Is there an Original Sin of the Internet? Join me on a journey to find out.
Today I’m sharing a passion project of mine that’s been years in the making. I’m lucky. I’m getting old. Much better than the alternative! My career has spanned such a fascinating time in the history of technology. I learned to *literally* cut and paste at my first newspaper. Now, most of the world is run by computer code that’s been virtually cut and pasted. Often, carelessly cut and pasted. Look around, and it’s fair to ask: Has all this technology really made our lives better? My answer is yes, but by a margin so slim that objectors might call for a recount.
Whatever your answer, there is no denying that tech has landed us in a lot of trouble, and the techlash is real. And for those of us who thought the Internet might end up as humanity’s greatest invention, this time is depressing. One of my guests — a real Internet founder — thinks perhaps he should have done something else with his life.
Debugger, launching today, is a podcast, but I think of it more as an audio documentary. There are no sound bites. I let my guests talk and try to stay out of the way. So you can make up your own mind. Thanks to the great people at Duke’s Sanford School of Public Policy and the Kenan Institute for Ethics, I have access to amazing people who were there at the dawn of the Internet Age. I hope you’ll listen, but if you’d rather read, I’ll spend this week sending out edited transcripts from each guest.
First up: Richard Purcell, one of the first privacy executives. From him, you’ll learn as much about working on the railroad as you will about the abuse of power through privacy invasions. But before that, I try to explain what I mean by “original sin” in the introduction, and why that matters.
Future Debugger episodes will deal with similar foundational questions about technology and its role in democratic society. Why do 1,000 companies know every time I visit one web page? How do data brokers interfere with free and fair elections? What should we do with too-big-to-fail tech giants? How can we capture medical miracles trapped in data without violating patients? And how can we build tech that isn’t easily weaponized by abusing people or enemy combatants? That’s coming soon, on Debugger. On to the transcript for today. Click here to visit the podcast home page. Or, click below to listen.
[00:01:27] Bob Sullivan: Welcome to Debugger, a podcast about technology brought to you by Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy and the Duke Kenan Institute for Ethics. I’m your host, Bob Sullivan. And I care a lot about today’s topic. So please indulge me for a moment or two while I try to frame this issue.
I came across a story many years ago, it still haunts me as a technologist and an early believer in the internet. It haunts me because it reads like a sad pre-obituary about a once-famous pop singer who’s now a broke has-been with a drug problem … and as a writer because its prose is nearly poetry. At least to my ears, the kind of thing I wish I’d written credit. Steve Maich at Maclean’s and Canadian magazine for the words. Dramatic reading by old friend Alia Tavakolian:
[00:02:24] Alia Tavakolian: The people who conceived and pioneered the web described a kind of enlightened utopia built on mutual understanding. A world in which knowledge is limited only by one’s curiosity. Instead, we have constructed a virtual Wild West where the masses indulge their darkest vices, pirates of all kinds troll for victims, and the rest of us have come to accept that cyberspace isn’t the kind of place you’d want to raise your kids. The great multinational exchange of ideas and goodwill has devolved into a food fight. And the virtual marketplace is a great place to get robbed. The answers to the great questions of our world may be out there somewhere, but finding them will require you to first wade through an ocean of misinformation, trivia and sludge. We’ve been sold a bill of goods. We’re paying for it through automatic monthly withdrawals from our PayPal accounts.
Let’s put this in terms crude enough for all cyber dwellers to grasp: The internet sucks.
[00:03:23] Bob Sullivan: The internet sucks? I’ve thought about this story for years, come back to it once in a while, but it’s been a while. In fact, it’s been 15 years since those words were first written, a lot has happened since then.
· My name is Ed Snowden. I’m 29 years old. I work for Booz Allen Hamilton as an infrastructure analyst for NSA in Hawaii.
· What exactly are they saying these Russians did? ….Well, there’s a lot of things that were alleging the Internet Research Agency did. Um, the main thing is that they posed as American citizens to amplify and spread content that causes division in our society
· Tonight, Facebook stock tanking, dropping nearly 7% after allegations that data from Cambridge Analytica secretly harvested the personal information of 50 million unsuspecting Facebook users,
· Cyber experts warn the Equifax hack has the potential to haunt Americans for decades. And every adult should assume their information was stolen.
· Social media is just one of many factors that played a role in the deadly attack on the U S. Capital, but it’s a huge one that attack was openly planned online for weeks.
Bob Sullivan: If the internet sucked in 2006, what should we say about it now? I remember being an intern with Microsoft in 1995, a small part of the launch team for Windows 95. I helped launch internet news. I remember feeling at the time … it was very heady. Like John Perry, Barlow the co-founder of the electronic frontier foundation and a Grateful Dead lyricist…We both felt the internet could one day rival fire in the importance to humanity. Well, actually what he said was it was the most transforming technological event since the capture of fire.
So I think we should all admit we haven’t captured the internet. It’s a lot more like an uncontrolled fire right now. Or maybe like a wild animal. We haven’t domesticated. Not yet. Anyway, how did this happen? How did we lose control of it? Where did we go wrong? Was there some original sin of the internet? A moment when we turned right, as we should have turned left. Looking backward, isn’t always worthwhile, but sometimes it is. When you’re doing a long mathematics calculation and you make a mistake, it’s not possible to erase the answer and correct it. You have to trace your steps back to the original error and calculate forward anew.
I think it’s time. We did that with the web.
Maybe this seems like an academic question, but it’s not. The coronavirus pandemic has taught humanity a very painful lesson by now. We’ve all come to realize that like it or not, we’re in this together. We can’t rid half the planet of COVID-19 and hope for the best. That won’t work. We have to all pull in the same direction. All do the things we need to do. Wear masks, avoid indoor spaces, vaccinate when we can …to get and keep the virus on the run. And that won’t happen if we don’t all agree on the same set of facts. But right now the most powerful disinformation machine ever, the biggest lie spreading tool ever, seems to have truth on the run.
So it’s not just academic, it’s personal. It’s life or death.
How do we capture digital fire? How do we domesticate the wild animal that is the internet. The best way to get out of a hole is to stop digging. So I want to begin there.
For the next 45 minutes or so, I’m going to pursue this question of an original sin with the help of a series of experts who were there. As you’ll find out, while some of them might not like the way I frame the question, no one disagrees with the basic premise: We’ve built fatal flaws into our digital lives and we’d better fix them fast.