Sir Tim Berners-Lee, who with Robert Cailliau created the World-Wide Web 28 years ago with the specification for HTML, has published an open letter to the Web’s 2 billion users today.
The text is here, in English, French, Spanish, Portuguese and Arabic. He invites everybody to share it, so I’ll save you the fatigue of clicking on the link to reproduce it below the jump. Some quick comments from me to get you going.
1. Berners-Lee is one of the few people who can speak with real authority on this stuff. If he says we have big problems, it’s a safe prior that we do. If he says they can be fixed, there is a very good chance they can.
2. The approach is too narrow. I rely here on another authority, Mike O’Hare of this blog. He has writtenabout the crisis in society created by the arrival of transmission and reproduction of information at near-zero marginal cost, leading to the implosion of subscriber revenues for journalism and the dramatic thinning out of newsroom staff.
Let’s give this insight a catchy name: Gresham’s Second Law.
Robert Gresham was an English financier of the Elizabethan era, who has given his name to the first genuine economic law: that is, a generalisation based on solid observation, explained by a robust theory. (He had eminent predecessors including Copernicus so the attribution is a little unfair.) The Law reads:
Bad money drives out good.
That is, with a bullion specie currency, when the king debases it by reducing the bullion content of the coins, the price of the metal rises in nominal terms, and anyone who can get hold of the old, fatter coins can make a quick doubloon by melting them down. So the good old coins disappear.
Gresham’s-nth-granddaughter’s Second Law, which I have just invented, is similar:
Bad information drives out good.
The cost of production of good information – science, literature, accurate reporting – is high. The cost of production of lies, bullshit, smears, pornography, and rumours is negligible. On the consumption side, bad information is designed to appeal to our lower human nature (Kahneman’s System 1). Good information is often difficult, unwelcome or both, and requires the support of the lazy System 2. So the good information always has a struggle to be heard.
Now consider a technical innovation that lowers the cost of reproduction or transmission of information: say from hand copying to print, or print to the Internet. In the print era, Adolf Hitler had to struggle to get his message across. He had to find a printer for Mein Kampf (the title was accurate). He had to build a united movement from the hard-right flotsam floating round Munich, through endless face-to-face meetings in beer halls. Even in favourable conditions, it took him a decade before he could mount a credible challenge to gain power. Contrast Donald Trump. Starting from nowhere politically in 2015, he won an election in a much larger country with little more infrastructure than a Twitter account and support from the Breitbart website.
The contrast can be explained in terms of Gresham’s Second Law. The drop in transmission costs removes an obstacle to the dissemination of bad information, and releases its advantage in lower costs of production. So the problem has got worse.
3. Berners-Lee is right that we need to brake bad information. His example of political advertising linking to fake news is just one abuse. Americans in particular need to rethink free speech absolutism. Citizens United represented to many of us a reductio ad absurdum. As legal persons, corporations are slaves, with inferior, not equal rights to the humans they serve. Should corporate bodies – with access to much bigger megaphones than individuals – be held to a higher standard of care in their public speech? Companies that mislead their stockholders face severe sanctions, and deception in advertising is limited to suggestio falsi and suppressio veri, outright lies being banned. I don’t see why the privilege of corporate political and cultural speech should not face analogous restrictions.
4. We also have to think positively: how can the good information be paid for? The answer for science has been socialism leavened by philanthropy. Literature and music seem to be doing all right in the market system, though that’s just a non-expert impression. A sufficient number of customers for music seem prepared to pay one or two dollars for a song rather than pirate everything, a convention that relies more on an honesty-box ethic than on sanctions. The immediate crisis is in reporting. It’s good news that Sir Tim’s team will be looking at micropayments. They should be looking at socialism too. It’s already how we pay for education and health.
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