Ideas·2020 Massey Lectures

What happened to the promise of the internet? It's time for a reset, says Ron Deibert

In his 2020 CBC Massey Lectures, Citizen Lab founder and director Ron Deibert wants to get us thinking about how best to mitigate the harms of social media, and in doing so, construct a viable communications ecosystem that supports civil society and contributes to the betterment of the human condition (instead of the opposite). 

Massey lecturer Ron Deibert says we need to slow down, start over and imagine an alternative

'It's as if we have sleepwalked into a new machine-based civilization of our own making, and we are just now waking up to its unforeseen consequences and existential risks,' says 2020 CBC Massey lecturer Ron Deibert. (Bacho/Shutterstock)

This column is by 2020 CBC Massey Lecturer Ron Deibert, who is also the founder and director of Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto. His book Reset: Reclaiming the Internet for Civil Society is the basis of this year's CBC Massey Lectures.

Look at that device in your hand.

No, really. Take a good, long look at it.

You carry it around with you wherever you go. You sleep with it, work with it, run with it, you play games on it. You depend on it, and panic when you can't find it. It links you to your relatives and kids.  

But if you're like most everyone I know, you also probably feel a bit anxious about it. You realize it — and what it connects you to — is doing things to your lifestyle, and the world around you, that you'd likely be better off without. 

Indeed, there is an undeniable gestalt in the air, a dawning recognition that something of our own making is contributing to a serious kind of social and political sickness. 

Where did we go wrong?

What started out as something so simple as desktop PCs networked together via a common protocol has morphed into an always-on, omnipresent data vacuum-cleaning operation undertaken by gigantic corporate platforms with unparalleled abilities to peer inside our minds and habits and subtly shape our choices. 

The ecosystem has spawned a bewildering variety of invasive species that thrive by feeding on the continuously expanding pools of data that spew forth each millisecond of every day: app developers, data brokers, location trackers, data fusion companies, artificial intelligence start-ups, and private intelligence firms. 

Accountability is weak and insecurity is endemic throughout the entire system, creating seemingly endless opportunities for malevolent exploitation by spies, kleptocrats, dark PR firms, and other bad actors. 

It's as if we have sleepwalked into a new machine-based civilization of our own making, and we are just now waking up to its unforeseen consequences and existential risks. 

What happened to the magic and promise of the internet? Where did we go wrong?

Restraint to move us forward

A major aim of my 2020 CBC Massey Lectures is to help get us thinking about how best to mitigate these harms of social media, and in doing so, construct a viable communications ecosystem that supports civil society and contributes to the betterment of the human condition (instead of the opposite). 

It is clear there is a growing consensus that many things are wrong with our social media habits. Symptoms of this malaise are seemingly everywhere, fairly easy to identify, and increasingly enumerated by scientific studies. But what to do about them is less obvious; there is nowhere near a consensus when it comes to a cure. 

To help move this conversation forward, I make a plea in my lectures for a single, overarching principle to guide us moving forward: restraint.

The common-sense meaning of "restraint" is keeping someone or something under control, including our emotions, our habits, and our behaviours. 

What may be less apparent to many readers is that restraint, while seemingly simple, is a concept with a rich historical legacy connected to a long line of political thinking and practice that reaches all the way back to ancient Greece. 

Deibert is director of Citizen Lab at the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto. The Citizen Lab is an interdisciplinary research and development hothouse working at the intersection of the internet, global security, and human rights. (Riley Stewart)

Drawing inspiration from some of the ways republican-inspired thinkers have conceptualized restraint mechanisms in the past, I put forward some suggestions for how we might think about restraint measures in our own times — as means to rein in the excesses of social media and guard against abuses of power, encourage respect for difference and tolerance for diversity, all the while preserving the great potential of our communications ecosystem. 

Restraint is primarily defined as "a measure or condition that keeps someone or something under control or within limits." Secondarily, it also means "self-control," as in "unemotional, dispassionate, or moderate behaviour." Both senses of the term point to general qualities that will be essential to preserving rights and freedoms in our supercharged, hyper-networked world of data. 

Resets give us an opportunity to slow down, imagine an alternative, and then begin the process of actually bringing that alternative about.- Ron Deibert

We need to restrain what governments and corporations do with all the extraordinarily powerful tools of surveillance that are now in their hands. Restraints will be essential to ensure the security of the broader information and communications space in which we live, particularly restraints on bad actors exploiting us for despotic, corrupt, or criminal ends, or governments exploiting it for their narrow national security aims. 

We'll need personal restraints, too: restraints on our endless appetite for data, restraints on our emotions and anger as we engage online in the absence of the physical cues that normally help contain them. 

A reset

Deibert's book explores the personal, social, political, economic and ecological implications of social media. (House of Anansi Press)
The title of these lectures, Reset, is intended to prompt a general stocktaking about the unusual and quite disturbing period of time in which we find ourselves. Resetting implies beginning again from well-thought-out first principles. It allows us to discard the errors of the old ways of going about things and start over with a solid foundation.

Resets give us an opportunity to slow down, imagine an alternative, and then begin the process of actually bringing that alternative about. If there has ever been a time when we needed to rethink what we're collectively doing, this is certainly it.

To be sure, the challenges we face are daunting. But humans have faced challenges in other eras similar to our own. We have done this before, albeit at different scales and under different circumstances. There is, in fact, a long tradition of theorizing about security and liberty from which we can draw as we set out to reclaim the internet for civil society.

Let's face it: it won't be easy, nor will it happen overnight. But fatalistic resignation to the status quo is no real alternative either. The principle of restraint can be our guide.

This is Part 6 of the six-part 2020 Massey Lecture series Reset: Reclaiming the Internet for Civil Society. Find the rest of the series here.

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