If you think that the debate that must arise from the ban of Donald Trump on social media last week is about freedom of speech, then you’re missing the big picture. It is about power and we should all be part of this conversation because it will affect every single one of us, no matter where in the world you live.
We are living through a time when nation-states are increasingly becoming irrelevant. Most of the forces that shape our society are no longer restrained by physical borders — the flow of information, ideas, currency, digital goods and services, and even the virus pay no attention to countries or nationalities. Our interconnected world is entering an era where the private enterprises that have created the means by which we interact globally are now more rich and powerful than many nation-states, but they want none of the responsibility that comes with it nor are they ready to handle the consequences of their growth.
Our civilization does not possess the legal framework capable of dealing with such complex structures and if this virus has taught us anything about how the world really works, is that our multilateral organizations have absolutely no power or authority to be effective arbiters in truly complex international matters.
We also have to recognize that this is not only limited to social media companies. Amazon Web Services, for example, hosts most of the major platforms and companies of the Internet in their servers and has the power to control their digital presence. But that’s just one example and I don’t mean to single it out, except for the importance of making the point that not all technologies and companies are as visible and easy to understand as social media.
If you’re still thinking about Trump while reading this, please stop and reflect. This debate is not about politics or any single politician, it is not about left or right, about freedom or authoritarianism, not even about what is morally right or wrong. This conversation is about how the technology that we ourselves have created is beginning to overpower us and overwhelm our ability to handle the consequences of its complexity and magnitude. My concern is not with the power that Bezos, Dorsey or Zuckerberg may think they have (and probably don’t even want), but rather with our civilization’s ability to create the global framework and structures to ensure that humanity can always maintain a grip over the technology that it creates in a time when we are polarized, overpopulated, and highly dependant on the existing system to survive.
The science fiction movies that depict the struggle between humanity and technology often show how a sophisticated form of technology becomes power-thirsty and attacks humanity in its quest for the ultimate domination. The reality though is much scarier — I fear that we will not have the wisdom to transition peacefully to this new reality we are heading rapidly towards, I fear that technological advancement becomes a zero-sum game where countries and companies are blinded by competition instead of inspired by collaboration and the common good, I fear that we will be stuck in petty squabbles about money, politics or ideology instead of coming together to build the frameworks required to handle our own growth, and I fear that our response to these very dangerous challenges will be plagued with short-termism.
Today you may be celebrating that Trump got kicked off of Twitter, but I am celebrating something much bigger than that — I’m celebrating that, after this ban, we will no longer be able to avoid having the greatest debate of our era, perhaps even of human history.