Fixing The Internet

So, what’s wrong with the world?

Setting aside people who begin sentences with, “so”, it’s the internet. It’s really very badly designed. Very.

(See also people who think a single adverb to be a sentence.)

What’s wrong with the internet?


You could argue that the real root causes are the flaws in people.

We can fix the internet.

Good luck with fixing people.

So (I really am past caring about grammar, I’m going to literally split an infinitive in a minute. In fact even less than that) what is wrong with the internet?

Actually not many things, at least, not many things that matter.

While it doesn’t really matter if I start sentences with, “so”, or I casually split the odd infinitive, the few flaws in the internet are devastating. Devastating is one of those words we over use and apply casually when we should be more sparing. A bit like awesome.

So what is actually wrong with the internet?

It wrecks a few concepts that are the foundations of humanity and of civilisation. (Blimey, he’s off one this time…)

Ownership of digital assets so I benefit and control things I create. Even if that control is exercised so as to be delegated to a trusted third party. Like I put my money in a bank.

In particular ownership of identity, which is mine and controlled by me. Which, yes, extends to all my data but with my identity at the centre.

Accountability for our actions, set in the context of our transparent identity.

The containment of anonymity so it’s not a right but a closely controlled privilege, used in rare circumstances and for limited periods, usually overseen by trusted institutions. For whistle blowing, bearing witness in safety, voting in elections and referendums.

Privacy the thing that protects our identities and so makes them valuable to trade while ensuring we remain accountable. The extent to which we do that depends on what part of our identity, and the numerous data points that go to make it up, we have to trade to do something. Share a news story, buy a widget, post a photo of your lunch, challenge the parentage of a class mate, organise a riot, assert that just one of five completely different approaches to leaving the EU represent the single unambiguous will of the people, encourage people to follow the gourd / shoe etc.

Empathy, the ability to put ourselves in the shoes of another. Broadly this is what makes us socially successful as individuals and collectively. Remove it and we start to behave destructively. This seems to be greatly diminished when we interact digitally. In part because we can be anonymous and unaccountable. In part simply because we are not co present. In part because we interact with people we do not know at all or well enough to trust, so we feel able to behave badly.

But why are these flaws so bad that I feel able to wheel out the word, “devastating”?

Put briefly.

If I do not own my identity I become the product, I am arguably enslaved, in the jargon, a digital serf. Then I get told what I like, what to read, watch and ultimately what to believe.

If the things I create cannot be traced to me, if they are not hard linked to my identity, I can be anonymous.

If I am anonymous I am more tempted to misbehave because I am then not accountable. So I troll, I tell lies, I steal, I manipulate. My empathy drains away. Then so does my humanity. And if I’m a psychopath, I’m no longer a rare 1%, diluted by good people to whom I am known and accountable. I’m devastating because the internet means I scale, globally.

If I have no privacy I am both vulnerable yet also denied the powerful currency of trading that privacy, by choice, for a whole range of things from online search to building trust and even love. To put that another way, I’m not incentivised to be empathetic and socially successful.

That’s all quite bad.

Can the internet be fixed?

Well for a start we’d better try. I doubt very much there is an appetite for turning it off. Ask O2 users.

To some degeee yes it can be fixed.

Implementing identity we own and control is perfectly possible. Arguably it’s been done but messily. Probably best to agree standards but then allow countries, organisations and people to implement on top of those standards. I’ll leave the four layers for another day, and until I’ve thought about it properly. But basically I’d hate every country, community and person to be the same.

Another layer of standards would be needed to embed and secure identity in all things digital. Think JPEG of your lunch with a stamp on it that can’t be deleted that says that you took it and defines a set of rules as to how it may be used, what that costs (which can be zero) and who gets to see who you really are (which can be no one, although I’d think most countries would block that kind of traffic).

Privacy, well, we are lurching that way.

We’d need protected services for the rare occasions we need to be anonymous.

We should thoroughly dump end to end encrypted services. That was a really very very bad idea. And yes, I briefly advocated them.

All doable. Destroys the business models of various companies. Probably means we’d have to pay for some things we get for “free”, though not a lot. Worth every penny.

Designing in full empathy? No chance. But the above workarounds will help and dampen the worst effects and I doubt we will turn it off.

Why do I care? A lot of what is going wrong with civilisation goes back to these design flaws in the internet. Not totally, it still takes people to be bad, uninformed or simply stupid, but having damaged crucial components of what makes us successful social animals, the tipping points are closer and easier to trip for those minded to nudge us into chaos.

What worries me, is that while all this is written and spoken of more over the last few years since I bored for Britain in 2013-2015, we don’t appear to have done anything about it.

What do think? More importantly, do you care?