“Wild Wild Web” by Tim Cole


Wild Wild Web

The title of Tim Cole’s book “Wild Wild Web: What the history of the Wild West teaches us about the future of the Digital Society” from 2018 keeps its promise. In fact, it is amazing how clearly Cole compares the historic period of lawlessness in ​​the late 19th century in the Wild West of America with the still muddy legal situation related to the commercial exploitation of consumer data. Cole draws a coherent analogy between late 19th century “greedy capitalists”, also known as robber barons, such as John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, Cornelius Vanderbilt, Edward H. Harriman, and John Pierpont Morgan, and the big Internet corporations and today’s start-ups. Those benefit from our data and get rich due to a still not existing “rule of law” in the Internet.

It was not until the 26th President of the United States, Theodore Roosevelt, who went down in history as the “Trust Buster”, that the all-dominant monopoly was shattered in 1902 using the Sherman Act 45. He paved the way for the American welfare state by adopting important laws to protect the United States labor force and to start the ban on child labor.

“We need a New Deal for the online world, a clear responsibility”

Cole predicts that historians will later refer to the gilded age of the Internet. This will relate to the time when entrepreneurs such as Steve Jobbs, Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg, and Larry Page created large corporations alike those built up by the wild-west robber barons. Tim Cole’s conclusion: We need a New Deal for the online world, a clear responsibility. We will have to learn how to handle our data in a sovereign and self-determined way. Hence, it is important to strengthen data awareness in policy and society.

Only three years ago, the data analyzing company Cambridge Analytica passed on the data of 87 million of Facebook users to Donald Trump’s election campaign team, thus biasing political decisions. Even though the company went bankruptcy afterwards, things like that should not have happened at all.

Cole’s manifest: Break down what breaks you!

According to Cole, digital capitalism is fundamentally different from the still prevailing mindset of competitive capitalism. The richest members of society benefit from declining tax rates, along with rapidly growing monopoly profits, while larger sections of the population increasingly suffer from pressure and desperation. Thus, economic efficiency and democratic stability are in jeopardy.

“Sapere aude” – dare to make use of your own understanding!

There are lots of clever approaches on how to stop current data collectors and the injustice in the respective use and recovery of data. However, no binding regulation does exist so far. The Austrian jurist and professor at the Oxford Internet Institute, Viktor Mayer-Schönberger, calls for example for a data exchange mandate between companies in order to give free rein to commercial competition. Cole cites Andreas Weigand, Amazon’s former chief scientist, who argues in his book “Data for the People,” that consumers should have sovereignty over their data. Accordingly, he creates a catalogue for the fundamental data laws. This catalogue should allow us to recapture the power of our data piece by piece. It requires an insight, the possibility to complete or delete data, anonymize them or transfer them to another provider or cloud.  This whole discussion is about a new conception of ownership related to data and informational self-determination.

Claiming for a digital trade union

Cole quotes Tesla boss Elon Musk, who already 2017 urged governments to define guidelines for AI before it is too late. Since Isaac Asimov set up the three basic rules for AI, not much has happened. According to the WTO, more than 2 billion consumers worldwide will shop online by 2021. And Amazon is well on its way to establish a market-dominating monopoly. Amazon already controls almost the entire infrastructure, as the Group takes over warehousing, delivery and returns management for dealers worldwide. It’s time for a new moral compass. Cole’s credo: We need a digital ethics that is tailored to the needs of our time, rather than pure efficiency and profit maximization. Consequently, he claims for a digital trade union for the modern GAFAS.

Futurist Gerd Leonhard is giving a fascinating guest commentary. When saying “Technology knows no ethics – but without ethics there is no society” he argues exactly along these lines. Civilizations are driven by their technologies, but they are defined by their humanity. Technology is not only what we are looking for, but also how we are looking for it, says Leonhard. Altogether, an absolutely thrilling book, very worth reading.