The Big Crunch of the digital universe

By Martin Recke

Earlier this week, German politician Robert Habeck announced that he’ll leave both Facebook and Twitter. He cites twofold reasons for his decision that both sound familiar: having repeatedly “unconsciously adjusted to the polemical nature of Twitter”, and facing a hacker attack on his personal data, facilitated through Facebook. It is a tough decision for a man in his position, since he had close to 50,000 followers on each of this channels. But also worth noting that other German politicians have way bigger audiences on social media.

Habeck is not alone. In fact, he nails the zeitgeist right on the head. In December, Walt Mossberg, a veteran tech journalist, left Facebook (but stayed with Twitter). And yours truly, switching to a new iPhone right before Christmas, installed neither Facebook nor Twitter on the fresh device. And it feels good. True, I still face some withdrawal symptoms. But what I really don’t miss is watching grumpy old men getting older and grumpier, while turning older and grumpier myself. For reasons both professional and personal, I won’t delete my accounts anytime soon, but I’ll drastically change my media diet.

A strong feeling of social media fatigue

For quite a while, Facebook – and Twitter, to a lesser degree – effectively selected most of what I read. I managed to ruin my Twitter experience by myself quite early on. Twitter further deteriorated my experience by adding advertisements, distorting my feed, and showing random notifications, all for the sake of what is called engagement in social media lingo. Facebook had messed with my feed for years, feeding me content which neither made me happy nor provided useful information about relevant things.

I have a strong feeling of social media fatigue. So for the time being, I’ll go away to sleep for a while. Maybe I’ll wake up from time to time, have a look at the mess and even post something. Or maybe not. Perhaps a strong dose of sleep will cure my fatigue. We’ll see.

The web giants have become toxic

Both platforms have become toxic over the years. Addictive. Especially Facebook looks like a black hole, sucking up our time and attention with such strong gravity that nothing can escape from inside it. The same is true for the other web giants, be it Google or Amazon. Along with black holes, cosmology also maintains the notion of a Big Crunch, with the universe recollapsing. That’s an even more drastic metaphor for the current state of digital, as we enter the year 2019.

The web in its early days resembled a Big Bang of creativity, expression, and commerce. The digital world of today (with web and mobile) looks like a universe that is recollapsing into the black holes of Amazon, Facebook, and Google. From cosmology, we can only tell that this won’t end well. But if we look back at the history of the internet, we also see that it’s highly unlikely for dominant platforms to keep their dominance forever. In the long run, they’re all dead.

Or maybe not really dead, but at least no longer dominant. Ebay and Myspace still exist. AOL and Yahoo are leading a shadowy existence as a subsidiary of Verizon, with most of their former value written off. Skype is now a Microsoft product.

The hope for innovation

On this blog, we’ve repeatedly written about the ginormous concentration of power that the once decentralised web has enabled. Umair Haque (who spoke at NEXT09, almost a decade ago) draws a dark picture:

The Amazon — Facebook — Google future is a weird, gruesome, outlandish, freakish dystopia. People work in warehouses where their bosses are algorithms — but don’t have decent healthcare, incomes, savings — all so that other people can have stuff delivered in two hours, versus two days. Then they come home, where their ‘communities’ are also algorithms — algorithms tell them what to think, who to befriend, whom to date, what to read, what to buy, and so on. In this future, people aren’t really human beings anymore — they are just interchangeable commodities, just ‘information’, whose digital representations are endlessly ‘arbitraged’, bought low and sold high — who are exploited at every turn. First for their physical labour, then for their intellects and creativity, then for their emotions, relationships, sexuality, curiosity, empathy, and sociality. All these are strip-mined, and what’s left is a smoking, carved out wreck — of a society, democracy, planet, person, future. In this future, people are a little deader, crazier, angrier, dumber, meaner — doesn’t it feel that way a little bit already?

It’s interesting that Umair sheds a very different light on Apple. In his view, the first trillion dollar company, currently only number four after Amazon, Microsoft, and Alphabet, appears like the Rebellion against the Galactic Empire in A New Hope. But, to drive the Star Wars analogy even further, where are we right now in the saga? Will we see a New Republic? Who will destroy the death stars of the Empire? And what will we see next?

Our hope is that innovation, which brought us into the current mess, will also get us out of it again. Not innovation alone, but with a little help from regulation, social responsibility, consumers, education, and humane design. This brings me to the question: What is innovation? But that’s something to discuss in another post.

Photo by chester wade on Unsplash