The trilemma of Big Tech

By Karin Pettersson – Last week Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg took to the stage in San Jose, California, and presented his vision for the future at the company’s yearly developers’ conference.

The attention given to the conference by the world’s media was testimony to the fact that Facebook is now more powerful than most nation states. Its products provide the infrastructure for core democratic functions such as free speech, distribution of news and access to information. Our societies, to a larger and larger degree, are shaped by how Zuckerberg and a small elite of Silicon Valley business leaders choose to do business. And the results, frankly speaking, are catastrophic.

‘Have social media made the world a better place?’ Poppy Harlow of CNN asked the influential tech writer Kara Swisher ‘No, not now’ was the dry answer.

The founder of the modern web, Tim Berners-Lee, has called for regulation of the internet as the only way to save it, and the virtual-reality pioneer and internet philosopher Jaron Lanier has written a book about why people should get off ‘social media’ as soon as possible.

The current situation is clearly unsustainable and the measures taken so far to address it insufficient. But before discussing solutions we need to define what the problem is. And here it is easy to get lost in details and anecdotes. Not all of the problems of social networks are fatal to democracy.

The economist Dani Rodrik has framed the discussion around the state of the world economy as a trilemma, where hyperglobalization, democratic policies and national sovereignty are mutually incompatible. We can, he argues, combine any two of the three, but never have all three simultaneously and in full.

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It might be conceptually useful to structure the discussion of the global information space in an analogous manner. One can have democracy, market dominance and business models that optimize for anger and junk—but only two at a time. more>

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