MENLO PARK, Calif.
Here’s a simple four-word wish for Thanksgiving 2018 — a day when most of us take a break from the blurring, dizzying speed of our Internet world: Let’s slow things down.
I don’t just mean stopping to smell the roses, or taking a hike in the woods, or hiding our screens for a few hours. I mean, literally: Slow down the circuits. Put more friction in the system. Make social media slower, more local and less instantly connected to people we don’t know.
Our hyper-fast world has become destructive. We can see that in the instantaneous hurricanes of rage that sweep our politics; in the screen obsession on display in every elevator, restaurant and public place; in the manipulation of cyberspace by bad governments and people.
The speed and omnipresence of communications have themselves become an addiction: Unfortunately, our always-connected world seems to accelerate anger and breed mistrust.
Listening to a senior Facebook executive explaining his company’s woes at a gathering here last Friday of the Trilateral Commission was a reminder of how the dream of instant global connection has turned nasty, even for its greatest proponents. Facebook’s first informal motto was “Move fast and break things.” That was replaced by an anodyne official mission statement: “Bring the world closer together.” (A mission achieved, as it turned out, by Russian intelligence.)
“Slow it down.” That’s my suggested motto for the new Facebook that will emerge from the corporate train wreck described last week in a New York Times piece headlined, “Delay, Deny and Deflect.” Facebook, at this writing, has lost nearly 40 percent of its stock-market value since July. Chief executive Mark Zuckerberg may have changed the corporate slogan, but the company is definitely still breaking things.
The virtues of a slower, less fluid Internet were outlined in an important recent article on Motherboard by Justin Kosslyn, who heads product management for the Jigsaw think tank operated by Alphabet, which also owns Google. The article’s title makes the basic, heretical argument: “The Internet Needs More Friction: Tech companies’ obsession with moving data across the internet as fast as possible has made it less safe.”
“Friction — delays and hurdles to speed and growth — can be a win-win-win for users, companies and security,” Kosslyn writes. “Highways have speed limits and drugs require prescriptions . . . yet digital information moves limitlessly.” Unfortunately, he notes, this combination of blazing speed and non-oversight “accelerates the flow of phishing, ransomware and disinformation.”
I like Kosslyn’s idea because it’s an alternative to the potential trap Facebook has entered, of hiring many thousands of human content assessors and fact-checkers to decide what ideas should be allowed on its platform. To many people, this sounds like Facebook’s version of thought police. Next, alas, come the government regulators.
Rather than create a new regulation regime for Facebook (as Congress is discussing), maybe it would be wiser to treat these social-media companies as publishers of content — and apply the same, well-established legal standards (including libel laws for reckless defamatory comments) that apply to any other publisher. This transition — from platform to publisher — should be implemented carefully, not in the heat of anti-Facebook agitation. In the meantime, slow it down.
“Friction buys time, and time reduces systemic risk,” argues Kosslyn. He notes that in addition to highway speed limits, we routinely accept the need for such delays as mortgage inspections and employment background checks.
Super-speed will continue to be important for some applications, but Kosslyn contends that “only urgent content should be fast.” Emails that might contain phishing or malware could be delayed so algorithms could search for suspicious links. And automated systems shouldn’t be allowed to multiply uncontrolled, without human review.
Finally, argues Kosslyn, we should be locavores when it comes to information, just as we are increasingly with food. We may decide to bypass this local content and jump to broader interest groups that are political or topical, but we shouldn’t automatically be dumped in the global sea of information.
Government regulation of social media scares me, frankly. I wouldn’t want this president or this Congress telling me how I can consume information. I’d feel safer if it were just slower, clunkier and more local.
As a Facebook official said here, weighing the question of new regulation to protect privacy: “Before, we had privacy by obscurity. There was a lot of information about us, but there was friction in the system” that made it harder to obtain.
The blessings of the Internet age are obvious, but so, increasingly, is the threat it poses for democracy and freedom. Consider the contrarian remedy: Slow is good.