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Internet, Year Zero

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The End on Techno-Utopia 

Today we’ll talk about Big Tech, cybernetics, blockchain, Zeitgeist and why it is important to look behind before you start looking ahead. Before anything else, we will start with some bad news: currently, everybody hates tech. It’s not so bad, it’s just a point in time. If you look back 10 years ago, everybody loved Google, some people loved Facebook and everybody hated the banks. Banks were so powerful! Today, tech is powerful, so maybe people just hate power. To be honest, banks had it coming but if you look at tech over the last 10 years, it also had it coming… We had the Snowden affair (2013, TN) who revealed to us that our systems could be turned into mass surveillance systems. The Cambridge Analytica hack (2018, TN) taught us that all social networks could be turned into mass manipulation systems. The dreadful assassination of Jamal Khashoggi led Silicon Valley to reassess the morality of its financing system and for the past 18 months now, intermittent lock downs and images from abroad gave us a taste of what it means to live in a tech-enhanced society of control. We can finally feel in our flesh what great writers like Zamyatin (in his novel We, written in 1920, TN), Huxley (Brave New World, published in 1932, TN) and Orwell (in his novel 1984, written in 1948, TN) were telling us about a century ago. The books describe different futures : Orwell and Zamyatin project a dystopic future of communism, while Huxley’s world is a projection of liberalism. But they also share a few features such as surveillance, thought control, inequalities, concentration of power, and some level of segregation. And so, today, everybody hates tech, and everybody hates Facebook, and even the Facebook name became such a liability that Facebook is now turning into Meta.

It’s not such a strange idea : on the one hand, because Facebook has always been about building the metaverse (we will get to that a bit later). On the other hand, the metaverse is currently associated with the idea of decentralisation and blockchain, and what’s more remote from authority and surveillance than decentralisation? “Meta” gives Facebook a gloss of openness, privacy and trust. However, the question is: if you don’t hate the metaverse, but you hate Facebook, and Facebook has always been about the metaverse, what is it that you hate in the current version of Facebook? As we’re embarking towards a new tech paradigm, such as blockchain, did we clearly identify, and get rid of, the ideology that transformed Google, Apple, FB and Amazon into dystopian manipulation machines?

Ideologies shape Technologies

As tech builders, the question matters, because ideologies shape technologies, in the sense that technologies are built at a specific moment by groups of people with society with their own views. But it’s also true the other way around : technologies also shape ideologies. That’s the meaning of the last sentence of 1984: when Winston says “I love Big Brother”, he actually means it. He’s acknowledging that the system managed to turn his mind inside out. Technologies have the power to shape ideologies and that’s why we need to be very careful. To start with, we need to look in the past and try to identify some of these ideologies that have been responsible for what happened with big tech. Getting back to our guinea pig of the day, Facebook, Zuckerberg tells us the mission did not change, it’s still about connecting people: “3D spaces in the metaverse will let you socialise, learn, collaborate and play in ways that go beyond what we can imagine”. Does that ring a bell? Allow me to quote: “Cyberspace consists of transactions, relationships, and thought itself, arrayed like a standing wave in the web of our communications. Ours is a world that is both everywhere and nowhere, but it is not where bodies live”. This is John Perry Barlow in 1996 for the Electronic Frontier Foundation. The EFF is the influence group responsible for a number of pamphlets that basically created the image of the internet as a place of emancipation and inclusivity and liberty, of abundance and sustainability because moving bits is not like moving atoms, so wealth can be shared, etc. The founders of the EFF met on the WELL, which is basically the mother of all Facebook, of all social networks, of all chats and of all forums. It was a virtual community, best known for its forums, that started in 1985 even before the web, the graphical interface for the Internet, did exist. The WELL was one of the many ventures, including lobbies and media such as Wired, created by a group of people that came to be known as the techno-utopians. An early writer in Wired, William Gibson also coined the word “cyberspace” for the first time in his sci-fi novel Neuromancer, later re-used in the pamphlets of the EFF. When Zuckerberg created Facebook, he likely didn’t know about all that legacy. Rumour has it, he didn’t even know who Marc Andreessen was when he was introduced to him which is understandable as he was barely 20. Nevertheless, the fact that he didn’t know the story doesn’t mean he was not influenced by it, it doesn’t mean that the Zeitgeist, the spirit of the age, didn’t guide him into implementing a vision  for cyberspace.

Cyberspace: Brave (not so) New World

Zuckerberg seemed to be the chosen one, the one that would bring cyberspace into reality, that would create this new world of endless possibilities, where creativity is shared among all people, as the writings by the EFF prophesied. But the cyberspace created under the rule of GAFA turned out to be quite different. The cyberspace was supposed to be a new world; but if you look closely, what GAFA created is just an overlay on the world. If you think about Google, it is just indexing data that already exists, mapping real streets, where consumers are using Apple products to capture reality and put their photos on Facebook, where they also imported their existing relationship into a social graph, instead of creating new interactions. And as far as Amazon is concerned, you use it to send some very material products. When you consider it this way, it is no wonder the NSA and the Chinese Communist Party are very interested in having control over the cyberspace, because it now means control over the economy, society and reality.

In the end, Zuckerberg didn’t create the vision of cyberspace that was promised by the techno-utopians. What did he create exactly? You have to look at the word itself. “Cyberspace” comes from “cybernetics”, which might sound a bit old-fashioned today, but it was quite the rage in the 50s and 60s. Cybernetics was an influential theory used as a method for analysing any systems, may it be a machine, an industrial environment, an ecosystem, a living body, the human mind, etc. It doesn’t matter what because the principle of cybernetics is that if you can capture enough signals inside the system and feed them to the machine, then you can predict the outcome and the behaviour and you can optimise and influence it. As an aside, we can strengthen our own theory that ideas are dictated by the zeitgeist, when society is ripe, and not necessarily by individuals: at the same time as the theory of cybernetics was being developed in the American world war II labs by Wiener and his acolytes, Dr Hermann Schmidt developed a general theory of control inside the Third Reich.

We are now perfectly used to look at the world that way: with AI, we tend to look at systems and not think about the causality, not build a model, not understand the motivation of the agents but just feed it to the machine and see what goes out. Cybernetics has been very influential in the fields of mathematics, AI and computer science, but also maps to behaviorism in psychology, ecology in the way we model ecosystems and put them in the simplest form of carbon-14 emissions and offset.

Back to 2016. The Cambridge Analytica Hack is the perfect embodiment of this theory where, through data collection on the population, you can try to predict and influence the outcome of an election. It hasn’t been proven to have actually worked but the mere fact that it has been investigated shows the influence the theory still has. 

The relationship between cybernetics and techno-utopians is everywhere in the publication. You have the example of the Whole Earth Catalog, which was their first venture. The 1969 issue sold more than 1 million copies. Steve Jobs said “it was Google in paperback form 35 years before Google even existed”. In his most famous speech, he quoted the Catalog’s farewell message “Stay hungry. Stay foolish”, which were the last words on the last page of the last catalog. It is interesting to point out that the Whole Earth Catalog belongs to the same family as the Well (Well means Whole earth ‘Lectronic Link). Hence, if we simplify the equation, cybernetics leads to techno utopia that leads to Society of Control.

After Techno-utopia: One Decentralised World

We can then amend our previous question : as we embark on new tech paradigms, with no walled gardens, with privacy at their core, did we make sure we got rid of the fundamentals of the ideology that turned Google and Facebook into machines of surveillance? Let’s take one of these paradigms, the blockchain paradigm… and for a change, let’s hear what Facebook tells us about this ”future made by all of us. The Metaverse will be a collective project that goes beyond a single company. It will be created by people all over the world”. It seems even Facebook doesn’t want the cybernetic version of cyberspace anymore and prefers the web3 version of it.

Web3 is in its infancy. But what are its most prominent features ? How do they relate to techno-utopia? Techno-utopia used to say “information wants to be free”. Now with NFTs, it’s acknowledged that information also wants to be scarce. Techno-utopia used to say “move bits, not atoms” and if you look at Bitcoin’s proof of work, it relies precisely on the fact that you’re burning energy in the real world to offset the exchange of value. Finally, Lawrence Lessig used to warn against the dangers of the rule of code, because “code is law”. This somehow turned into “zero-trust” systems that guarantee no human or institution is ever trusted, only the code. It seems like techno-utopia is definitely a thing of the past.

But if the aftermath of techno-utopia was a centralised liberal dystopia with segregation, restrictions of freedom, concentration of power, what future does web3 create in its current form? Let’s look at the biggest trends. First, 2021’s biggest trend: NFTs. Information doesn’t want to be free. We want ownership, we want trading, we want wealth measured in financial value, we want exclusivity, we want to be uniquely flattered by being part of exclusive clubs, such as the Bored Apes Yacht Club, which will provide you with a unique collectible NFT. Seems like a unique way to create communitarianism and exclusion, check. Second: 2020’s biggest trend: Decentralized Finance or DeFi, as a way to remove concentration of financial power from the banks. How does monetary power work in DeFi? You have two main schools. One is Bitcoin and Bitcoin is deflationary because its supply is limited. To keep it short, the more you own today, the more you will own tomorrow. The other one is staking, which is the algorithm most other cryptocurrencies rely on. With staking, the more you own, the more you can access and yield, meaning the more you own, the more you’ll be making. Raising inequalities, check.

Moving on to 2022’s likely biggest trend: DAOs (Decentralised Autonomous Organisations). Those are a new way to handle governance inside an organisation. It’s like moving your shareholders meeting on the blockchain to make the governance more secure, transparent, auditable with a clear log of decisions. It can obviously be applied to more things than just shareholders meeting or companies because you don’t need a legal structure to use DAOs. It is a very powerful tool and that’s the exact reason why you need to be very careful when you set up a DAO because, with a DAO, code is law. Let’s illustrate that by looking at your new future. You live in a new neighbourhood and you think it would be a good idea to handle all the day-to-day affairs of the neighbourhood on a DAO. Outside of your neighbourhood, inequalities rise, the world is more and more insecure so some of your neighbours think it would be a good idea to just put smart locks around the neighbourhood, control access with a crypto wallet decentralised identity because at least privacy will be guaranteed, and add cameras to practice face recognition. You don’t necessarily agree and most of your neighborhood friends don’t either but it’s voted on the DAO. Unfortunately, when this specific DAO was set up, it was not one person, one vote, but one token, one vote, with a token representing financial value. It is possible that there’s just a few people in the neighbourhood who own the biggest houses and prefer to live in a gated community. But now you all live in a gated community. This new tech paradigm creates controlled access, rising inequalities and concentration of power, and surprise: we seem to end up within the exact same dystopian future Big Tech created.

Internet, Year Zero

You see where this is going. Some elements of the underlying ideology, shared with the techno-utopia, were not questioned. One of them is cybernetics. A few assumptions inherited from cybernetics, which seem to be widely accepted today, especially in the tech world: “connection is inherently good” (despite the fact that it creates cultural standardization and destroys diversity, which we’ve known since the age of TV). “Everything can and should be represented by data” (leading to simplistic schemes such as “carbon offsetting” which do not enable a debate on the way we use space on the planet). “Optimization leads to the greater good” (although optimizing anything requires putting it under control).

The reason why we haven’t challenged those ideas is laziness. Cybernetics, in essence, allow not to create a model, not to think about the vision or the causality and in the end, not to create a political point of view (although putting everything under control is actually very political). Getting out of that paradigm means being clear about our ideologies, reflecting upon the world we want to live in, and in order to do that, reclaiming the ability to think collectively, hence building ideologies.

One last story on how tech and DAOs have been used for that purpose in France as soon as… 1901. Pierre Waldeck-Rousseau was then President of the Council, the equivalent of the Prime Minister. When he passed the Associations Bill, he considered the Republic was in danger, and the people would not defend the democratic principles in case of a coup. He thought the people didn’t actually know what it meant to live in a democracy. Most people didn’t vote and didn’t understand the political system. So for the first time in 200 years, he authorised corporations and free associations of citizens. In his mind, the best way to teach people about democracy was to let them use the democratic processes to make decisions at their own levels. Democracy held in France for a few more decades. The parallel to our own case is that, at a time where democracy is in danger and people lose their appetite for debate and confronting views outside of their own bubble of thoughts, we have tools that could be great to do what Pierre Waldeck-Rousseau did. DOAs are currently only used for VC-backed startups and DeFi projects. As tech builders, we have a responsibility to share, explain and teach the technology and to apply it for what belongs to the public and not only startups. Otherwise, we’ll keep accelerating the spread of tech that enslaves instead of tech that emancipates… although that sounds techno-utopian.

Q&A Section 

Q: Is it just technology? Or is it politics behind all of it? How would you describe this big mutation?

A: It is politics more than technology but the fact that technology became so powerful made it political. Technology is shaping the world in which politics can deploy so if we let technology go too far, the new possibilities of politics will shrink.  

Q: Your book covers two giants, Silicon Valley with the creation of the ARPANET and the internet and China with the awakening of the Dragon, the Great Firewall and how it developed in China in a way that they had protectionism of their politics. Where does Europe stand between these two network giants?

A: Europe should work out what it wants to do. The reason why I put so much emphasis on China is because the way it developed cyberspace is actually good news for Europe. China was so far behind 25 years ago but they have managed to develop and shape their cyberspace to reflect their ideology and create a coherence with the will they had for their society. If they can do it, so can we, it is just a question of willpower and in Europe, we are just making excuses. We can do whatever we want, China just proved it. 

Q: Someone said that technology is neither good or bad, nor is it neutral. There is no such thing as “only doing business”. What do you think of those companies who claim they are apolitical, even when we spend hours on their devices, or their ecommerce websites or their movie platforms? 

A: Obviously they do politics all the time. A big part of how they grew is related to the Telecommunications Act of 1996 and the ambiguity between being a media and being a platform but I think we were way beyond that now. When you see what happened during the last US Election with Twitter and Facebook taking the decisions of censorship, it makes sense to say that, if they wanted to influence and decide who may speak and who may not, then even the President of the United States would not speak for some time.  

Q: We’ve seen a lot of the tech giants positioning themselves about progressivism during the last election, even though some of them joined Trump later on. Liberal Jeff Bezos funded the Barack Obama Foundation when they represented the far right. Isn’t it strange that the far right would now be anti-tech and anti-big giants? 

A: This is logical, progressivism basically means being social over giving people all liberties. If we put it simply, the right believes liberties are more important than anything, while the left believes in equality. You need to balance the two. Tech creates a humongous amount of power and most people in the Silicon Valley believe in UBI (Universal Basic Income). UBI just basically means that, because they are making such vast amounts of money, they can decide on what would be the minimal grant to be allocated to the rest of humankind, while they still get richer with their ventures. Most people are not fooled by that, that’s the problem with the politics in the US. It is just so dualistic that there can be no balance. You have to be either pro-Trump or against Trump, pro-tech or anti-tech.

Q:  Funnily enough, when a manager for a top secret money giant tweeted about a programme where you can invest in students, pay their tuition fees and they reimburse you over time by giving you back a part of the income, someone just said “You just invented free public schools and taxes”. Leaving the West for the example of China, with the exception of Jack Ma, did we see any impact on these tech giants’ politics, how they’re controlled, or how they enable people to think differently about their systems? 

A: I think the Jack Ma story is very relevant besides just Jack Ma disappearing and appearing again as a school teacher in the countryside. The listing of Ant Financial, which is part of the Ali Baba empire, was postponed so that regulations could be implemented to relieve the group of the advantage it had over banks shows that the Party has been very interventionist about the big tech giants. They’ve helped them grow and now they are limiting their growth because it is not their vision to have a few companies worth trillion of dollars. 

Q: How does decentralisation of IT into clouds by major vendors fit into your story?

A: It is just play for big tech, either this data goes into the control of big tech or you create your cloud. Even if you’re an independent company, you’re either going to grow or you’re going to get smaller but once you have this big honeypot of data, what will you do with it? You will want to play with it and that’s what my story is about. It’s not just data, it’s the way we all create these massive warehouses of data with the idea that we can use data for a better world. We should absolutely not delete that data because it will be used and whether it’s in the hands of the users as a full decentralisation trend or on the cloud, it doesn’t change the underlying idea that having lots of data about the world is inherently good.

Jonathan Bourguignon

Jonathan Bourguignon

Entrepreneur and Author of “Internet, Year Zero, from Silicon Valley to China, Birth and Mutation of the Network”.

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