiny proportion gets really successful. This might make media giants choose to produce and promote stuff that independent weirdos never could, like an Avengers movie. This can’t explain why oligopolization started decades ago––YouTube only launched in 2005, for example, and most Americans didn’t have broadband until 2007––but it might explain why it’s accelerated and stuck around.

Consolidation

Big things like to eat, defeat, and outcompete smaller things. So over time, big things should get bigger and small things should die off. Indeed, movie studios, music labels, TV stations, and publishers of books and video games have all consolidated. Maybe it’s inevitable that major producers of culture will suck up or destroy everybody else, leaving nothing but superstars and blockbusters. Indeed, maybe cultural oligopoly is merely a transition state before we reach cultural monopoly.

Innovation

You may think there’s nothing left to discover in art forms as old as literature and music, and that they simply iterate as fashions change. But it took humans [thousands of years](http://www.essentialvermeer.com/technique/perspective/history.html#:~:text=In its mathematical form%2C linear,De pictura [On Painting]) to figure out how to create the illusion of depth in paintings. Novelists used to think that sentences had to be long and complicated until Hemingway came along, wrote some snappy prose, and changed everything. Even very old art forms, then, may have secrets left to discover. Maybe the biggest players in culture discovered some innovations that won them a permanent, first-mover chunk of market share. I can think of a few:

  • In books: lightning-quick plots and chapter-ending cliffhangers. Nobody thinks The Da Vinci Code is high literature, but it’s a book that really really wants you to read it. And a lot of people did!
  • In music: sampling. Musicians [seem to sample more often these days](https://www.hypebot.com/hypebot/2019/03/2019-the-state-of-sampling-draft.html#:~:text=1 in 5 Songs on,usually between 20-25%). Now we not only remake songs; we franchise them too.
  • In movies, TV, and video games: cinematic universes. Studios have finally figured out that once audiences fall in love with fictional worlds, they want to spend lots of time in them. Marvel, DC, and Star Wars are the most famous, but there are also smaller universe expansions like Better Call Saul and El Camino from Breaking Bad and The Many Saints of Newark from The Sopranos. Video game developers have understood this for even longer, which is why Mario does everything from playing tennis to driving go-karts to, you know, being a piece of paper.

Proliferation

Invasion, consolidation, and innovation can, I think, explain the pop oligopoly from the supply side. But all three require a willing audience. So why might people be more open to experiencing the same thing over and over again?

As options multiply, choosing gets harder. You can’t possibly evaluate everything, so you start relying on cues like “this movie has Tom Hanks in it” or “I liked Red Dead Redemption, so I’ll probably like Red Dead Redemption II,” which makes you less and less likely to pick something unfamiliar.

Another way to think about it: more opportunities means higher opportunity costs, which could lead to lower risk tolerance. When the only way to watch a movie is to go pick one of the seven playing at your local AMC, you might take a chance on something new. But when you’ve got a million movies to pick from, picking a safe, familiar option seems more sensible than gambling on an original.

This could be happening across all of culture at once. Movies don’t just compete with other movies. They compete with every other way of spending your time, and those ways are both infinite and increasing. There are now [60,000](https://www.gutenberg.org/#:~:text=Project Gutenberg is a library of over 60%2C000 free eBooks) free books on Project Gutenberg, Spotify [says](https://newsroom.spotify.com/company-info/#:~:text=Discover%2C manage and share over,ad-free music listening experience) it has 78 million songs and 4 million podcast episodes, and humanity uploads 500 hours of video to YouTube [every minute](https://www.statista.com/statistics/259477/hours-of-video-uploaded-to-youtube-every-minute/#:~:text=As of February 2020%2C more,for online video has grown). So uh, yeah, the Tom Hanks movie sounds good.

What do we do about it?

Some may think that the rise of the pop oligopoly means the decline of quality. But the oligopoly can still make art: Red Dead Redemption II is a terrific game, “Blinding Lights” is a great song, and Toy Story 4 is a pretty good movie. And when you look back at popular stuff from a generation ago, there was plenty of dreck. We’ve forgotten the pulpy Westerns and insipid romances that made the bestseller lists while books like The Great Gatsby, Brave New World, and Animal Farm did not. American Idol is not so different from the televised talent shows of the 1950s. Popular culture has always been a mix of the brilliant and the banal, and nothing I’ve shown you suggests that the ratio has changed.

The problem isn’t that the mean has decreased. It’s that the variance has shrunk. Movies, TV, music, books, and video games should expand our consciousness, jumpstart our imaginations, and introduce us to new worlds and stories and feelings. They should alienate us sometimes, or make us mad, or make us think. But they can’t do any of that if they only feed us sequels and spinoffs. It’s like eating macaroni and cheese every single night forever: it may be comfortable, but eventually you’re going to get scurvy.

We haven’t fully reckoned with what the cultural oligopoly might be doing to us. How much does it stunt our imaginations to play the same video games we were playing 30 years ago? What message does it send that one of the most popular songs in the 2010s was about how a 1970s rock star was really cool? How much does it dull our ambitions to watch 2021’s The Matrix: Resurrections, where the most interesting scene is just Neo watching the original Matrix from 1999? How inspiring is it to watch tiny variations on the same police procedurals and reality shows year after year? My parents grew up with the first Star Wars movie, which had the audacity to create an entire universe. My niece and nephews are growing up with the ninth Star Wars movie, which aspires to move merchandise. Subsisting entirely on cultural comfort food cannot make us thoughtful, creative, or courageous.

Fortunately, there’s a cure for our cultural anemia. While the top of the charts has been oligopolized, the bottom remains a vibrant anarchy. There are weird books and funky movies and bangers from across the sea. Two of the most interesting video games of the past decade put you in the role of an immigration officer and an insurance claims adjuster. Every strange thing, wonderful and terrible, is available to you, but they’ll die out if you don’t nourish them with your attention. Finding them takes some foraging and digging, and then you’ll have to stomach some very odd, unfamiliar flavors. That’s good. Learning to like unfamiliar things is one of the noblest human pursuits; it builds our empathy for unfamiliar people. And it kindles that delicate, precious fire inside us––without it, we might as well be algorithms. Humankind does not live on bread alone, nor can our spirits long survive on a diet of reruns.

Réseaux sociaux : la fabrique de l’hostilité politique ?
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Réseaux sociaux : la fabrique de l’hostilité politique ?

Publié: 17 juin 2024, 15:21 CEST

Depuis quelques années, les réseaux sociaux comme Facebook et X (anciennement Twitter) sont devenus la cible d’accusations nombreuses : facteurs de diffusion de « fake news » à grande échelle, instruments de déstabilisation des démocraties par la Russie et la Chine, machines à capturer notre attention pour la vendre à des marchands de toutes sortes, théâtres d’un ciblage publicitaire toujours plus personnalisé et manipulateur, etc. En atteste le succès de documentaires et d’essais sur le coût humain, jugé considérable, des réseaux sociaux, comme The Social Dilemma sur Netflix.

L’un de ces discours, en particulier, rend les plates-formes digitales et leurs algorithmes responsables de l’amplification de l’hostilité en ligne et de la polarisation politique dans la société. Avec les discussions en ligne anonymes, affirment certains, n’importe qui serait susceptible de devenir un troll, c’est-à-dire une personne agressive, cynique et dépourvue de compassion, ou de se « radicaliser ».

Des travaux récents en sciences sociales quantitatives et en psychologie scientifique permettent toutefois d’apporter quelques correctifs à ce récit, excessivement pessimiste.

L’importance du contexte sociopolitique et de la psychologie

Pour commencer, plusieurs études suggèrent que si les individus font régulièrement l’expérience de discussions sur des sujets politiques qui deviennent conflictuelles, cette incivilité est en partie liée à des facteurs psychologiques et socio-économiques qui préexistent aux plates-formes digitales.

Dans une étude interculturelle de grande envergure, nous avons interrogé plus de 15 000 personnes via des panels représentatifs dans trente nations très diverses (France, Irak, Thaïlande, Pakistan, etc.) sur leurs expériences des conversations sur Internet. Notre première découverte est que ce sont dans les pays les plus inégalitaires économiquement et les moins démocratiques que les individus sont le plus souvent l’objet d’invectives hostiles de la part de leurs concitoyens sur les réseaux (comme en Turquie ou au Brésil). Ce phénomène découle manifestement des frustrations générées par ces sociétés plus répressives des aspirations individuelles.

Notre étude montre en outre que les individus qui s’adonnent le plus à l’hostilité en ligne sont aussi ceux qui sont les plus disposés à la recherche de statut social par la prise de risque. Ce trait de personnalité correspond à une orientation vers la dominance, c’est-à-dire à chercher à soumettre les autres à sa volonté (y compris par l’intimidation). Dans nos données interculturelles, nous observons que les individus ayant ce type de traits dominants sont nombreux dans les pays inégalitaires et non démocratiques. Des analyses indépendantes montrent d’ailleurs que la dominance est un élément clé de la psychologie de la conflictualité politique, puisqu’elle prédit également davantage de partage de ‘fake news’ moquant ou insultant les opposants politiques sur Internet, et plus d’attrait pour le conflit politique hors ligne, notamment.

Répliquant une étude antérieure, nous trouvons par ailleurs que ces individus motivés par la recherche de statut par la prise de risque, qui admettent le plus se comporter de manière hostile sur Internet, sont aussi ceux qui sont plus susceptibles d’interagir de manière agressive ou toxique dans des discussions en face à face (la corrélation entre l’hostilité en ligne et hors ligne est forte, de l’ordre de β = 0,77).

En résumé, l’hostilité politique en ligne semble largement être le fruit de personnalités particulières, rendues agressives par les frustrations engendrées par des contextes sociaux inégalitaires, et activant notre tendance à voir le monde en termes de “nous” vs « eux ». Au plan politique, réduire les disparités de richesses entre groupes et rendre nos institutions plus démocratiques constituent des objectifs probablement incontournables si nous souhaitons faire advenir un Internet (et une société civile) plus harmonieux.

Les réseaux : prismes exagérant l’hostilité ambiante

Si notre étude replace l’hostilité politique en ligne dans un plus large contexte, elle ne nie pas tout rôle aux plates-formes dans la production de la polarisation politique pour autant.

Les réseaux sociaux permettent à un contenu d’être diffusé à l’identique à des millions de personnes (à l’inverse de la communication verbale, lieu de distorsions inévitables). À ce titre, ils peuvent mésinformer ou mettre en colère des millions de personnes à un très faible coût. Ceci est vrai que l’information fausse ou toxique soit créée intentionnellement pour générer des clics, ou qu’elle soit le fruit involontaire des biais politiques d’un groupe politique donné.

[Déjà plus de 120 000 abonnements aux newsletters The Conversation. Et vous ? Abonnez-vous aujourd’hui pour mieux comprendre les grands enjeux du monde.]

Si les échanges sur les réseaux sociaux manquent souvent de civilité, c’est également à cause de la possibilité qu’ils offrent d’échanger avec des étrangers anonymes, dépersonnalisés. Cette expérience unique à l’ère Internet réduit le sentiment de responsabilité personnelle, ainsi que l’empathie vis-à-vis d’interlocuteurs que nous ne voyons plus comme des personnes mais comme les membres interchangeables de « tribus » politiques.

Des analyses récentes rappellent par ailleurs que les réseaux sociaux – comme le journalisme, à bien des égards – opèrent moins comme le miroir que comme le prisme déformant de la diversité des opinions dans la société.

Les posts politiques indignés et potentiellement insultants sont souvent le fait de personnes plus déterminées à s’exprimer et radicales que la moyenne – que ce soit pour signaler leurs engagements, exprimer une colère, faire du prosélytisme, etc. Même lorsqu’ils représentent une assez faible proportion de la production écrite sur les réseaux, ces posts se trouvent promus par des algorithmes programmés pour mettre en avant les contenus capables d’attirer l’attention et de déclencher des réponses, dont les messages clivants font partie.

À contrario, la majorité des utilisateurs, plus modérée et moins péremptoire, est réticente à se lancer dans des discussions politiques qui récompensent rarement la bonne foi argumentative et qui dégénèrent souvent en « shitstorms » (c.-à-d., en déchaînements de haine).

Ces biais de sélection et de perception produisent l’impression trompeuse que les convictions radicales et hostiles sont à la fois plus répandues et tolérées moralement qu’elles ne le sont en réalité.

Quand l’exposition à la différence énerve

Ceci étant dit, l’usage des réseaux sociaux semble pouvoir contribuer à augmenter l’hostilité et la radicalité politiques selon un mécanisme au moins : celui de l’exposition à des versions caricaturales et agressives des positions politiques adverses, qui agacent.

Contrairement à une croyance répandue, la plupart de nos connexions virtuelles ne prennent typiquement pas vraiment la forme de « chambres d’écho », nous isolant dans des sas d’idées politiques totalement homogènes.

Bien que certains réseaux soient effectivement construits de cette manière (4Chan ou certains sub-Reddits), les plus larges plates-formes que sont Facebook (3 milliards d’utilisateurs) et X (550 millions) nous font typiquement défiler une certaine diversité d’opinions devant les yeux. Celle-ci est en tous cas fréquemment supérieure à celle de nos relations amicales : êtes-vous encore régulièrement en contact avec des copains de collège qui ont « viré Front national » ? Probablement pas, mais il est plus probable que vous lisiez leurs posts Facebook.

Cette exposition à l’altérité idéologique est désirable, en théorie, puisqu’elle devrait permettre de nous faire découvrir les angles morts de nos connaissances et convictions politiques, notre commune humanité, et donc nous rendre à la fois plus humbles et plus respectueux les uns des autres. Malheureusement, le mode sur lequel la plupart des gens expriment leurs convictions politiques – sur les réseaux comme à la machine à café – est assez dépourvu de nuance et de pédagogie. Il tend à réduire les positions adverses à des caricatures diabolisées, et cherche moins à persuader le camp d’en face qu’à galvaniser les personnes qui sont déjà d’accord avec soi, ou à se faire bien voir d’amis politiques.

Prenant appui sur des études expérimentales déployées sur Twitter et des interviews de militants démocrates et républicains menées avec son équipe, le sociologue Chris Bail nous avertit dans son livre Le prisme des réseaux sociaux. D’après lui, une exposition répétée à des contenus peu convaincants et moqueurs produits par nos ennemis politiques peut paradoxalement renforcer les partisans dans leurs positions et identités préexistantes, plutôt que de les rapprocher intellectuellement et émotionnellement les uns des autres.

Cependant, cette relation entre usage des réseaux sociaux et polarisation politique pourrait dépendre beaucoup du temps d’exposition et n’apparaît pas dans tous les échantillons étudiés. Ainsi, des études explorant les effets d’un arrêt de l’utilisation de Facebook et d’Instagram n’observent pas que l’utilisation de ces médias sociaux polarise de façon détectable les opinions politiques des utilisateurs.

Rappelons-nous toujours que les discours pointant des menaces pesant sur la société jouissent d’un avantage concurrentiel considérable sur le marché des idées et des conversations, en raison de leur attractivité pour nos esprits. Il convient donc d’approcher la question des liens entre réseaux sociaux, hostilité et polarisation politique avec nuance, en évitant les travers symétriques de l’optimisme béat et de la panique collective.