Wednesday, 26 February 2014

Can we save us from ourselves

What do Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google have in common?  Eric Schmidt, Executive Chair at Google, identifies them as 'The Gang of Four" and suggests that their collective and competitive efforts will shape the future of the internet.  Schmidt states that Google has a value system that supports free and open internet access and that this value system, supported by the others, is the best thing that can happen to the internet.

Seriously, he said that. See his interview with Charlie Rose on PBS.

Just what are the credentials of this Gang?

Amazon started selling books online in 1995 and while you cannot dispute its retail success (Sales in excess of $70 billion in 2013), there has been a huge human cost to the smaller local retailer.

Apple was a floundering niche computer manufacturer until the unexpected success of the iPod, first introduced in October 2001.  Apple has subsequently grown to become the world's largest company based on stock value.  But its' future remains clouded without the Steve Jobs personality to guide future product development and already it faces serious competition in both its iPhone and iPad product lines.

Facebook is the social media darling of the day.  But even with over 1 billion users, it is already looking for the 'next' in order to remain relevant.  Last week it spent over $16 billion on a company with less than 60 employees simply because it had over 400 million users.

Finally Google, a company which is essentially an online library and reference tool, makes it money from clicks.  That is hardly an awe-inspiring mission statement.

Collectively these companies have about 75 years of corporate life and yet Schmidt has the audacity to believe that they will shape the future of the internet.  I am not sure which frightens me more; the fact that he believes it or the possibility that he is right!

While I do not dispute the concept of  a 'free and open internet', I am troubled by the suggestion that the values and principles of so few may be the guiding light for this evolution.  Any institution that operates without boundaries will inevitably devolve to the lowest common  denominator.  Consequently  a tool intended for good is vulnerable to corruption and more often used for evil. 

If the 'free and open' means that there cannot be any censorship, who decides what is good and what is not?  Do we leave that up to the Gang of Four and their long history of sound judgement? 

I don't profess to have all the answers.  But this much I do know.  The internet has the capacity to be   one of the greatest tools for good that humanity has seen.  Paradoxically, it has an even more grave potential for harm.  Any suggestion that the Gang of Four can make the important value decisions on its future is naïve in the extreme. 

The question then becomes '...can we save us from ourselves...' or are we already trapped in this labyrinth, a black hole from which no light can escape.  

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