A Perfect Formula for the “Dark Side”
The Internet has become a key instrument in propaganda and dissemination of what we have come to call “fake news”. This has proliferated to the point that we don’t know how to “unpack” the truth of what we see on the Internet even though we are increasingly relying on Internet sites for information and evidence far more than on traditional television, radio and print media. The Guardian’s Olivia Solon describes Tim Berners-Lee’s concern that there is a compelling need for increased regulation of the WEB to prevent abuses growing abuses. She writes:
[I]t is too easy for misinformation to spread on the web, particularly as there has been a huge consolidation in the way people find news and information online through gatekeepers like Facebook and Google, who select content to show us based on algorithms that learn from the harvesting of personal data. “The net result is that these sites show us content they think we’ll click on – meaning that misinformation, or fake news, which is surprising, shocking, or designed to appeal to our biases can spread like wildfire,” he said. This allows for people with bad intentions and armies of bots” to game the system to spread misinformation for financial or political gain. https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2017/mar/11/tim-berners-lee-online-political-advertising-regulation. “Tim Berners-Lee calls for tighter regulation of online political advertising: Inventor of the worldwide web described in an open letter how it has become a sophisticated and targeted industry, drawing on huge pools of personal data”, Olivia Solon, 3/11/17.
Berners-Lee is not alone in his concern. Glenn Chapman explains how Leonard Kleinrock, another pioneering figure two decades before Berners-Lee, who played a key role in the development of ARPANET has reached much the same conclusion about how the Internet and WEB have been abused. Chapman explains:
On October 29, 1969, professor Leonard Kleinrock and a team at the University of California at Los Angeles got a computer to “talk” to a machine in what is now known as Silicon Valley. The event gave birth to a network that later became known as the internet — hailed at first as a boon to equality and enlightenment, but with a dark side that has emerged as well. … ”To some point it democratizes everyone,” Kleinrock told AFP. “But it is also a perfect formula for the dark side, as we have learned.” So much is shouted online that moderate voices are drowned out and extreme viewpoints are amplified, spewing hate, misinformation and abuse… https://news.yahoo.com/50-years-internet-conception-dark-side-stirs-fear-093822748.html. “50 years after internet conception, dark side stirs fear”, Glenn Chapman, 10/29/19.
Kleinrock is trying to bring people together in an effort to counteract the worst abuses that have accompanied the expanded use of the Internet and WEB. Kleinrock was central in developing ARPANET in 1969 (the Advanced Research Projects Agency), a Department of Defense project that saw Kleinrock and his team develop the ability to allow computers to share information and communicate with each other. Ultimately, as its initial bugs were worked out that system provided the basis for the Internet. https://www.livescience.com/20727-internet-history.html. “Internet History Timeline: ARPANET to the World Wide Web”, Kim Ann Zimmerman & Jesse Emspak, 6/27/17.
As part of his profound disappointment at how the WEB has been perverted, Berners-Lee has condemned how the incredible communications and information development and sharing system, one that he and others thought would our enhance intellectual growth and create shared learning opportunities and expansion of our Enlightenment ideals to all people, has been abused. Even an abbreviated list of the abuses includes the lack of adequate regulation, violations of our personal privacy, and allowing companies like Google and Facebook to “mine”, control and commercialize individuals’ personal information while gaining immense profits. The Internet’s “evolution” has also exposed the darker sides of human nature in the lies, threats, anonymous attacks, trolling and criminal activity that permeates the WEB.
The Devastation of Sir Tim Berners-Lee and His Response
Tim Berners-Lee is rightly applauded as the creator of the World Wide Web, building a hypertext linking system accessed through the Internet and the capabilities of the infrastructure that system provided. His 1990 breakthrough in developing what is quite possibly the single most disruptive and creative technology in modern history occurred while Berners-Lee was working at CERN. Berners-Lee’s contribution has produced a system granting governments, corporations, political interest groups, media and individuals unprecedented power that is arguably beyond what they are capable of handling with integrity and honesty. It has generated unanticipated consequences, both good and bad.
As positive as the World Wide Web has been in many dimensions we need to figure out how to regulate the system so that its negative and destructive aspects are at least mitigated. Unfortunately, as proof of the fact that humans will inevitably abuse any powerful tool that comes under their control in ways that were never intended by their inventors, Berners-Lee has felt compelled to voice his dismay at what his creation has become compared to what he and other researchers sought to create. See, https://www.vanityfair.com/news/2018/07/the-man-who-created-the-world-wide-web-has-some-regrets. “‘I Was Devastated’: Tim Berners-Lee, the Man Who Created the World Wide Web, Has Some Regrets.” Katrina Brooker, 7/1/18.
Berners-Lee and Kleinrock share the concern about the harms caused our societies by the rampant abuses found on the Internet and the applications developed and used to achieve questionable goals through abuse of the WEB it enables. A sense of how damaging the uncontrolled and unregulated Internet has become for our society is offered by the new owner of the Los Angeles Times. He recently described social media delivered through the Internet as the “cancer of our time”. See, https://www.cnbc.com/2018/09/26/billionaire-la-times-owner-calls-social-media-the-cancer-of-our-time.html. “The billionaire LA Times owner calls social media the ‘cancer of our time’”, Berkeley Lovelace, Jr., 9/26/18. Lovelace writes:
Patrick Soon-Shiong … advocated for a change in how people consume news on social media, calling the platforms the “cancer of our time.” “The short attention span we’re creating in this millennium is actually very dangerous” .… “It’s the unintended consequences of social media.” … [He added] Platforms such as Facebook’s News Feed have revolutionized how people consume media and how news organizations deliver content. But they have also been criticized for spreading so-called fake news and misinformation.
Zimmerman and Emspak provide a fascinating timeline of the key developments in ARPANET, the Internet building on that system, and the amazingly rapid developments since 1990 made possible by Berners-Lee’s WEB. https://www.livescience.com/20727-internet-history.html. “Internet History Timeline: ARPANET to the World Wide Web“, Kim Ann Zimmerman & Jesse Emspak, June 27, 2017. The speed of the developments has far outstripped the ability of governments and international institutions to cope with the scale, impacts and nature of the incredible and diverse growth that has occurred. Many of the changes have been vital and positive. These include advances in medical research and treatment, business activity, research and communication. But there is a dark side to what we are experiencing involving surveillance, privacy invasions, use of the Internet and Web to monitor and intimidate populations, criminal activity done on what is called the “Dark Net”, scams, fake news and messages that advance propaganda interests, military applications, and vicious anonymous “trolling”.
Berners-Lee is currently the Director of the World Wide Web Consortium. The Consortium is a “Web standards organization founded in 1994 which develops interoperable technologies (specifications, guidelines, software, and tools) to lead the Web to its full potential.” Among his many activities and roles including research activities at MIT and Oxford he is a Director of the World Wide Web Foundation, an effort to develop and manage ways to improve the Web’s ability to achieve its original purposes and benefit humanity rather than tear our social and political systems apart. https://www.w3.org/People/Berners-Lee/.
Sir Tim has strongly criticized the vast expansion in governmental spying and snooping on citizens as well as the proliferation of “fake news” and propaganda. He argues that these proliferating abuses of the AI-driven Internet need to be brought under control. In addition to surveillance and propaganda, a recent report on Berners-Lee’s concerns indicates:
The lack of regulation in political advertising online was one of three trends that threaten the openness of the web that Berners-Lee has become “increasingly worried” about over the past year. The others are the loss of control over our personal data and the spread of misinformation online. Personal data is the price many of us agree to pay for free services online, but Berners-Lee points out that “we’re missing a trick” by letting large data-harvesting companies – such as Google, Facebook and Amazon – control that information. “As our data is then held in proprietary silos, out of sight to us, we lose out on the benefits we could realise if we had direct control over this data, and chose when and with whom to share it,” he said.
He went on to observe that the massive collection of information on everything we do is a dangerous threat to the integrity of democratic societies.
A more pernicious side-effect of this data aggregation is the way governments are “increasingly watching our every move online” and passing laws such as the UK’s Investigatory Powers Act, which legalises a range of snooping and hacking tools used by security services that “trample our right to privacy”. Such surveillance creates a “chilling effect on free speech”, even in countries that don’t have repressive regimes.
Newton Minow’s “Vast Wasteland” of Television
There is direct precedent for what has happened to the Internet in the context of the expected benefits that were to flow from the introduction of television. Only a few years after its adoption by consumers, television was described as a “vast wasteland” that had already betrayed its expected benefits. In a 1961 speech, Newton Minow, the new Chair of the FCC, stated:
When television is good, nothing — not the theater, not the magazines or newspapers — nothing is better. But when television is bad, nothing is worse. I invite each of you to sit down in front of your television set when your station goes on the air and stay there, for a day, without a book, without a magazine, without a newspaper, without a profit and loss sheet or a rating book to distract you. Keep your eyes glued to that set until the station signs off. I can assure you that what you will observe is a vast wasteland. http://time.com/4315217/newton-minow-vast-wasteland-1961-speech/.
Although there are significant parallels, the AI-enabled WEB has penetrated our societies far more deeply and profoundly than television. Coupled with the powers of AI and its myriad applications, the WEB has become a cesspool. It has turned into a dark instrumentality far beyond the simple meaningless wasteland of the kind described by the FCC’s Newton Minow. A disturbingly large percentage of the output is raw sewage, vitriol and lies. A tragically small amount of the information is intellectually substantive, honest, reliable or spiritually nourishing. One of the saddest facts is that the WEB’s uses and abuses have exposed the disturbing truths of aspects of our inner selves in ways that contradict the core ideals of our political and social systems.
The ability of people to share information nationally and globally cannot be separated from politics and community. If that information is honest, thoughtful, substantive, sensitive and balanced then we have interactions that make us better and more understanding and knowledgeable. If that information is fake or false, hate-filled, inaccurate or warped in ways that enhance pre-existing biases, it creates a dangerous instrumentality that threatens the fabric of our basic political system.
For many nations that operate under more authoritarian forms of government, information sharing is seen as a threat. As was the case with the secretive 16th Century Court of Star Chamber in England, true and accurate reports on the misdeeds of government actors and the aristocracy were actually considered more serious than false accusations because they were true. This was seen as undermining the monarchy more than falsehoods because they could be proved. China’s approach to the Internet’s provision of WEB access and communication, including denial of access to certain sites and monitoring of citizens’ Internet searches and posts offers a version of how a government may choose to protect itself from the consequences of the Internet. China, in fact, has been exporting its Internet and Web-site suppression strategies to other nations and has found a willing market.
China’s approach, though far too sweeping, intrusive and repressive, can at least be understood in the context of a government’s fear of its fundamental legitimacy being eroded due to the ability of groups and individuals to attack the established order through the Internet system. Similarly, for those of us raised in traditions that elevate knowledge and free communication as core virtues it can be difficult to appreciate that open Internet access presents a profound challenge to nations that seek order and social harmony, or at least purport to be doing so. Their concerns about the destructive power of the Internet’s communications capabilities are not unfounded. We need only take an honest look at what the Internet has done to the political systems of Western democracies—including perhaps most dramatically the US—to admit what a threat the Internet and its applications pose to systems that do not share an equivalent openness about free expression and raucous debate.
The odd fact lost in all the conflict is that in order to operate successfully and retain a semblance of legitimacy and fairness, our institutions require a degree of hypocrisy, faith, and positive assumptions. We operate within what can be called the political equivalent of the literary device of “suspension of disbelief”. This is necessary so that we can deceive ourselves, and others, about the “truth” of who we are and strive to seek something closer to a just and ideal society in which we overcome our worst impulses. We are losing the battle because the WEB has developed as a mechanism by which we are stripping away the façade behind which humanity has long concealed much of its true nature. The results are ugly, divisive and destructive.
Sir Tim’s “Magna Carta for the Web”
In November 2018 Laurence Dodds reported on how Berners-Lee was engaged in a movement to “fix” the Web. See, https://www.yahoo.com/news/sir-tim-berners-lee-launches-214716734.html. “Sir Tim Berners-Lee launches ‘Magna Carta for the web’ to save internet from abuse”, Laurence Dodds, The Telegraph, 11/5/18. Dodds writes:
Sir Tim Berners-Lee has launched a “Magna Carta for the web”, warning that tech giants must change their ways to save the online world from the dangerous forces they have unleashed. Sir Tim, who invented the World Wide Web in 1989, called for a “revolution” in how the internet is regulated and monetised in order to stem abuse, political polarisation and fake news. The … new “contract for the web” … asks internet companies to uphold a set of principles such as protecting privacy and being transparent about their algorithms. Facebook and Google have backed the contract, which will be agreed in detail next year, despite both companies being mentioned by its creator as examples of how “the web we know and love” is under threat. Sir Tim said: “For the first 15 years, most people just expected the web to do great things. They thought ‘there’ll be good and bad, that is humanity, but if you connect humanity with technology, great things will happen…. “What could go wrong? Well, duh: all kinds of things have gone wrong since. We have fake news, we have problems with privacy, we have problems with abuse of personal data, we have people being profiled in a way that they can be manipulated by clever ads.”
A year later, reports in November 2019 indicated some progress. As reported by InfoWorld’s Paul Krill at https://www.infoworld.com/article/3481678/contract-for-the-web-wants-your-endorsement.html. “Contract for the Web wants your endorsement: Backed by the World Wide Web Foundation, Google, and Microsoft, the Contract for the Web seeks a free and open web that works for the public good”, Paul Krill, 11/26/19. Krill reports:
[M]ore than 160 organizations including Google and Microsoft have officially launched the Contract for the Web, a pledge to deal with challenges facing the web including threats to online privacy and security and unequal access and service quality. The contract, described as a global action plan, is intended to guide the digital policy agendas of governments and the decisions of companies building web technologies. Featured are nine principles, three each for governments, companies, and individuals.
For governments, the principles include:
- Ensuring everyone can connect to the Internet.
- Keeping all of the Internet available all of the time.
- Respecting fundamental online privacy and data rights.
For companies, the following principles are endorsed:
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- Making the Internet affordable and accessible to everyone.
- Respecting and protecting privacy and personal data to build online trust.
- Developing technologies to support the best in humanity and challenge the worst.
For citizens, the principles include:
- Being creators and collaborators on the web.
- Building communities that respect civil discourse and human dignity.
- Fighting for the web.
Undermining the Rule of Law
The New Contract for the Web is well worth attempting. Whether it can overcome the underlying causes of the abuses being created by the combination of the Internet and Artificial Intelligence, by governmental and interest group power, corporate greed, competition between governments and between corporations, as well as the negative aspects of human nature—is entirely unknowable at this point. My own belief is that it cannot and that, while corporations and some governments will give “lip service” to such efforts for public relations purposes, their actual behavior will continue much as before. Whether this is so, or some marginal improvements to behavior and regulation are achieved, it remains likely that the Internet and AI—as critical generators of economic profit and political power and control—will continue to function in ways that undermine and erode the system and beliefs on which democracies depend for their integrity.
As my son Daniel and I wrote in Hypocrisy & Myth: The Hidden Order of the Rule of Law (2009), the Rule of Law has already lost a key part of its identity and underlying force. A fact too many people ignore or do not understand is that the Rule of Law is a belief system and creed, not a set of legal codes. The creed energizes, empowers and gives a deeper form to the specific laws that legislatures construct and courts interpret. The problem is that many of the most important myths, principles and beliefs on which the Rule of Law in America and Western Europe is grounded have been scorned as forms of irrational or deluded faith, weakened or destroyed.
US Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas recently addressed concerns about whether there is anything remaining of the core values we long considered essential parts of the American Dream. Thomas admitted his fears about whether any core values still existed that held us together as a political community. If we lose those fundamental shared beliefs we lose the core that gives the Rule of Law its depth and power. When asked whether he was surprised at the extent of the rancor that seems to accompany any dispute about foundational issues he explained:
No, I’m not surprised. I mean, what binds us? What do we all have in common anymore? … [W]e always talk about E pluribus unum. What’s our unum now? We have the pluribus. What’s the unum? … [S]ome people have decided that the Constitution isn’t worth defending, that history isn’t worth defending, that the [traditional] culture and principles aren’t worth defending. And, certainly, if you are in my position, they have to be worth defending. That’s what keeps you going. That’s what energizes you. http://www.breitbart.com/video/2017/11/01/justice-thomas-i-dont-know-what-we-have-as-a-country-in-common/. “Justice Thomas: ‘I Don’t Know’ What ‘We Have as a Country In Common’”, Ian Hanchett, 11/1/17.
Identity Politics and Fragmentation Made Possible Through the Internet
Several decades ago Peter Drucker described what is happening in our society as the “new pluralism”, explaining: “The new pluralism … focuses on power. It is a pluralism of single-cause, single-interest groups—the “mass movements” of small but highly disciplined minorities. Each of them tries to obtain through power what it could not obtain through numbers or through persuasion. Each is exclusively political.” Peter Drucker, The New Realities 76 (Harper & Row 1989). The language being used on the Internet by each collective movement (and counter-movement) is language of attack, protest and opposition. It is language used as weapons to gain or defend power. To achieve our political ends we engage in rampant hypocrisy. The underlying belief held by many of the disputing interests is that we are in a fundamental political and cultural war where the goal is to gain victory “by any means necessary”.
The United States has continued to separate into fanatical fragments of identity groups. Unity, compromise and healing are becoming impossible because, as Justice Thomas notes, there is no “unum” that possesses sufficient power to bind us to a set of common principles. US Representative Steve Israel indicated after a recent political campaign that people are angry about everything. He added that respect for our basic institutions has largely disappeared and that, as local jobs on which they counted for decades evaporated, people feel helpless, frightened and outraged at what they see as their leaders’ betrayal. The situation is getting worse rather than better. Within ten to fifteen years we could face a social explosion with rising criminal activity and violence, militaristic repression, warring militias, vigilante groups and, in some instances, urban guerrilla warfare.
Where what is needed is reasoned justice-based advocacy in response to systemic inequities, we instead find demagogic, intensely activist, organized and vocal special interest identity collectives intent only on achieving their specific goals. Anyone who does not affirmatively support the aims and positions of the identity collectives are condemned as bigots and enemies. These groups are collapsed into camps we tend to refer to as “The Left” or “Progressives”, and “The Ultra-Conservative Right”, “Deplorables” or even “Nationalists”. Rather than honest discourse we have vitriolic shouting matches and increasing violence. A recent survey indicated that 70% of those questioned considered we faced the prospect of civil war. See, http://thehill.com/homenews/state-watch/351432-fury-fuels-the-modern-political-climate-in-us. “Fury fuels the modern political climate in US”, Reid Wilson, 9/20/17.
It is unlikely we can meet the challenges through reasoned discussion and compromise. We find ourselves in a situation of the kind C. G. Jung warned in asserting that intelligent discourse cannot exist in societies filled with anger and bitterness. Jung explained:
Rational argument can be conducted with some prospect of success only so long as the emotionality of a given situation does not exceed a certain critical degree. If the affective [emotional] temperature rises above this level, the possibility of reason’s having any effect ceases and its place is taken by slogans and chimerical wish-fantasies. C.G. Jung, The Undiscovered Self, 12, 13 (R.F.C. Hull trans., 1957).
A key aspect of the problem is that our centers of power have become too diverse and divisive. The actors are focused on their own singular concerns, and the underlying broad-based system of social beliefs, principles and creeds so corrupted and attenuated that there is no turning back from confrontation. Compromise is seen by the competing interest and identity groups as weakness and betrayal, not as an essential element of interaction and governance in a healthy and complex community.
As our political system has become increasingly complex it has become even more factious. Adolf Berle in his book, Power, explained that gaining and consolidating control of institutions is how people extend their power pervasively and subtly beyond the limited reach of fists or guns. Adolf A. Berle, Power 92 (1967). An analysis well worth reading on the intentions of the original Framers of our Constitution and the developments we are now experiencing has been provided by Lee Drutman, a senior fellow in the political reform program at New America. See, https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2020/01/two-party-system-broke-constitution/604213/. “America Is Now the Divided Republic the Framers Feared: John Adams worried that “a division of the republic into two great parties … is to be dreaded as the great political evil.” And that’s exactly what has come to pass”, Lee Drutman, 1/1/20.
In much the same vein, US Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts recently warned that we have come to take our rights, duties and privileges under democracy for granted and that such attitudes pose a threat to the system on which we depend. See, https://news.yahoo.com/u-taking-democracy-granted-chief-230000519.html. destroyed or “U.S. Taking Democracy for Granted, Chief Justice Roberts Says”, Greg Stohr, Bloomberg, 12/31/19.
The U.S. has “come to take democracy for granted,” Chief Justice John Roberts said, urging his fellow judges to keep educating the public about the workings of the federal government and the Constitution. … “We have come to take democracy for granted, and civic education has fallen by the wayside,” Roberts wrote. “In our age, when social media can instantly spread rumor and false information on a grand scale, the public’s need to understand our government, and the protections it provides, is ever more vital.”
Fanaticism, Factionalism, and the Thirst for Power
Part of the “taking for granted” that Roberts warns against is that far too many of us have become narrow and obsessed fanatics. Hate, contempt and an intolerant and aggressive rigidity defines us and we can’t seem to be able to step outside the “cage” in which we have locked ourselves. In “Defense of Intelligence”, a speech given by Albert Camus in 1945, he warned of the need to resist being continually filled with hatred for past wrongs and mistreatments. Camus remarked after many French citizens sought to regain some sense of normalcy after enduring four years of continual repression, atrocities, and significant collaboration with the Nazi’s by some of their countrymen:
“We were left with the rage that consumes our souls at the memory of certain images and certain faces. The executioners’ hatred engendered the victims’ hatred. And once the executioners had gone, the French were left with their hatred only partially spent. They still look at one another with a residue of anger.” [He added] In this situation: “it is essential that we must never let criticism descend to insult; we must grant that our opponent may be right .… It is essential … that we remake our political mentality.” “Defense of Intelligence“, in Albert Camus, Resistance, Rebellion, and Death at 38 (Alfred A. Knopf, 1961) translated from the French and Introduced by Justin O’Brien.
Camus also tells us:
If you merely make an effort to understand without preconceptions, if you merely talk of objectivity, you will be accused of sophistry and criticized for having pretensions. …. I know as well as anyone the excesses of intelligence, and I know as well as anyone that the intellectual is a dangerous animal ever ready to betray. But that is not the right kind of intelligence. We are speaking of the kind that is backed by courage, the kind that for four years paid whatever was necessary to have the right to respect. When that intelligence is snuffed out, the black night of dictatorship begins. …. [T]here is no freedom without intelligence or without mutual understanding.” Defense of Intelligence, id.
When we succumb to rage and bitterness as we have increasingly done in America, it creates a climate of hostility and the potential for repression. The mixture of rage, fear, self-interest, and the quest to defend and attain power and opportunity means real discourse on any vital issue is virtually absent. In fact, anyone who offers balanced and sane insights is subject to attack condemned by labels and slogans. Each slogan and label is a preemption of discourse in an effort to acquire or retain power. To the extent we use such tactics, we offend the deepest spirit of our traditions and damage our culture.
What we are describing are the consequences of the rise of fanaticism in American society. James Madison explains that the “causes of faction are … sown in the nature of man, according to the different circumstances of civil society.” Federalist # 10, at 58. In warning of the dangers of factions, Madison described two admittedly impractical “cures” against the “disease”. One is to “destroy the liberty” that allows the disputes to bloom, the other is to give “to every citizen the same opinions, the same passions, and the same interests.”
Former US Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist described in the capital punishment case of Furman v. Georgia what takes place when people with strong agendas acquire power. Rehnquist quotes John Stuart Mill’s observation that: “The disposition of mankind, whether as rulers or as fellow-citizens, to impose their own opinions and inclinations as a rule of conduct on others, is so energetically supported by some of the best and by some of the worst feelings incident to human nature, that it is hardly ever kept under restraint by anything but want of power.” Furman v. Georgia, 408 U.S. 238, 467 (1972) (Rehnquist, J., dissenting) (quoting J.S. Mill, On Liberty 28 (1885).
Unfortunately, the tragedy is that the Internet and AI have given power to too many people and governments who are ill-equipped to handle its amazing capabilities and direct them in the positive ways intended by their creators. We are experiencing a situation in which powerful political interest groups are attempting, and largely succeeding, to “impose their own opinions and inclinations as a rule of conduct on others” and they are doing this through the power of the WEB and its host of AI applications and hyperlinks. Tim Berners-Lee and Leonard Kleinrock are right to be dismayed at the ways their invention has been abused and turned to purposes they never intended. We can only hope their efforts to mitigate the worst of the effects are successful.