Interview with Antóin Ó Lachtnáin
Democratic Potential of the Internet
How self-determined do we really act on the Internet? Antóin Ó Lachtnáin about wishful thinking and the reality of the democratic potential of the World Wide Web.
In the early age of the internet, there were very positive ideas about how the internet could help us as citizens. How does the reality differ from that?
Our hope was that we would have an emergent democracy. That the internet would be sort of an agora, a commons where we could all discuss our different views and the common good and we could have a participatory democracy instead of the representative democracy we had. And we'd all work together to make the right decisions for the society and for our community. What's happened has been something quite different from that. What we have is a system that’s very easy to manipulate, players that we don't understand or that have some sort of negative agenda for us are able to come in and use this to influence people, not just in what things we buy, but the way we vote. An example of that is using selective targeting to depress the vote. So for example you tell black voters that Hillary Clinton is no good and convince them that all politicians are the same. It's not that they go and vote for Donald Trump or whoever, it's that they just don't bother voting at all. And this is quite an easy trick to manipulate a democracy. This is the challenge we have to deal with. There are many positive aspects to social media and online systems but there are many serious problems. We have to find ways to address them if we're going to get the benefit.
We often think as users that we are in charge of our destiny on the internet that we can self-determine what we are doing. Is that so?
We certainly like to believe it. I suppose we are like Neo in the film The Matrix: We believe we're living in one kind of world but if we are prepared to swallow the red pill we can see that maybe the world is very different and is in terms of our information not our own. Information about us is being traded and brokered on an international basis as part of a massive money system. Our attention is being bought and sold. Advertising is targeted at us in ways that we don't really understand. Sometimes it's obvious. We can see why we're seeing a particular ad but sometimes we don't understand at all. When you look at it that way it does seem like our self-determination, our individuality is not just being taken away from us, but turned into a commodity which is just being bought and sold as part of commerce.
Can the Internet regulate itself?
The Internet is a technology the same as motorized road transport or electrical equipment or anything else. There have to be rules, there have to be standards. And we have to figure out what the right way to enforce these is. One part of it is law.
There are laws about how we act and behave on the road. But mostly there are social reasons why we obey those laws as well as the reasons to do it, the fact that we might see a policeman or a policeman might see us. We have to set up that social framework so that we have good behaviour on the internet, but that we don't set up a framework that's just oppressing the benefits and for example oppressing free speech.