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– Internet Take Over?
From internet to splinternet:
why there's something wrong with the web
A view from Stuart Aitken
The internet is in a rotten state, says Stuart Aitken, head of brand and
content at DigitasLBi, after a stint at SXSW.
Among the bewildering array of themes and speakers at SXSW, it was hard
to escape the idea that we’ve lost control of the internet and its
associated technologies. While there were some utopian visions of an AI
and VR fuelled future, the event was dominated by dystopian concerns
about filter bubbles, the end of privacy, fake news and the hijacking of
emerging technology by an increasingly switched on populist movement.
The common thread was the idea that we've opened Pandora's box and
unleashed all sorts of hellish things we'd never imagined possible.
Vint Cerf, for example, declared that he could never have foreseen the
problems we now face when he first conceived the internet. It’s telling
then that his current focus is on a project he calls the People Centred
Internet. "We want to encourage people to think how we can make the
internet more useful," he explained.
The spectre of the alt right, and the unholy alliance between Donald
Trump, Breitbart, Cambridge Analytica and the like haunted the
conference. In a session titled "Media vs Fakers vs Haters in the Post
Fact Era", Joe Mandese, editor-in-chief of MediaPost, described himself
as "a war correspondent". At another session, Claire Wardle of First
Draft News, argued that the audience was "right to be terrified" about
the rise of fake news and pointed to the coming French election as being
of particular concern.
Against this backdrop it would have been good to see the likes of
Breitbart or even Infowars represented on stage. The closest
representation of this world was the self-styled fake news mogul Jestin
Coler who appeared alongside Jigsaw’s Yasmin Green. Here he admitted
like a naughty schoolboy that he’d created the Denver Guardian and
launched the story "FBI Agent Suspected In Hillary Email Leaks Found
Dead In Apparent Murder-Suicide" on an unsuspecting internet four days
before the election because his "mortgage was due".
Hate speech was a key theme too. Journalist Julia Ioffe discussed trolls
and the rise of anti-semitism, while on another panel we learned that
government can’t tackle hate speech alone. Here, Facebook’s Monica
Bickert outlined how the social network’s Peer to Peer project empowers
young people to tackle extremism and to fight back with positive
Most terrifying though was a discussion on the potential uses of AI in
the rise of fascism. Microsoft Research’s Kate Crawford made a
compelling case about the way that data systems can be used to track us
as humans – drawing on examples of companies like Cambridge Analytica,
Palantir and Faceception.
Elsewhere, we were treated to a range of other nightmarish visions.
NBC’s Chuck Todd argued that data is destroying politics; Quincy Larson
of freeCodeCamp explained that the open internet will crumble under
Trump; Suzanne Leibrick, Virtual Reality Evangelist at Intel, talked
about how a reliance on VR devices will lead to retina scanning, eye
tracking and a resulting end of privacy; and BC Biermann of Heavy
Projects argued that AI will lead to a "suburbanisation of the mind".
And if we were hoping that the FBI had all the answers for this
difficult future, a discussion with General Counsel James Baker didn’t
deliver. Throughout, Baker explained that the FBI finds it difficult to
keep up with technological change. A word cloud of his interview would
reveal that the most used words in his responses were "difficult" and
So, where do we go from here?
Amid the gloom there was, of course, some positivity. The irrepressible
Joe Biden who called on the great minds present at SXSW to pool their
efforts to fight cancer. YouTube sensation Casey Neistat was a lot of
fun. Intel’s executive vice president, Diane Bryant, showed how AI will
transform the world for good across a range of areas of life.
From a campaigning standpoint we heard from the likes of Roya Mahboob,
Abdelaziz Alhamza and the remarkable campaigners from Standing Rock, who
delivered a life-affirming session that showed how authentic voices
using new technology can bring positive change.
Overall, it seems we are a long way from Richard Brautigan’s vision of
"a cybernetic ecology" delivered and watched over by benevolent
machines. Instead, the vision of the splinternet seen so strongly
throughout SXSW brought to mind our own Chris Clarke’s recent rallying
cry for us to reclaim the internet. As the sunshine of Texas fades, we
would do well to heed these words.