Sue Gardner: Diagnosing the Internet’s Ills

In its early days, the internet fuelled optimism for a techno-utopian future. Its current state renders that vision utterly unrecognizable. If we want to create a better internet, the first step is to properly diagnose its ills.

We asked Sue Gardner, this year's Max Bell McConnell Professor of Practice, to talk with us about her experiences working in the digital space for the past 20 years, and how those experiences have informed her thinking about Canada's digital policy needs.

I started working on the internet in 1999 at the CBC, before the CBC even had a digital division. It was just 30-odd people at the time, scattered across the organization and working on different things.

At the time, people like me felt a tremendous sense of optimism about the internet. We believed it was going to usher in a new era of unprecedented access to information and freedom of expression. That people would be able to reach across borders and across time zones and learn from each other, and we would become, overall, more knowledgeable and more civically engaged.

For some of us, in those early days, that did actually happen.

But that was just a moment in time, and from the perspective of today it's easy to see how intensely and embarrassingly naive we were. I was talking with some teenagers the other day. The only internet they've ever experienced is essentially an unregulated shopping mall, filled with scams and porn and clickbait and junk. And to them I think, it's as though we're living in a garbage dump and there are some old people standing around fantasizing about the Library of Alexandria. Young people are like lol, what, no.

Here's what we know now, that we didn't know back then.

In his excellent 2010 book The Master Switch, Tim Wu traces the development of communications technology revolutions, and how they play out in practice. Whether it’s radio, film, the telephone, or now the internet, the same thing always happens. The creators are visionaries, dreamers, blue-sky thinkers, cranks and weirdos. They imagine the technologies being used the way they themselves would use them. To form new connections, to access specialized information, to play chess, to share poetry and art. They imagine the new technologies will give rise to utopias.

But then as time passes, people start to see the potential to make money from the new capabilities the technologies have created, and then everything starts to change.

That's what I saw firsthand when I arrived in San Francisco in 2007, when I became the executive director of the Wikimedia Foundation. The dot-com crash had happened a few years earlier, and nobody knew whether or how the internet would become commercially viable. People were throwing a bunch of stuff at the wall and hoping something would stick.

It was a time of transition and the transition was really jarring. The rhetoric was all still lofty ideals about changing the world, reinventing work, transforming life, new frontiers of knowledge and new freedoms. But the way people talked was increasingly disconnected from the reality on the ground, where people were pitching VCs and negotiating stock options and getting ready for their IPO, and every day new people arrived with the sole goal of making a ton of money.

A New Business Model

For years, everybody continued to talk about disruption and reinvention, all very high-minded. But meanwhile, the business model of the internet, which Harvard professor Shoshana Zuboff in 2019 was the first to call surveillance capitalism, was starting to develop. And that led us to where we are now, where we have a very small number of entrenched for-profit companies, headquartered in Silicon Valley, making unprecedented amounts of money, creating a bunch of societal harms as a byproduct of their work, and entirely externalizing the costs of those harms.

One thing that struck me when I moved to the Bay Area is that Silicon Valley was—and is today, still—an extremely narrow monoculture. It was, and is, dominated by people who are disproportionately young, male, white or Asian, andextremely privileged. Even people who arrived in Silicon Valley from ordinary working-class backgrounds are pretty much instantly making six figures and living in an extremely rarified milieu. We used to joke that pretty much all Bay Area startups were essentially scratching their own itch. Like, "how can we solve the problems of young men who, until very recently, had their day-to-day needs taken care of by their moms." That's how we ended up with six billion apps that delivered food and picked up laundry and let you borrow the car.

The monoculture is actually the root of the problem. Venture capitalist John Doerr had an infamous quote when he talked about what he was looking for in his investments. He was seeking founders who were white, male, nerdy Ivy League dropouts. That was the template. He got in trouble for saying it, but the only difference between him and everybody else was that he said it out loud.

It's a problem because if your lack of diversity makes it impossible for you to enter imaginatively into the needs and hopes and dreams and problems of huge swathes of humanity, then you can't create products and services that actually work for those people. And worse, you can actively hurt them.

The flip side is that diversity makes everything better and stronger and smarter and more effective. Wikipedia is a beautiful example of that. The Wikipedia contributor base contains way more diversity than any standard editorial operation could ever hope to have. With such an enormous breadth of humanity as its contributor base, it totally makes sense that Wikipedia is mind-bendingly rich and complete and all-encompassing.

In the Silicon Valley monoculture, the unchallenged, dominant view was techno-libertarianism. An ethos of moving fast and breaking things, letting the chips fall where they may, scornful of regulation, heedless of risk and harm. That's hubris, which is a young man's conceit. Who knows what will happen? Who cares? Someone else will clean it up.

Those people weren’t hearing from women, Black and brown people, parents, poor people, older people, people with disabilities, people in rural areas, huge swathes of humanity. You could see that in their products, and in who those products served versus who they harmed.

A Safer Internet

By now the harms are pretty visible. I'm not saying they're well understood; they're not yet. But we can see them.

Lots of people are feeling addicted to their devices, and aren't feeling great about all the time they're spending online, especially as the internet has gotten more scammy and spammy. People are worrying about their kids, because social media appears to be fueling depression, anxiety and eating disorders among young people. Tech companies collect and store an enormous amount of highly-personal information about all of us, which can be dangerous if it's allowed to become public or is otherwise misused. People have learned how to curate their digital identities in ways that are super-performative, which makes us feel lonely and disconnected from each other. There's been a surge in explicitracism and sexism online, as well as tons of harassment and abuse, which has led to lots of people—especially ones whose identities are marginalized along one or more axes—getting totally driven out of public discourse. Algorithms are being used in lots of settings in ways that reinforce and deepen existing societal inequities. We have seen the emergence of a bunch of misinformation and disinformation online, amplified by social media platforms, which has been undermining trust in institutions and experts, leading to a rise of belief in conspiracy theories, leading people to oppose public health measures like vaccine mandates and mask mandates, and giving rise to concerns that social media may ultimately undermine democracy itself.

We know now that tech companies cannot govern or constrain themselves. They are not moral actors and cannot be counted on to behave in the public interest.

And so the only answer we have for this is the long, slow plodding of democratically-elected governments workingtowards solutions that will make things slightly better all the time. That's the answer. Because only governments are accountable to the people.

When I heard that the Canadian government was finally getting ready to roll out significant digital policy, I was thrilled. It's time.

One mistake governments risk making, though, is putting too much burden on solutions that depend on individuals taking action to oppose or combat harmful stuff online. The Canadian government for example has been considering complaints-based approaches, in which mechanisms would be created for users to flag unwanted content for review, or to complain about it to third parties. Mechanisms like that might form part of a solution, but they can't be the only one.

Why? Because the heart of the problem isn't actually individual pieces of terrible content. The heart of the problem is the business model that leads social media platforms to amplify that content. Platforms make money by keeping up glued to our devices, and the most effective way to do that is for them to amplify terrible, outrageous stuff. So that's what they do. The real problem is the amplification, and that's what legislators need to address.

A healthier discourse

I think we were all struck in Canada’s last federal election campaign when gravel was thrown at the prime minister. You don't need to be a member of the Liberal Party or a fan of the prime minister himself to understand why that's a problem. In a democracy, the most fundamentally important thing is that people can campaign, talk about their ideas and can go out and speak to the public. The degradation of the discourse, the normalization of harassment and abuse, the increase in hate speech: it is all super problematic for the health of our democracy.

And Canadians should be worried. When I got back to Canada after 15 years in the US, I could feel a shift in the Canadian discourse, in the way people talk to each other, and the way they talk about elected officials and the news media. It’s akin to the boiling frog. You might not notice it if you've been here consistently, but it was noticeable to me when I came back. And it makes sense, of course. Why would we be immune?

In this country, we have a long tradition of finger-pointing at violence and racism in the United States, and feeling smug about ourselves in comparison. We like to believe that Canada is a peaceful, egalitarian, and inclusive country.

That's actually quite a dangerous thing to believe right now. Because what we're seeing in the United States and elsewhere—declining trust in institutions, a turning away from science and experts, a resurgence in expression of hate, the rise of the alt-right—Canada is not immune to any of that. In fact, we have produced some of the most visible and active alt-right figures in North America. What is happening elsewhere is happening to us too, and our complacency may blind us to it. It's a dangerous time to be complacent.

About the author

Sue GardnerSue Gardner is the Max Bell School of Public Policy's McConnell Visiting Professor for 2021-2022. Gardner’s work is motivated by the desire to ensure that everybody in the world has access to the information they want and need, so they’re equipped to make the best-possible decisions about their lives. Sue spent the first decade of her career as a journalist, working in radio, TV, print and online. In 2003 she became head of CBC.CA, the website of one of Canada’s best-loved cultural institutions, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. In 2007 Sue became executive director of the Wikimedia Foundation, the non-profit that operates Wikipedia, the world’s largest and most popular encyclopedia. Today she serves as an advisor or board member for a variety of non-profit, grantmaking and policy organizations, mostly related to technology, media, gender and digital freedoms.

Sue has an honorary doctorate of laws from Ryerson University, was named a Technology Pioneer for the World Economic Forum at Davos, has been ranked by Forbes magazine as the world’s 70th most powerful woman, was the inaugural recipient of the Knight Foundation’s Innovation Award, received the Cultural Humanist of the Year award from the Harvard Humanist Association, and is a proud recipient of the Nyan CatMedal of Internet Awesomeness for Defending Internet Freedom.

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