The future of the Internet: metaverse or Easter Island?
Rapa Nui, a small island off the coast of Chile better known as Easter Island, is famous for its moai. These giant statues gaze inland with their backs to the sea, as if observing the unfolding of the island’s history. This story did not have a happy ending. I can’t help but see it as a metaphor and a warning for our Information Age and the Internet on which it depends.
When Polynesian adventurers first settled in Rapa Nui around 1200 AD, it was a lush paradise, perfectly suited for farming and foraging. The island was home to up to 16 million trees and many resources to support a growing and thriving community. This bonus did not last. When Captain James Cook arrived in 1722, the island was a barren wasteland almost devoid of edible flora and fauna. Yet when the indigenous population first encountered the Europeans, the locals asked for no food or provisions. All they wanted to know was how much the visitors wanted for their fancy hats.
Urgent negotiations for foreign fashion is hardly the reaction one might expect from a starving population when well-stocked visitors arrive. Besides, the construction of an enormous statuary seems an unlikely pastime for people clinging to a precarious livelihood. As archaeologists Terry Hunt and Carl Lipov explain in their wonderful book The statues that walked, the Rapa Nui people did not die of hunger. They also did not live on the long-impoverished plants and animals that were native to the island. Rather, they had become accustomed to a diet composed almost exclusively of invasive species that had destroyed the ecosystem of the islands, R. exulans: Pacific rats.
When the first Polynesian settlers arrived on Easter Island, the rats hid in their canoes. Once they landed at their new home, with no natural predators and plenty of palm roots to eat, they went into a frenzy. Rats destroy trees at a rate exceeded only by the rate at which the vermin has reproduced. Eventually, the rats eliminated 20 other varieties of forest plants, six species of land birds, as well as several seabirds. In the end, the vermin was pretty much all that was left to consume. The Rapa Nui didn’t seem to care. There were a lot of rats and eventually people had to get used to the taste. My Twitter feed has followed a similar trajectory over the years.
When the internet took shape, it promised to be a paradise of limitless information, unmediated interactions, and limitless social connections. It is not the Internet that we inhabit now. As we have filled the online environment, we have brought with us several invasive species (search engines, social platforms, content marketers) that consume the natural resources of the internet for their own benefit and their benefit. spread, whatever the cost to the rest of us. These platforms destroy the verdant information landscape and turn it into a wasteland of monetized manipulation.
That’s not to say that platforms like Facebook, Google, TikTok, and Twitter should be taken down. Their utilities can be very useful and in some cases are now essential infrastructure. The problem lies in how these services support and obscure the business models and practices at the heart of these businesses. Without exception, the giants of the online world depend on engagement to make money and use monitoring and manipulation to attract and increase the attention of users. What data these platforms collect and how it is used is hidden behind impenetrable layers of user license agreements, trade secret claims and blatant deception.
These practices are the burrowing rats that gnaw the roots of the web until it is too late. Factual information crumbles into conspiracy and disinformation, marketing becomes manipulation, the conversation ends in cancellation. Unfortunately, you get used to it. We can even be get a taste. Those who grew up with the web never knew anything else. So instead of sounding the alarm and demanding changes, we’re more interested in getting the fancy hats offered by these platforms in return for our attention and personal data.
We are at a time when we have the opportunity of course to correct the destructive trajectory of the digital economy. As I described in my last message, the Platform Accountability and Transparency Act begins its long and difficult battle to become law. Essentially, The legislation would require large platforms to provide operational data to researchers under strict supervision. It would begin to shed light on potentially destructive practices, essentially chasing rats while preserving trees.
This legislation is necessary because the large platforms have repeatedly demonstrated that they are not interested in understanding and solving the problems inherent and caused by their products and practices. They are even less interested by making the necessary data available to researchers wishing to understand the dynamics of the digital economy. For the titans of the web, the motto “Don’t Be Evil” has become “Don’t Get Caught”.
As we prepare to migrate from the internet to the metaverse, we run the risk of bringing the same destructive species with us, hiding in the products and services we consume. Without new rules, there is no reason to expect architects and administrators to behave any differently from what they have done so far. They are already gathering their strength and laying the groundwork. Today the The Wall Street Journal reported About 100 people from Microsoft’s HoloLens augmented reality headset development team have left to join Facebook’s parent Meta. Once there, they will likely be used to perpetuate the same invasive and manipulative practices that have become endemic to the digital economy.
Efforts are underway to reclaim the Internet landscape and protect open territories from the metaverse. While POWA provides legislative support for transparency and research, Alliance of deep trust builds coalitions and networks across industry to fight deepfakes and disinformation. Private companies like Graphika and Echosec provide the means to trace, track and refute disinformation. University centers such as Oxford Internet Institute and Stanford Internet Observatory provide in-depth information on the social science of the Internet.
These entities are the activists who strive to restore the Internet to its original promise and to protect the Metaverse from following the toxic path of its predecessor. But like any ecosystem, physical or virtual, activists alone cannot effect change. We all need to change our behaviors, pay more attention to privacy, demand more transparency, and scrutinize our sources of information more objectively. Unless we do and in droves we, or more likely our avatars, will end up doting the metaverse like statues, helplessly gazing at the toxic landscape, wondering what happened to our beautiful island.