Is a Human-Centered Internet Even Possible with Today's Capitalist System?

Given that most publicly-traded companies seemingly subscribe, either entirely or in part, to economist Milton Friedman’s dictum that a corporation’s responsibility is primarily, if not entirely, to the shareholder (who won’t keep owning the stock unless it goes up over time), and given that besides the publicly-uttered platitudes about doing no evil and being some sort of woke company, I see scant evidence that the big companies that corral most Internet eyeballs have any serious interest in lowering their profits and their stock price in service of a more human-centered Internet as NGI defines it, and given that it looks like most of the hand-wringing one sees in silicon valley these days as companies wrestle with an increasingly skeptical public looks to not seek change that threatens them being on top, how is the kind of big change NGI describes even possible under such a system?

If you were in the legendary one percent, running a profitable Internet company, would you voluntarily leave the one percent in service of a more human-centered Internet, or a more healthy planet? I don’t see anyone doing that. So, that to me says, let’s make change that helps society and the planet but ensures that we stay on top." That look incompatible to me.

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I know that is a lot of givens, and any one of you can easily (and are invited) to take issue with them and the broad brush that painted them, so please have at it.

It also to me begs the question, what is the EC’s real goal with NGI? My theory at this point is that there will emerge a combination of policy moves that are meant to regulate what others create and the other is to try to highlight and perhaps assist new European ideas, projects and companies that will make things that adhere to the principles of NGI at the same time they are so well made and popular, that this form of social responsibility is baked into the core of these products and then the Internet at large. And hopefully they will become the most popular products and services.

Great vision. I am all for it. Have been wanting it for more than 30 years. But seriously, is such a thing really possible within the global economic system we live in?

I know there are private companies too, but how many among them do not seek the huge bucks of the publicly traded world - but got there anyway? I can think of just one right now: craigslist

Those guys - Craig and Jim Buckmaster, two people I have known personally for more than 20 years - really did not care about the money nearly as much as providing the service to the people, and making a truly honest easy-to-use product that scaled seamlessly.

“Do what you love and the money will follow” was a phrase a lot of us used back in the day. One can start up with that mindset, but can one continue? In Craig’s case, he kept the company private. I think he and Jim own the whole thing. They make almost a billion dollars a year. They still give away most of the service.

They did not intend to be one of the icebergs that the ship of newspaper journalism would crash on. But it was. When I left the employ of the newspaper world in San Francisco in 2001, the company the previous year grossed 139 million dollars in classified advertising revenue. Their building had a whole floor devoted to people taking phone orders for the ads. Now - pretty much nothing except for some real estate ads and a partnership with Monster Jobs. That alone torpedoed a giant chunk of the newsroom. I think if Craig had not done it, someone else would have because the Internet is so perfectly suited for a classified marketplace. But I am glad it was Craig, a decent and thoroughly honorable guy who donates massively to energizing journalism in today’s environment that he helped create.

But he was no big capitalized company. He was a talented but obscure programmer who very early saw a way to turn people on to good things (the “list” started as more of an events calendar for tech-savvy people plus sell stuff if you have it or want to) and it just grew from there. He had the luck and insight to find and then hire an equally, if not more, talented guy who also had good business acumen, Jim Buckmaster. Jim is a quiet guy who shuns the limelight. But he is an extraordinary individual who at least used to be as unique in his personal habits as he was talented in tech and business. He told me once he was so ascetic one year he lived in Ann Arbor Michigan (where it goes below zero most of the winter) that he not only had no heat in the house, he didn’t even have a jacket. Can you imagine? that’s crazy. Now a billion dollars a year crazy.

But I digress…my point here is, these guys in fact made a company that lives according to NGI principles. And I know how they started and how they got to where they are. Who else is going to follow their own path to a jackpot like that, staying honorable all the way? Or more to the point, what big capital is going to back something like that? Or frankly anything that doesn’t feed, and feed off of, this status quo system?

Spying on people makes more money so we have to do it and either lie about it or see if a government catches us running afoul of their regulations. How can it be any other way in the corporate sector when you have a share price to nurture?

One of the accelerators of the concentration of wealth is the winner-take-all nature of the internet. This is Metcalf’s Law writ large and is now truly planetary. And I am not sure any economic system, even well-regulated, can change that. The bigness that comes with being one of those winners begs the question, are they driving it, or is it driving them?

So where do multi-generational private companies possibly fit into this?
To give a more evil (or resourced based) example, the Kochs…your paper towels, your roofing and much more…doing as much business as the biggest companies in the world, but NO stockholders telling them what they have to do!

The point is - if our generation(s) can produce a bunch of ethical and moral leaders and if some of them have multi-generational wisdom (think like the German family businesses, some lasted 100’s of years)… they could have quite an impact on the future.

We may even see this type of thing forming in a 23&ME or similar effort. For example, they are working with Big Pharma (one must) to cure disease…but when those cures are found, they will “own” a large part of them due to supplying the data. If they decide to provide those cures at a “cost plus” type of arrangement where they and their partners make a profit but then provide them to the masses (think worldwide vaccines, cures), then it’s quite amazing.

The short term thinking of public companies, IMHO, dooms them…even the better one (innovative) like Tesla and Google and such. It seems to me to be more chance of something off shooting from google (23&me example) or others…who may have the Human more in mind.

It’s interesting that Gates, Buffet and so many others are giving away all of their fortunes. If this money was focused on some big things instead of spread around it could be really revolutionary.


Well- it depends on how you look at it. A friend once jokingly referred to VC as wealth redistribution towards young talented people since most ventures tank anyway, especially in winner takes all tech businesses :slight_smile:

Seen from here Human Centred Internet builders need to be human-centred also at the end of the people building and managing businesses in the sector.

I just got back from Techfestival where the response to our ills is to produce a pledge for technologist to change behaviour/adhere to a set of defined values as a means to get us out of this mess:

That is a nice step. But, I don’t know how many of the people who sign it actually operate in organisations that afford them the necessary conditions to do so. .

It really comes down to what you consider to be a healthy business, how you structure your company and the day to day social environment in which live and work.

Edgeryders is a not-for-profit company that generates the money needed to build, sustain and develop the community infrastructure from revenues in no small part thanks to our innovations in digital tech and methodologies for doing various things online. BUT, we have never taken on debt, nor do we allow any VC in because it comes with a lot of strings attached - and would force us to have an extractive sustainability/business model.

Sometimes I ask myself why I didn’t take the path of my contemporaries. Founders of several startups you heard of - soundcloud, prezi etc came out of one Alma Mater and know one oner socially. You had some obvious choices if you wanted to make money - go into telecoms, military-industrial or…internet business. Many went full on build tech startups where you make money if and when you make an exit. Perhaps it really comes down to personal history.

I come from a setting where business = old school trade and debt=bad. As in: Running a “real” and “honest” business is = generating more revenue from people paying to buy your wares than the costs you have making them. Of course this limits the rate at which your business and revenue can grow, but I am cool with it. Also because growth carries costs additional costs on your health, your relationships etc.

My primary moral compass is trying to do good by and care for the wellbeing of people whom I love - not some higher moral standard. This includes all of my business partners, many people in our community. I very much value the sense of being part of a new kind of caring tribe enabled by connectivity - even if people’s ideologies and ideas diverge I feel there is a kind of “thread” that that weaves us together. To me building a good business is building a next generation institution which can act as an anchor for a lot of people in a messy, turbulent world. Financial but also social. It is fragile, yes. But it has been around for longer than most tech “startups”.

At techfestival in Copenhagen I ran into someone who has been loosely present in Edgeryders, and who convened a large known community. He said that we were one of few communities to still be around after that wave of sharing/gift economy movements (that came out of the financial crisis).