The internet is in need of a transition

March 27, 2024

In recent years, we have heard many experts and policymakers say that the internet is broken and that we need to fix it. While the internet works fine on a technical level, these critics refer to the economical, societal, and cultural problems that result from the way the internet is designed and used. Most of us enjoy the internet in our private and professional lives, and appreciate everything it delivers, but the web, and the broader process of digitalization, also produces a number of negative externalities. Economically, a few companies run the internet and have become quasi-monopolists in their respective domains, such as search, social networks, or e-commerce. This affects not only the online economy, including content and advertisements, but also the offline economy, where their gatekeeping role impacts sectors such as taxi services, dining, and retail. Culturally, the internet has become the main stage of societal debate; however, this public space is owned and governed by private companies that determine who gets a voice and what can be said and shown. Culturally, the attention economy, driven by ad-based business models, results in millions of social media zombies, online bullying, etc. Above all, there is little to no democratic oversight over any of this as governments around the world are struggling to keep up with the pace of technological and societal change and any attempts to regulate and enforce, often end up chasing after the facts.

These problems are real, and they are deeply embedded in the technological and social structure of the web and the digital economy and society. Hence, this is not just a bug that needs to be fixed, but something that requires an overhaul of the system. Also, this is not about technology alone, or about designing new platforms and services, but about transforming the entire digital Stack; from fundamental hardware and network protocols, to user practices and modes of governance. Too often, however, new technologies are presented as a silver bullet, or politicians promise that a new set of regulations (see, for example, the various European laws in this area) will make the difference. Both approaches are naïve and fail to do justice to the complexity of system transformation. Fixing the internet, to stick with the phrase, requires both technological innovation and institutional innovation and these need to be coordinated.

Learning from other transitions

Changing an entire system is not easy. We know this, because other systems have been undergoing similar changes in the past, or are experiencing similar challenges today; therefore, it is sensible to examine other systems and those transitions to learn about the struggles and lessons that were learned there. Each system has its own characteristics and related issues, but it is nevertheless worthwhile to draw some comparisons. And, fortunately, there exists an entire field of research dedicated to these processes of large-scale change, known as transition studies. Transition scholars have spent decades of studying how, among other systems, energy, mobility and food are slowly, but surely, transforming to become more sustainable and just. In each of these cases, similar to the internet, there is an established system that has had many decades to develop and become indispensable, and now must be replaced with new technologies, forms of organization, rules, user practices, and possibly other actors. It is therefore worthwhile to consult these other transitions and to apply the lessons learned to the notion of ‘fixing the internet‘.

The first, and most important, lesson is that an existing system does not give up easily. It is so deeply rooted that change is by definition very costly and time-consuming (a form of passive resistance), and fundamental change is generally not in the interest of existing actors (active resistance). As a result, attempts to introduce alternative services or platforms are almost doomed to failure; Simply because they don't fit within the existing system and, despite their good intentions, don't meet users' expectations. For the latter, for example, users are so accustomed to accessible and 'free' services (in exchange for data and advertisements) that well-intentioned initiatives hardly stand a chance when they apply different, and according to many, better, principles. This applies, for example, to microblogging platform Mastodon, which is presented as an alternative to X (formerly known as Twitter). It is open source, free of advertisements and works on a decentralized network with users operating their own servers and defining their own policies for, for instance, privacy and content moderation. From a societal perspective, all of these features are more desirable than the centralized and for-profit nature of X. Yet, it does not fit with users’ expectations of a free and easy-to-use platform with tens of millions of fellow users. The need to set up one’s own server or having to decide which existing one to use, apparently forms a significant barrier to users.

A second lesson is that it is not easy to determine exactly what the purpose of a transition is. Let alone that everyone agrees on how to achieve that goal. In the case of energy or mobility, these questions, for instance, relate to the debate over the decentralization of the energy system; should the current system ‘just’ supply renewable energy (e.g. through large scale solar projects or off-shore wind farms), or should it become renewable and also organized as a decentralized network with many small scale producers and new modes of governance? In mobility, a similar question is whether it is enough to substitute all gas cars with EVs, or whether we should get rid of all forms of individual motorized transport.

In the case of the internet, many would agree that it needs to change, for the reasons mentioned above, but there are also others who are fine with the current situation (because it fits their interests). More importantly, there are different ideas about what needs to change, in which direction and to what extent. That is, some believe the internet should be a radically open and non-governed space, others would love to see an internet democratically governed by the people, and, again others, believe that governments should play a central role. To make matters worse: should the internet remain as a global standard, or is it ok (or maybe necessary?) for different regions or nations to go their own way and build their own, separate, Stacks?

Even when people agree on leading values (e.g. freedom, safety or wellbeing), the question remains to what extent these should be pursued; how free should the internet really be? What choices should be left to the market, the public, or central government? Since we are dealing with a digital Stack composed of various functional layers, an important question is also: how deep into the Stack should the transformation reach? Is it enough to introduce new rules and regulations, inspire new user practices and develop better platforms and services? Or should the transition of the Stack also involve infrastructures and protocols? A proponent of the Web3 philosophy will undoubtedly advocate the latter and will only be ‘satisfied’ when the internet – from infrastructure to concrete services – is democratically organized and governed through a blockchain or similar architecture. Such diverging ideas, goals and solutions, make it more difficult to form a powerful front against the existing system. For example, one person will cheer if there is a slightly better alternative to Facebook or YouTube, while another will protest that such an incremental improvement still traps us in an unsound system.

A transition requires more than new technology

In order for any transition to succeed, a multi-faceted approach is needed. The first requirement is that sufficient pressure is exerted on the existing system so that it is destabilized and there is room for other technologies and ideas – a crack in the existing system creates an opening for alternative solutions.

This can happen when social discontent increases further (and users walk away from a platform such as X or Facebook, for example), or when legislation makes an existing practice impossible. It is important that these rules not only lead to stretching a system, but also create space for transformative change. A typical risk is that existing players are generally quite capable of complying with new rules, without fundamentally changing their course. At best, those new rules stretch the system a bit, but will certainly not lead to transformation. The new laws that Europe has introduced, and continues to introduce, are clearly at risk of stretching the system without actually changing it. Meta/WhatsApp, for instance, will comply with the Digital Markets App, allowing users to send and receive messages to and from other messaging services, but this is unlikely to reduce its dominant position and, more importantly, does little to introduce democratic oversight in the messaging domain.

Nourishing alternative solutions

The second requirement is that new, well-meaning initiatives receive support to develop further. Without some degree of support, these fledgling initiatives will never be able to cope with the passive and active resistance of the old system. After all, it is quite something to have to compete with services that have been active for many years, where billions have been invested and which, thanks to hundreds of millions of users, have amassed a huge amount of valuable user data. This is akin to an electric car from the 2000s that had to compete with internal combustion engines that have been developed down to the smallest details for more than a hundred years.

In this context, the transition literature talks about niches. These are not the well-known market niches for specific target groups or applications, but protected environments in which an alternative and 'new-born' system can develop further. In this way, new technologies, new forms of collaboration or new user practices can continue to develop, without being directly exposed to the demands of the market, the resistance of established system actors or unfamiliarity from users. Protection can therefore consist of money (government subsidies, or companies that accept start-up losses), but also includes exceptions to regulations and users who are willing to participate. These types of niches often start as typical pilot projects, but protection can also be necessary and justified at a later stage of development – or upscaling – until a new system is sufficiently developed to 'compete’ with the old system on its own. Consider, for example, the net metering scheme for solar panels, which seems necessary for the time being to stimulate renewable energy. In doing so, we must acknowledge that this protection not only enables the new solution itself to 'mature', but also to allow society, the market and (end) users to learn and adapt. Partly to learn how to use a new technology or service, but also to foster new ideas and develop regulations in harmony with the emerging system. For example, we may have to get used to the idea that we have to pay for certain digital services again, or perhaps that parts of the digital infrastructure should be under public management.

Too often, in the digital realm, people expect that new technologies or services will be embraced by users once they are developed. Despite the energy, goodwill, and often funding available for such initiatives, they seldom make it across the so-called 'valley of death', because too little attention is given to changing user practices or new institutional structures. Projects such as Mastodon and Solid (a personal data storage protocol from internet inventor Tim Berners-Lee) get a lot of attention in their early days and they will probably find a small group of avid users and supporters, but a bigger plan on how to break through the barriers of the existing system is lacking.

Creative destruction by design

A true transition requires a multifaceted strategy that is aimed at destabilizing – and partially destroying – the existing system, while at the same time nurturing alternative solutions. This means that we must dare to make choices; what the future internet should look like and with whose values it should align – national, regional, or universal? Furthermore, we must consider if prioritizing our values, even at the risk of a segmented network, is more important than upholding international cooperation and the interoperability of systems. These are very difficult questions to answer, because on the one hand it is about what we no longer want (and potentially which companies can no longer conduct business as they do today) and on the other hand it is about what we want for the future? In other words, as a society (and hence in politics) it becomes more about picking winners – and losers – and this represents a departure from the laissez-faire approach of digitalization's early decades. The alternative, however, is that little or nothing changes and the market, and the existing system, is at most stretched a little, but never really transformed.

Series 'AI Metaphors'

1. The tool
Category: the object
Humans shape tools.

We make them part of our body while we melt their essence with our intentions. They require some finesse to use but they never fool us or trick us. Humans use tools, tools never use humans.

We are the masters determining their course, integrating them gracefully into the minutiae of our everyday lives. Immovable and unyielding, they remain reliant on our guidance, devoid of desire and intent, they remain exactly where we leave them, their functionality unchanging over time.

We retain the ultimate authority, able to discard them at will or, in today's context, simply power them down. Though they may occasionally foster irritation, largely they stand steadfast, loyal allies in our daily toils.

Thus we place our faith in tools, acknowledging that they are mere reflections of our own capabilities. In them, there is no entity to venerate or fault but ourselves, for they are but inert extensions of our own being, inanimate and steadfast, awaiting our command.
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2. The machine
Category: the object
Unlike a mere tool, the machine does not need the guidance of our hand, operating autonomously through its intricate network of gears and wheels. It achieves feats of motion that surpass the wildest human imaginations, harboring a power reminiscent of a cavalry of horses. Though it demands maintenance to replace broken parts and fix malfunctions, it mostly acts independently, allowing us to retreat and become mere observers to its diligent performance. We interact with it through buttons and handles, guiding its operations with minor adjustments and feedback as it works tirelessly. Embodying relentless purpose, laboring in a cycle of infinite repetition, the machine is a testament to human ingenuity manifested in metal and motion.
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3. The robot
Category: the object
There it stands, propelled by artificial limbs, boasting a torso, a pair of arms, and a lustrous metallic head. It approaches with a deliberate pace, the LED bulbs that mimic eyes fixating on me, inquiring gently if there lies any task within its capacity that it may undertake on my behalf. Whether to rid my living space of dust or to fetch me a chilled beverage, this never complaining attendant stands ready, devoid of grievances and ever-willing to assist. Its presence offers a reservoir of possibilities; a font of information to quell my curiosities, a silent companion in moments of solitude, embodying a spectrum of roles — confidant, servant, companion, and perhaps even a paramour. The modern robot, it seems, transcends categorizations, embracing a myriad of identities in its service to the contemporary individual.
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4. Intelligence
Category: the object
We sit together in a quiet interrogation room. My questions, varied and abundant, flow ceaselessly, weaving from abstract math problems to concrete realities of daily life, a labyrinthine inquiry designed to outsmart the ‘thing’ before me. Yet, with each probe, it responds with humanlike insight, echoing empathy and kindred spirit in its words. As the dialogue deepens, my approach softens, reverence replacing casual engagement as I ponder the appropriate pronoun for this ‘entity’ that seems to transcend its mechanical origin. It is then, in this delicate interplay of exchanging words, that an unprecedented connection takes root that stirs an intense doubt on my side, am I truly having a dia-logos? Do I encounter intelligence in front of me?
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5. The medium
Category: the object
When we cross a landscape by train and look outside, our gaze involuntarily sweeps across the scenery, unable to anchor on any fixed point. Our expression looks dull, and we might appear glassy-eyed, as if our eyes have lost their function. Time passes by. Then our attention diverts to the mobile in hand, and suddenly our eyes light up, energized by the visual cues of short videos, while our thumbs navigate us through the stream of content. The daze transforms, bringing a heady rush of excitement with every swipe, pulling us from a state of meditative trance to a state of eager consumption. But this flow is pierced by the sudden ring of a call, snapping us again to a different kind of focus. We plug in our earbuds, intermittently shutting our eyes, as we withdraw further from the immediate physical space, venturing into a digital auditory world. Moments pass in immersed conversation before we resurface, hanging up and rediscovering the room we've left behind. In this cycle of transitory focus, it is evident that the medium, indeed, is the message.
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6. The artisan
Category: the human
The razor-sharp knife rests effortlessly in one hand, while the other orchestrates with poised assurance, steering clear of the unforgiving edge. The chef moves with liquid grace, with fluid and swift movements the ingredients yield to his expertise. Each gesture flows into the next, guided by intuition honed through countless repetitions. He knows what is necessary, how the ingredients will respond to his hand and which path to follow, but the process is never exactly the same, no dish is ever truly identical. While his technique is impeccable, minute variation and the pursuit of perfection are always in play. Here, in the subtle play of steel and flesh, a master chef crafts not just a dish, but art. We're witnessing an artisan at work.
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About the author(s)

Sjoerd Bakker is fascinated by the interplay between technology and society, and has studied the role of different actors in the innovation and implementation of new technologies throughout his career. At the thinktank, he is mainly involved in research and consultancy projects for clients, and strategic and thematic research for sister company Dasym. Among other themes, Sjoerd frequently writes and speaks about the power and danger of digital technology, as well as sustainability in both technological and institutional innovation.

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