Let’s be more careful what we’re feeding it.
Today is digital clean up day and the 50th anniversary of Earth day. Let’s take the opportunity to reflect on our digital and physical footprints and where our relationship with the digital world is really headed.
This article puts together some of my thoughts on where we are today and why we all need to zoom out and reset our ways in the days, weeks, and months to come.
Most people don’t realize it, but access to the Internet was established as a basic human right in many countries back in 2016. Now, with most of the world in lockdown, we can all truly appreciate how being online is much more than a tool or a vehicle: we simply cannot participate in modern life without it.
But, this thing we love — even worship — is not on a stable footing, at least in its current form. It is under threat. Some say it is already broken.
Here are a few things that you may not know.
The Internet is Obese.
The Internet currently uses around 10% of the world’s electricity, up from around 2% in 2012. This is conservatively expected to rise to 20% by 2025.
Think about that. 1/5th of the world’s energy will soon be required to prop up something that many people do not even consider ‘real’. These forecasts were also made prior to the impact of COVID 19, social distancing, and the radical way we all suddenly morphed in response to the new normal.
With more and more devices connected and always on, all this is happening so fast that no one even knows how to record consumption or accurately measure it. It is both complex and out of control, and with 5G and the IoT now rolling out at scale, it will accelerate even more quickly. Beyond accurate measurement, the problem is that there is no entity anywhere that can be called in to clean things up. So, what’s the solution? It is up to each of us to realize that the Internet needs to go on a diet. We have to watch what we feed it.
On average, we are now spending more than 6.5 hours online every day — primarily on social media. As we become even less selective about all the useless stuff we are putting ‘out there’, we should know that all this data is actually stuff being stored somewhere in a data center or a cloud (i.e., big buildings with endless hot servers that require serious cooling). To ensure nothing is ever lost, multiple copies of our digital stuff are always stored, accessible 24/7 by anyone anywhere. This is all super convenient for us and happens without our knowing. But, are you truly ok with having countless copies of yourself floating around?
Maybe now, when we are all now all at home and more hooked to our screens than ever, we can start to contemplate on the Internet’s energy consumption and whether or not what we are doing online is worth it. How will all that power get generated? As many countries are already energy constrained, what has to be sacrificed — and who will have to sacrifice — so that we can continue to build up our digital lives this way and at this pace?
We cannot bypass our role in this unfolding story. We need to ensure that any steps we are taking to declutter and make sense of our physical lives also extends to our digital selves. This is up to each and every one of us to control.
As a first step, it is important for us to know that the digital stuff we are creating is not magically invisible. It is stored somewhere, making our digital waste comparable to throwing our garbage into someone else’s yard; another problem for someone else to deal with that ultimately catches up to us sooner or later.
Hello. You are the product!
Over the past decade, we have all gotten used to clicking ‘agree’ to every online contract for every app we’ve ever used without actually reading them or understanding what they are really doing on our devices. Why? Would we do that in the real world? Are we just lazy? Do we really care? Or maybe we think it is all just for fun, something that we don’t have to take too seriously? Who would ever go to court with an app maker? With Apple? With Facebook? I’ll just delete the app and get on my day, right?
Well, whatever our reasons, we have all encouraged the evolution of an app centric Internet that is not only bloated and wasteful, but also shaping our lifestyles at a pace that no longer captures our attention or concern. Each time we hit that ‘agree’ button without reading what we’re actually getting is a not-so-silent yet vote for companies to hack our attention. And now, we are where we are: stuck, with no place to go.
A handful of companies, dominated by Facebook, Google, Amazon, Microsoft, and Apple, have become the world’s largest and most powerful entities in the past half decade. Yes, they brought and bought up these amazing and powerful technologies that have truly changed the world. But, if you never paid anything to use them, the hidden cost is that you are the product, your attention the prize for advertisers keen to tap into your money through your predictable vulnerabilities.
80% of today’s internet experience is dominated by less than 20 companies, making the Internet highly centralized — the complete opposite of what it was originally intended to be.
In the many conversations I have about this, from my 13 year old son to my 60+ year old friends, not too many people seem to be concerned. It seems as though advertising alone is considered to be an innocent nuisance, just an extension of the visual pollution we are used to seeing in the physical realm. Who really cares?
Well, the difference is an important one.
Even if you are immune to the barrage of advertising, the data we all freely provide across their multiple channels is catapulting their AI’s ‘smarts’ and making them ever more capable and present in our lives. We, relatively speaking, are becoming dumber and the gap is widening.
This compounding inverse relationship we’re passively agreeing to has very important consequences for us all — even if we don’t see them or currently care. Our complacency creates feedback that encourages incremental innovation; the kind that simply adds a few new riffs to the song that is already playing. This will create more of the same and encourage what already exists to keep on going. The network effect and the Matthew effect help to entrench the players and processes currently in place. Their clear focus is on how to keep you on their platform as long as possible, not for your own benefit but for them to generate revenue from your attention.
Thankfully, there are growing numbers of start ups entering the field trying to tell another story. But, one of the real obstacles and challenges here is that it takes years to train an AI properly. This means even if someone enters the race today, they are already years behind and almost doomed to failure. Growing organically just takes too much time. The only way around this for smaller and larger companies alike is to tap into; i.e., buy existing data sets, which happens much more than you might expect.
A few months ago, the New York Times did an investigative piece looking at how vulnerable our data is, and what kind of information could be revealed about anyone of us with a bit of amateur digging. They mined into data available from a single location data company…, ‘one of dozens quietly collecting precise movements using software slipped onto mobile phone apps. You’ve probably never heard of most of the companies — and yet to anyone who has access to this data, your life is an open book. They can see the places you go every moment of the day, whom you meet with or spend the night with, where you pray, whether you visit a methadone clinic, a psychiatrist’s office or a massage parlor.’ I don’t know about you, but I don’t like this.
While some people may say they have nothing at all to hide, the fact that these tracking abilities actually exist supports the foundation of an architecture of surveillance that may well move us closer to dystopia at an exponential pace. It may well be just around the corner.
Most people are not so worried about Mark Zuckerberg or other founders peeking in on their habits. But, if put to the test, most of us would not want our partner, spouse, or governments to have access to such information. And for those of us with digitally native kids, it is beyond creepy to know that their entire lives — starting from their toddler years, could easily be hackable, traceable, and predictable. If it is not an issue for us today, it is not too hard to sense that it will be an issue for the tomorrow’s and generations to come. What are you ready to do about it?
Reframing our Digital Identity
Changing our established patterns is hard, as is getting out of apathy. The sunk costs we have invested into our online presence for the past decade has made many of us seasoned creatures of habit. Many people are burned out, and the fatigue attached to constant change is real.
We may hope that somehow things will turn around and miraculously work themselves out. Yet, the opposite is more likely to happen. Given the chance, the platforms that we use will do more and more to extend their presence in our daily affairs. Facebook, for one, was never intended to be a news company. But, well more than half of the world’s population use it as their news source. The range of examples is endless and disturbing, but the point is the same: it is getting harder and harder to compete for our limited attention, and the existing platforms benefit from keeping us glued to our screens. Their business models depend on it.
For me, this is not big business as usual. This is personal, as the target is our two most precious resources: our time and attention. The only thing we all have in common is that we have 24 hours a day to spend. How much are you in control of the way you spend your time? Who is the boss? You or IT?
My hope is that the same nonchalant attitude that makes us click ‘agree’ without too much thought will be our saving grace. Very few of us have been truly honest with our digital selves over the years, even fewer have consciously trained their predictive algorithms through it all. You have your Facebook you, your Twitter you, your Linked in version of you, your Instagram, and so on. But none of these platforms know the real you. Why? Because you are not honest with them.
Machine learning protocols interpret our behavior from our actions, our likes, dislikes, emojis, and all those little symbols you have been randomly clicking for years. If you haven’t been fully honest, you feedback a distorted version of you. As we now spend nearly all of our time online, our real experience of the world is being dictated by a version of ourselves that is a lie. At best, a fake.
How long will we be ok with this? For the most part, we are all active participants in an internet that is ultimately based on a deception, because we have not been fully honest in our actions. Eventually, this catches up to us. As humans, we need honesty — if for no other reason than to more deeply connect, and maybe sleep well.
Towards Digital Freedom
Our personalities, while stubborn, are not fixed. In the workplace, companies at every level are struggling with digital transformation, simply because we, as humans, do not yet know how to be digital. In our relationships, within ourselves, and whatever we do, we’re still struggling with the big questions of what it means to be human. Period.
Core to this are big issues like trust, value, identity, and the whole idea of freedom and decentralization. For the internet to evolve, it will require us to look more deeply into these issues — which also means looking into ourselves.
How much should the online world mimic our physical, real, world? What would happen if we had technology that we could actually trust and be fully honest with? What if we could use machine learning, AI, and other cutting technologies for our own benefit? What if the data we generated was actually ours?
If our technology was was owned by us, it could grow with us, support us, and serve our humanity. That could be a real game changer.
For the past few years, this is the type of Internet I have been dreaming of, and I am very thankful to have come across some amazing people actually building it. Today, as an individual and as Joint Idea — I am beyond thrilled to be collaborating with Threefold Network, on a mission to create a conscious digital network, a new internet, built on peer-to-peer model that is much closer to the actual world we would like to experience as humans.
The ThreeFold Network is the first true peer-to-peer Internet. It uses pioneering technologies that remove the need for centralized and power-hungry data centers, consumes 90% less energy, and uses 90% less international fibre network capacity.
As of today, about 48% of humanity remains unconnected to the Internet, creating huge inequalities in the access to information and knowledge. It is important that the right steps are taken to improve the relationship between governments and citizens and to uphold all human rights.
To make the new internet accessible and equal to all, ThreeFold Network built an infrastructure that is affordable to all and collectively owned by the network peers. To ensure a fair and equal distribution of the internet to everyone, fully sponsored capacity will be deployed in remote regions of our world.
As we celebrate 50 years of Earth day — and digital clean up day — it is the perfect time for us all to reflect on where we are and how this whole story plays out.
If you are ready to take control of your own internet experience and digital footprint, it is time.