Last year, the Internet Society unveiled the 2017 Global Internet Report: Paths to Our Digital Future. The interactive report identifies the drivers affecting tomorrow’s Internet and their impact on Media & Society, Digital Divides, and Personal Rights & Freedoms. Last month we interviewed Nicholas Thompson, Editor in Chief of Wired, to hear his perspective on the forces shaping the Internet’s future.
Prior to joining Wired, Thompson was a journalist at The New Yorker, where he was also the editor of newyorker.com. Thompson has written about politics and technology for numerous publications, and has spent time reporting from West Africa on the role technology plays there. He is also the author of The Hawk and the Dove: Paul Nitze, George Kennan, and the History of the Cold War.
The Internet Society: You recently published (and co-wrote) a long feature on Facebook’s difficulties over the past two years, focusing to a large extent on its role in distributing news and misinformation (or fake news) alike. As policy leaders shape future norms in this field, do you think platforms face stricter regulatory measures? How?
Nicholas Thompson: Platforms need to do better. They need to play a better role in helping civil society, not breaking apart civil society. They need to do a better role of helping to build a world that shares the broad values they have, which includes truth and basic human rights.
I don’t know whether regulation is the right answer. Platforms certainly need to change their internal policies; they certainly need to look at their algorithms; they certainly need to be much more aware of how people are using them and the effect they are having on civil society. The question with regulation is whether the regulation will actually help more than it harms. And regulating a tech company is hard: you have to understand and dig deep into its layers and know how it works. I wouldn’t trust many governments to do a good job of that. Sometimes the threat of regulation could be equally helpful.
In my view there are three things that can happen. First, we could see changes in competition law. If we have more competitive landscapes we’ll probably see better behavior by the big tech companies. Second, we could also see more regulation to specifically limit what the tech companies can do or control. I’m very wary of these two options, which require us to intervene and either break up big tech or regulate tech more closely. Lastly, we could see action being taken internally by tech companies without any regulation. This is my favorite one; one in which tech companies start to look more carefully at themselves; think more carefully about their actions and start to act differently.
Recent research has questioned the notion of echo chambers, misinformation (or so-called ‘fake news’) and other media myths that impact the media’s credibility today. Are you concerned about the media’s role as counterweights to the excesses of power and corruption in the future?
I think that echo chambers are a huge problem right now, especially in the current political situation in the US. I don’t think we’ll always have a president like Donald Trump, but even under Obama we had echo chambers and divisiveness and filter bubbles. The issue of filter bubbles and echo chambers might have been overstated at times, but it also is real and I think it’s really important for media to try to gain trust across a broad spectrum of society. I think the fact that serious media – media that actually checks facts and reports across multiple sources – only appeals to a segment of the population with one ideology is a huge problem. You need to have facts for society to work. You need everybody to agree on basic facts and then to have arguments and discussions and negotiations about those facts. And media is very important in providing those basic facts. So the fact that the media has lost the trust of the larger population is a massive problem in the US and elsewhere.
There are often different interpretations of particularly the right to freedom of expression in, for example, Europe and the US. How do these differences impact media and tech companies?
American companies’ views of free speech have changed completely. They have gone from massively valuing free speech to not valuing free speech. If you look at many of the biggest trends in the tech industry, they have all been about filtering and limiting free speech. To get rid of comments sections; to make it harder to be anonymous online; to remove people from platforms.
The reason why views on free speech have changed is because of what tech companies saw. They saw the abuse on Twitter, for example. If people are allowed to post anything on YouTube, people post videos of putting children in washing machines. The base human emotions lead to some terrible outcomes. And that’s a totally legitimate reason for the crackdown on free speech. Has it gone too far? I’m not sure. There are legitimate reasons why the tech industry’s view on free speech has changed in my view.
What will the media landscape look like in three to five years? What/who will be more important producers of news in the future: citizen journalists or algorithms/artificial intelligence?
AI is going to play a huge role in the future of the media. You can already see that in sports journalism, for example, where the Washington Post has AI writing sports pages. It’s pretty easy to describe a soccer game – you know, the game was tied until the 63rd minute and somebody scored. You could probably even get AI to write about a UN vote: for example, this country voted that way, etc. Over time, computers will become more sophisticated and should be able to write much larger proportions of stories. They wouldn’t be able to write our story about Facebook, because it required talking to lots of people, but they probably could do all kinds of sophisticated data pattern analysis that humans can’t do now. So, I think that AI will have a huge effect on journalism; both because of reporters using it as a tool to find things, and publishers actually using it as authors.
While citizen journalism has become more important, I don’t know whether it’s going to keep growing the way it has grown. There are some really important limits on it. It’s very good for reporting on basic stories like ‘this is what’s happening here’. In fact, if the business model for local journalism goes away, citizen journalism about local reporting will become more important.
But in the long term I think AI will have more of an influence. I suspect that while citizen journalism will always play a very significant role in the ecosystem, it has already had its biggest impact.
Wired recently instituted a paywall. What made you take this leap, and do you think paywalls are the future for serious journalism online?
One of the problems with media is that chasing digital advertisements makes you do things that aren’t great. It makes you pursue sensationalism, for example. Publications that are supported by paywalls and subscriptions and unique business models have a whole different set of incentives. My hope is that maybe some of the problems that have existed now, like misinformation and echo chambers, are caused because of publishers chasing digital advertising. I hope that when publishers start thinking more about paid content in different forms, whether it’s a paywall or other types, some of the problems we created in the last few years will be addressed.
The recent feature Facebook article is around 11,000 words. What do Wired’s analytics say about whether readers can focus their attention on reading long pieces of journalism in an age of constant distraction?
Our story about Facebook is long and hard to read, but within the first week of it being published it had almost two million readers.
There has been a lot of concern about the shortening of attention spans because of the Internet. I think that concern is overstated. It is true, that sometimes it’s hard to concentrate. People start reading a book, they’ll read two pages and they grab their phone. We all do it ourselves. But if you look at the data it does seem like while phones distract us, they also make us smarter and they allow us to have conversations.
You spent time reporting from West Africa on the role that technology plays there. What role do you think technology – especially technology from developed regions – has to play in sustainable development in developing regions?
Technology has a huge role to play in development; it could be incredibly important. When I was reporting on it, mostly in 2002 and 2003, I overestimated the role it could play though. I overestimated how easy it would be. It was really interesting for me in those early days of the Internet to watch and to think: “oh, if there is an Internet connection suddenly people will be connected to the world.” But it turns out that to have an Internet connection you also need to have electricity, and you need to have computer screens, you need to be able to repair them, you need to have a fiber optic network, and to have fiber optic network you need a telcom company, which means you need functioning transactions and economies.
I was going to write a long essay about an incredible, brilliant guy in Ghana who was going to set up a technology center a couple of hours outside of the capital. He got Microsoft to sponsor him; he got ahold of computers. But it was hard to teach people how to use computers, as the power kept going out. I think the building may even have flooded. It was hard, it was really tricky.
But today we see particularly the mobile telephone revolution that has come to West Africa. You’ve seen massive technology growth there. I think it’s doing all the things I thought it would do, it’s just doing it through mobile and it’s doing it later. And it was all way more complex that what I expected at the time. But it’s on my bucket list is to go back and find all the people I talked to then, and to ask them what role technology has played in their lives the past ten years or so.
What do you think of the role tech companies like Facebook are playing in connecting people to the Internet (or parts of it)?
Platforms always have a conflict of interest when it comes to promoting connectivity. What you would really like is for the connectivity to happen separately from the platform providers. You don’t want Facebook providing Internet access because they are going to lock users into using only Facebook. You want the Internet being provided and then you want society to choose whether people spend a lot of time on Facebook or on other things. But Facebook’s business model works really well. And Facebook has all the money in the world, so is gaining access to the Internet via Facebook not better than not having connectivity? Probably. But I do wish that all people can just have a fresh start to the Internet.
How has technology’s role in societies changed in the time since you’ve been working in this field? Have you perceived a backlash against the tech industry?
Technology has changed since I started writing about it. It has also changed since Wired was started. Most big platforms and Internet companies were started by a bunch of outsiders with revolutionary ideas that were cool and different. Then, they all made billions of dollars. They started as David and became Goliath.
I believe, though, that the people who run these companies are genuinely sincere people who are trying to help the world. At Facebook, for example, they want the world to become more open and connected. They are all smart, sincere good-hearted people who aren’t in it to manipulate us to gain power and make money. They happen to have made a lot of money, but I actually think that the top management at companies like Facebook and Google and Microsoft are in it for the right reasons.
At the same time, they’ve also created something they can’t control, and they created something with more power than they know how to handle. They have incredible power, but they don’t know what to do with it. I don’t think that the executives are as evil as sometimes portrayed in popular imagination. I think the backlash sometimes goes too far.
But they should have more responsibility, they should have thought more seriously of the consequences, they need to recognize the power that they have, which they haven’t. They need to do much better. They don’t know how to solve the problems they created.
Wired aims to help its audiences understand how technology is changing our lives and what role it is playing in society. On the whole, what do you think are the biggest technological trends that will impact societies in the next five years?
The biggest trend is clearly going to be AI. It has to be to train computers who can think like humans, act like humans, do things that humans did. It’s going to grow massively in the next five years to do the degree that it’s going to be hard to overstate. The biggest unknown is still quantum computing. Will it actually work, what will it do, who will get that power first. Will it be the US, will it be China, will it be Google, will it be Microsoft, will it be a startup. That’s the biggest unknown in the tech industry right now. Those are the two biggest. And then of course robotics, which ties in closely with AI.
What are your hopes for the future of the Internet? What are your fears?
My hope is that we have a much more competitive tech industry than we have right now. One of the things that I don’t like is that there’s only five companies that have such a dominating influence. I don’t like that the only two social media platforms that are growing are owned by Facebook (WhatsApp and Instagram). I want there to be much more competition. I want Snapchat to thrive; I want five more alternatives. I want there to be an alternative search engine to Google; an online store alternative to Amazon. I want much more competition – not just competition between the tech companies.
Regulation can help that happen, the threat of regulation can help make that happen. Consumers can help make that happen. I am all for regulation to ensure competitive markets. I am less in favor of regulation to either break up the companies. I am all in favor of strict regulation to maintain competition in the market place. And I would prefer regulation to prevent Facebook from ripping off Snapchat, for example.
If we have as little competition as we have right now in three to five years’ time, we will all be in trouble. If we have more, we will be in the right place.
How do we ensure that the Internet of the future is one that betters society, creates opportunity, and empowers people? Explore the 2017 Internet Society Global Internet Report: Paths to Our Digital Future and read the recommendations to ensure that humanity remains at the center of tomorrow’s Internet.