Broke Media, Shaky Platforms
Our software infrastructure for handling data is poor and the security of our information is weak, as evidenced by the many breaches of personal information and ransomware attacks. The adapted industrial method of organizing software development has a lot of issues. The health and profitability of the producing organization comes first, the software is a means to that end.
In 2020 we also saw platform operators getting more overtly involved in politics, with twitter putting disclaimers in front of many of Donald Trump’s tweets1. We also saw international disputes over the control of platforms and which platforms a nation’s citizens are using, with efforts to ban Chinese owned platforms like TikTok and WeChat from the US.2
The perils of a monopolistic mass media have been well described as long ago as the 1980s, by among others Herman and Chomsky in Manufacturing Consent 3. In the 2000s we saw much experimentation in communications and many new forms of web based interaction and content production took off (Web 2.0). The web, and then social media, were greeted with enthusiasm by many because they would democratize the production of news and other media. We saw mass adoption of some of these new platforms, as a species they changed our behaviors and opened up new possibilities. Now we are seeing more of the problems with the way these platforms were designed, and a year when people have spent more time online than ever before is speeding up that process.
2020’s big banking scandal was the FinCEN Files, which involved 2,657 leaked documents being shared with journalists. These were mostly mostly “Suspicious Activity Reports”, where a transaction is flagged as looking suspicious by the bank according to some criteria. The point being made in most of the stories about these leaked documents is that the banks and authorities aren’t doing anything even once the transactions are marked as suspicious. There were plenty of other banking scandals4 too of course, including Goldman Sachs confessing to “conspiring to violate the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) with a scheme to pay over $1 billion in bribes to foreign officials in exchange for underwriting approximately $6.5 billion in bond deals for a Malaysian Fund, 1MDB.” Goldmans’ shares rose 1% on the news that they would not be prosecuted at this time. They’re off the hook as long as they cooperate with ongoing investigations, and they already promised to do better next time!
It seems to me that the global anti-money-laundering system is pretty ineffective and likely corrupt, judging by the number of scandals involving banks turning a blind eye to their clients’ murky dealings. I’ll put my not an expert disclaimer out here and say that it looks to me like laundering the money is just part of the game now for organized crime. Giving responsibility for detection of crime proceeds to banks, who are the same entities that make vast sums from servicing these clients, is inviting corruption.
The new media landscape is characterized by information overload, with a bewildering array of sources to choose from and a dominant business model that sells users’ data and access to their feed so that the buyers can try to modify the behavior of the platforms’ users. This puts the social media companies in a position where they are not good custodians of what is effectively a public-produced resource - users do the work to add value, the company tweaks settings to maximize the value which can be extracted. Given this context, making the same companies more responsible for moderating the discourse on their platforms is problematic, it’s asking them to exert even more influence, and in more specific ways.
To me this seems like the wrong direction to be headed in. Top-down content moderation policies are easily used as tools for manipulation by people who manage their implementation - unless accountability is carefully built into the system. Instead, we might consider reducing our reliance on the companies who provide these new communications platforms, and consider how we might build and maintain equivalent platforms as part of the digital commons. These spaces are part of the digital commons but we are presently entrusting their management and maintenance to the people who can hook the most users for the longest time and make the most money from advertising to them and changing their behavior - and pump their stock price the most in the process.
There is an expanse of room to improve upon the organization of software production and the means of incentivizing this. In my view it is important to look after the intrinsic motivation of workers, especially software engineers and especially those who are working on public infrastructure. When people are working on vital infrastructure which is only understood by a relatively small number of contributors, it benefits us all if they are dedicated to the cause of maintaining it well.
Cryptocurrency emphasizes security and robustness, relying on an incentive scheme and ironclad method of enforcing the rules to attract participants who will build and maintain the network and cultivate its resource.
FOSS blockchain projects are examples of hard software, which exists in an adversarial environment where there are great rewards available to anyone who can exploit a flaw. All of the code is open, relying on the principle that “with enough eyes all bugs are shallow”. The prospective rewards are incentives for people to look for those flaws, with bug bounty programs and audits offering ways for white hat hackers to also participate and be rewarded for strengthening security.
Cryptocurrency is FOSS-native, and many of these projects are adept at generating funding to support their own development through various means. This addresses one set of limiting factors for FOSS projects generally, in particular where key personnel can receive funding to work directly on the code without being distracted by other tasks.
As funding is a key constraint for FOSS projects generally, control of development funding for cryptoasset projects means significant influence in their governance. For this reason, a number of projects are attempting to solve the problem of how to decentralize control of development funding, and make the developers accountable to some other constituency. The question of how a a developer community engages with a large population of users of their software is still being explored but we can at this stage conclude that “through the hierarchical organization of a multinational corporation” is not a great answer.
If there is a generally applicable method to incentivize and reward high quality contributions to digital infrastructure, we all stand to benefit greatly from identifying and adopting it.
If it works for FOSS, there’s no reason it wouldn’t also work for other forms of CBPP. Anything that could work well as a commons-based public good (which as far as I’m concerned is all digitizable media) could find utility in new modes of production that leverage DAOs.
We will see how this works first in the cryptocurrency domain, because cryptocurrencies are socio-digital organisms that print money to incentivize their own upkeep and expansion. Centralization is a weakness for these organisms, and so the selection process should favour those projects which minimize or isolate that weakness, in the long run.
There is competition to advance the decentralization of governance on the crypto commons. As these advances are made some aspects will be applicable to the governance of other types of public goods and common pool resources.
- Twitter hides Trump tweet for ‘glorifying violence’. (2020, May 29). BBC News. https://www.bbc.com/news/technology-52846679 [return]
- Lerman, R. (2020). TikTok creators successfully block U.S. app ban with lawsuit. Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/technology/2020/10/30/tiktok-ban-halted-injunction/ [return]
- Herman E. S. & Chomsky, N. (1988). Manufacturing Consent. Vintage. [return]
- 2020’s Biggest Bank Scandals. (2020). https://finance.yahoo.com/news/2020-biggest-bank-scandals-130029494.html [return]