The Web & the Fragility of Trust

Every year the Pew Research Internet Project invites experts to respond to a survey and state their opinions regarding the evolution of the Net and emerging threats to the social Web. What will it be like in 10 years? What technologies will have taken leaps forward? What should be targets of our concern?

Flickr CC photo by Kangrex

Having responded to several of these over the years I know that some people give minimal responses and some write whole essays. The folks at Pew are left to sift through the results and – since few people are interested enough to spend hours reading the whole enchilada – offer a summary of the points on which there is some consensus.

I will further condense their summary because there’s an obvious theme here, alluded to in the title of this post. Here are the most grievous threats to what we currently expect from the Web, as identified for 2024 or thereabouts:

  1. countries will interfere with the net to maintain security and control

  2. government and corporate surveillance imperils trust

  3. commercial pressures will endanger the open structure of online life

If you’ve been paying any attention at all to your virtual surroundings during your time online or even offline – reading magazines in the salon or in the waiting room at the tire store – these should not come as a big surprise. Indeed, these threats for a decade hence are already upon us. It’s about who holds power over the online social environment.  It’s about the People’s Web vs the Web of politics and corporate convenience.

How can the individual users of the Web trust huge institutions who (1) don’t get what the social Web is all about and (2) put their interests above all others just because they can. Money (tax money, too) talks.  The users mostly understand that without their presence, the content they provide and the knowledge they share, the Web would simply be an uninhabited  data exchange network. -The users create and share and give life to the Web, which is why government and corporations are compelled to exploit and control them.

Of course government and corporate power have their places in this capitalist republic. They can be useful, though there is growing impatience among the citizenry with incompetence, violating privacy, forcing advertising into the midst of social interaction and unabashed greed among the ignorant self-appointed rulers. The issue of trust is not new, nor has it ever been assumed. It has been elemental since people first began getting online and interacting with one another.

Flickr CC photo by Mr. Fix It

In the social beginnings – the 1980s – people wondered about the authenticity of others’ “personas.” “Is Bob really like he says he is on the message board?” At the personal level people were wary and kept their bullshit detectors set on Stun. Today – though there are plenty of dishonest and tricky scammers online skirting the edges of ethical behavior, businesses increasingly resort to practices like native advertising to lure us into clicking on what looks to be a post by an acquaintance but in reality is a lure and a trap, leading to the advertiser’s effort to sell you something. I call it “attention poaching .” Because it intrudes on a social atmosphere, it’s not the same as a billboard. It’s feigned – not authentic – friendliness.

As to government, we are still – and probably always will be – in under attack mode due to the long reverberations of 9-11. A humongous security industry has arisen from those ashes and the Web has become the barrel of fish that these forces shoot into at will.

Privacy? It’s already so compromised that one wonders how 2024 could be much worse. Our government spies on us while it is the only force powerful enough to protect us from Internet despotism. And it is the only force powerful enough to control or shut down content, access and open communication.

One remark in the Pew’s survey results rang especially true to me. “Commercialization of the Internet, paradoxically, is the biggest challenge to the growth of the Internet”

If the Web becomes a treaturous and overly commercialized place to be, people will leave or drastically cut down on their use of it. They will do what they need to do to feel safe and authentic. The Web will turn itself down. And remember: there are other great forces at work, changing the global gameboard as we progress toward 2024.