I catch up with Rory Cellan-Jones about how tech will change the world.
Rory Cellan-Jones works as an Economics and Technology Correspondent; he also authored the book Dot.bomb following the 2000 dot-com crash. Having paid assiduous attention to the changes tech has inflicted on society for the last 30 years, I hoped Rory would be able to shed some light on the forces unleashed today.
The Platform Debate
I asked Rory what technology he thought was changing society to the greatest extent.
‘Well, the sheer power of social media and its transformative effects on the way we communicate is both impressive and scary in all sorts of ways.’
‘We know about Facebook and fake news, and the ability to be a conduit for misinformation, and we've heard of what happened in the United States in 2016, but we're seeing more examples of that.’
Rory mentioned an instance in mid-March, ‘of Facebook being a platform almost for the suspected genocide against the Rohingya in Myanmar.’
‘On a different level, we're seeing the way platforms like YouTube can be hijacked by people with bad intentions.’
‘I think we'll probably still be talking about this in five years’ time,’ said Rory. ‘What’s good is that the political pressure has made the tech companies, which saw themselves as pure platforms [with] no editorial role, reluctantly begin to reconsider that and employ more humans in sort of moderating roles. But I don’t think it’s an easily soluble issue.’
Platform moderation, a former YouTube employee once explained to me, is not fun work. In January 2017, moderators working for Microsoft sued the company, citing PTSD after having to spend long periods exposed to images of child abuse. The largest platforms would have to employ a small army to moderate the content effectively; but the current settlement is unacceptable. There have been instances of illegal content lingering for days at a time on popular websites.
More widely criticised (and more politically perilous) than clearly illegal content, is considering where to draw the line over “fake news.” Platforms generally judged that framing themselves as a telecoms operator and not an editorial platform could shield them from editorial criticism. This was false.
Or was it? Journalism is an obsession for journalists, and what journalists discuss is not necessarily a reflection of the issues felt by everyone. I put it to Rory that criticism of platforms, including ‘what happened in 2016’, may not extend to the public at large.
‘I think there are two levels’, says Rory. ‘There’s a small and informed and slightly obsessive group of people who’ve always worried about this, lobbied about this, has made a lot of noise about this, and had little impact.’
‘Then there’s a much wider group of people, probably the majority of people, who have vague worries about issues like privacy, issues like online abuse, issues like, "What's happening to my data?" But those kind of vague concerns are not necessarily translating into doing anything about it or changing their behaviour.’
‘I think that's what's interesting. You know, what will cause people to change their behaviour to lose trust in the platforms to such an extent that they either stop using them or use them less?’
One can divide criticisms of platforms into roughly four categories. Category A involves the phrase “Fake News.” Category B involves data collection. Category C involves an alienated user experience and mental health concerns. Category D involves work culture. All of them are challenging in their own right; but data collection is perhaps the least talked about and largest change.
There is journalism about data; but it’s aimed at businesses, and collectors of data. There’s a disconnect between that journalism, and journalism aimed at data subjects, which involves phobia and conspiracy. I asked Rory what he thought about this.
‘Right throughout the development of this technology…there’s been this kind of utopian view, from one point of view, the power of things like big data to transform industries and to make our life better…and I think a lot of people have been quite naïve and people are just waking up to the negative effects of a lot of it.’
Surely Rory thought there were positives?
‘Oh yes, there are…more efficient medical diagnoses, better delivery of services of all kinds. I think things have been slightly overpromised. It’s the old line about technology always under-delivers in the short term and over-delivers in the long term.’
‘There’s a slightly wide-eyed belief that data is the answer to everything. There’s also been insufficient focus until recently on some of the dangers inherent in that.’
FinTech and London
In the US, technology has taken over from banks as the largest and most dominant industry. It’s totally inconceivable that the UK could ever be in the same boat – or is it?
Rory wasn’t sure. ‘The balance is changing a bit…[but] these are kind of fuzzy terms…it’s not “either” finance “or” tech. There’s a whole FinTech sector in London, which is thriving and growing. It all comes back to, “can we build a Silicon Valley?”, and the answer is, “Well, maybe. But it’ll take a hell of a long time.”’
I changed the question slightly. Could it be that the “big banks” are, to some extent, diminished in stature by the rising power of FinTech?
‘I’ve long thought that the banks will capture that [wealth]’, said Rory. ‘I’ve been going to FinTech conferences for a while, and most of what I see is not disruption but collaboration…. [Fintechs] are chasing up the banking system a bit, but it’s not like Amazon and book retailing, or Facebook and traditional advertising.’
‘The ones who are trying to completely challenge the financial system are the cryptocurrency and blockchain mob, who I think are all mad and mostly crooked.’
To say “there are mystics and conmen in the blockchain space” is an understatement. A more interesting question is whether there would be bona fide successes in it.
‘I am very cynical about it,’ said Rory. ‘Maybe there will be a successful cryptocurrency in some space.’
‘Bitcoin is not a currency. It’s not accepted anywhere. It’s not a store value because it’s massively volatile. It’s incredibly inefficient. In some ways, if you believe in the idea of cryptocurrencies, you’ve got to chuck [Bitcoin] out and start again. There are plenty of people who are believers, who will give you the upside…but I find it quite difficult to be positive.’
Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, thought Rory. ‘Where’s the use case?…I kind of sympathise with the people who say, “Blockchain’s been around for quite a few years now, and there is not a working, successful use case.”’
‘The problem is that all sorts of business cases are being promoted for it, but all of the money coming into it is coming into it, not because of a belief in its efficacy as a business, but because of a get-rich-quick mentality that hopes to get in and out in a big hurry.’
I put it to Rory that the language had changed. Nobody talked about the end of global financial systems any more. Banks talk about “blockchain strategy.” Sober, serious people were starting to enter the space.
But Rory disagreed with the premise that bankers are necessarily sober and serious. ‘They’re doing it because it’s incredibly fashionable, aren’t they? I mean, the Long Island bloody Iced Tea company becomes a Long Island Blockchain company, and its stock price triples. Kodak, with its ridiculous Kodak coin.’
‘Don’t underestimate the herd mentality of bankers as well as other people when it comes to popular frenzies. Yeah, you probably have to have a blockchain strategy team, but what are they going to do?’
Lessons from the millennium
I told Rory that it was unfair to bring up the Iced Tea thing. The ‘Long Blockchain Corporation’, the US cryptocurrency firm previously known as the Long Island Iced Tea Corporation, indeed saw their shares jump by over 500% after the name change. But just because there’s a bubble doesn’t mean there isn’t value creation.
During the dot-com bubble, about which Rory wrote a book, there was a practice of companies adding dot-com to their name to stoke their valuations. This was a bubble; but the internet has been an absolutely colossal and world-changing thing.
‘That’s absolutely true, and that is the line that blockchain enthusiasts always come out with to me, and I say, “Well, yeah.” But the two aren’t the same,’ says Rory. ‘It was the web which made the internet a commercial platform, and if you think that the web arrived in 1991, and took off in ’94, ’95; by ‘98’ when the bubble started to take off, ‘there were a zillion web businesses.’
‘Now, many of them were not sustainable, but they were [valid] businesses, and some of them had revenues that were not made by flogging dodgy coins. That’s not the case with blockchain.’
I asked Rory about whether legislation could be an answer.
‘I think it’s inevitable because there’s obviously a slight danger of contagion if too many people get drawn in, and the whole thing goes “pop” and they lose their money. Money laundering, and just general hiding of your assets is one of the major forces propelling people into these things.’
Rory argued it wasn’t just the US securities laws.
‘[GDPR] actually has a huge impact on blockchain companies because…the selling point about blockchain is it’s immutable, so how do you square that with GDPR measures saying customers maybe have the right to erase personal data from the internet?’
The answer, perhaps, is that you don’t. Regardless of how precedents from post-GDPR court cases settle the meaning of the law, what’s clear is that we could be en route to a more settled, legislated, and domesticated environment generally online. The “Wild West” phase of the internet is over; it’s now full of megacities, each with internal policies driven by CEO-monarchs and an algorithmic civil service.
With the notable exception of Reddit, large websites are not putting democratic procedures in place, even as they become dominant spaces for people to “exist” in. Instead, change is being forced through by legislative bodies. How geographically defined legislatures can work for a global internet remains to be seen.