When I sit down each Thursday to review what I have read this week I never know ahead of time what I will be saying. My weekly reading happens in spurts each day in between other things and I only develop an abstract view of the content as I drag each piece from the right-hand toolbar in Revue, into the body of the newsletter.
Some weeks the lead is obvious and others, not so much.
This week is all about history. Not the history of the past. Or even the history of the present. But the history being made in front of our eyes. Each era in human existence throws up challenges and opportunities to improve our collective existence. And each era presents the status quo with its end. The end of what we know and the beginning of what will be.
Because we are human, the result of these historical moments is hard to know in advance. As a people, we are quite capable of making decisions that serve the status quo and not the future. Comfort with stasis can easily overwhelm determination to evolve. And change can be scary, even when it is progressive. My 18 year old just passed his driver’s test. His anxiety traveling to the appointment was tangible. His inner voice telling him he would fail was loud. It took a lot of courage and determination to even show up. He did and he passed. Now he can legally drive. He has made history, in that tonight his evening will not be the same as it was before today. And his future has already changed.
We all face those moments every day. Tomorrow is made from today’s decisions.
Facebook being bigger than China and India combined — 2.9 billion users — and having a “GDP” of $54 billion — larger than most nations — is such a challenge and an opportunity. The Atlantic’s Adrienne LaFrance writes about Facebook as The Largest Autocracy on Earth in this week’s issue. It includes tidbits like:
Hillary Clinton told me last year that she’d always caught a whiff of authoritarianism from Zuckerberg.
Facebook is developing its own money, a blockchain-based payment system known as Diem (formerly Libra) that financial regulators and banks have feared could throw off the global economy and decimate the dollar.
And for years Zuckerberg has talked about his principles of governance for the empire he built: “Connectivity is a human right”; “Voting is voice”; “Political ads are an important part of voice”; “The great arc of human history bends towards people coming together in ever greater numbers.” He’s extended those ideas outward in a new kind of colonialism — with Facebook effectively annexing territories where large numbers of people weren’t yet online. Its controversial program Free Basics, which offered people free internet access as long as Facebook was their portal to the web, was hawked as a way to help connect people. But its true purpose was to make Facebook the de facto internet experience in countries all over the world.
But the opponents of Facebook have a problem no smaller than that faced by Facebook itself. It is easy to look at a 2.9 billion person network and focus on problems. Especially one that has grown organically in a free-market, unplanned, way.
But more important is that 2.9 billion people have democratically chosen the platform, free of intimidation, and use it for various purposes. It begs new questions. How does the human race deal with network technology and content platforms that are able to enshrine all of us? This genie is not being put back in the bottle. Global infrastructure and content knows of no borders. Far from being re-bottled, the network is expanding to include money too. VertoFX raised $10m this week to enable cross-border currency transfers from African nations to other nations. Bitcoin already moves $billions per day around the world. China is trying to ban it. The SEC is trying to control it. But it is unstoppable.
So? Do we accept the new, network-led, content-driven, borderless world that is emerging and attempt to ensure it serves human needs? Or do we resist it, call it names, regulate it at the national level in each nation, try to limit it to people whose opinions we approve of? Do we define the future or preserve the status quo? It is not sufficient to be against. What are we for?
That is a more important question than whether Zuckerburg has authoritarian leanings or whether anti-vaccination ideas should be banned on Youtube. But they are related.
We do not ban anti-vax ideas in geographic places. Even here in liberal Palo Alto, I hear them all the time. So why do we think a global network made up of all humans should be “edited”?
Today we have all of the essential elements of a post-nation world, an operating system for humanity is emerging in front of our eyes. We can determine the rules we want to live by and have software manage them. We can vote in software to change rules and implement new ones. We can travel anywhere and spend money without paying enormous amounts in exchange fees. We can develop technology that replaces human effort with automated software and hardware. The Star Trek vision of truly borderless humanity working towards common goals is less of a dream today than at any point in history. but it is scary, creates anxiety, and is imperfect and flawed.
This week’s stories focus on key issues facing us all. How do we build an acceptable inclusive, technology-supported, future? Or should we “stop the world” because we “want to get off”?
There are no easy paths away from the status quo. But there is also no way to avoid the questions that 2.9 billion voluntary users of a single global operating system force us to ask.
Don’t plan on sleeping through the next 20 years. Outcomes will depend on how much thought we put into what we want them to be
Here are the exam questions:
- Are nation-states still the best way for the human race to organize?
- Can freedom and democracy coexist with global institutions?
- Is the globalizing imperative of the internet, blockchain, the cloud, crypto a force for good or bad?
- Are Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, Alibaba, and others part of the solution to our better future?
- Can private companies be trusted with global infrastructure and utility?
- How do citizens operate to enable a global accountable operating system for humankind?
- What is the roadmap to real freedom from the limits imposed by the current operating system - nation-states and national currencies and national regulatory frameworks?
There are many others. More in this week’s video.