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erotic images of fairly young models, like 20, it will keep showing you younger and younger ones, down to 5- and 6-year-olds. Likewise, if you are into religious extremism at all, it will keep showing you more and more extreme material until you wind up joining ISIS or something. The internet with the machine learning stuff that radicalizes you more and more and sort of tunes in with tunnel vision on what it thinks you want—that’s another area that’s kind of terrifying.
X: In that case, you could easily just say you’re going to turn off the recommendation engine for videos with children in them. There are people calling for that exact change at YouTube. But that’s a policy solution.
RP: And policy things are dangerous. Suppose whoever is in power decides that getting information about where to get an abortion or birth control is stuff that they don’t want to see promulgated?
X: Good point. There’s this founding philosophy on the internet that more information is better, and we can trust people to regulate how they use it, and that censorship is almost always bad.
RP: Yes. But when you publish how to make a bomb, or how to make a poison that you can drop into the water supply and poison an entire city, is it censorship to say you shouldn’t do that?
X: That’s a free speech question analogous to whether you should be allowed to shout “Fire!” in a crowded theater. The answer to that one is a clear “no.” There are always gray zones for the courts to decide. But the thing about the internet is that all these gray zones are popping up everywhere, and too fast for the courts to decide. So, citizens and consumers and programmers too have to get involved in these discussions.
RP: The good side of the internet is you can have a successful business without a store, and you can reach a global audience. And if you want to buy an obscure product you don’t have to travel 400 miles to find a store that carries it. All of these things are fantastic. But there’s also the downside that we didn’t see, which is that everybody is a journalist and you can’t tell who it is that’s doing things. We have all of this magic cryptography where you can sign things, but you can create as many false identities as you want. Voting doesn’t count when you don’t really know who people are because you can create a million false identities and have them all vote.
I mean the downsides right now—I mean, you caught me on a bad day when I’m sort of thinking, well, maybe we should just have an asteroid hit the Earth. This is never going to lead any place good.
X: Do you have good days?
RP: Probably, when I’m not thinking about this stuff. But yeah, there are all sorts of really difficult problems to solve that may or may not be solvable. I don’t have easy answers. How do you tell what is truth anymore? That’s very difficult. How do you get people to not be so hate-driven? It’s really easy to hate blue people if you’ve never met one. But if you have one living next door, you start realizing they are normal people. But if you only hear about blue people from highly radicalized stuff on the internet, and you only tune into things like that, you don’t actually interact with very many people. That, again, is sort of very discouraging and scary.
X: If you were handed the scales of justice and you were asked to say whether, on balance, the internet has been worth all the trouble—are we better off for having the internet or not—what would you say? And do you think we’re going to get better at this stuff over time? Fifty years from now, will we have solved some of these problems?
RP: Two years ago, I would have said absolutely, the internet is really fantastic. It’s made everybody able to have access to high quality college courses and be able to easily communicate with all of your friends and family. That’s really great. It’s just recently it’s gotten scary, and it looks like it might get worse and worse. But I think something like the internet was inevitable. And now society can’t survive without it. Like buying an airplane ticket—unless you interact online it’s very difficult to get anything done.
X: I talked to Bob Metcalfe about these same questions. He’s an inveterate, almost genetic optimist. And he acknowledges the same problems we’ve been talking about, and his theory about why they have cropped up is that we wound up with more connectivity than we ever expected to have, much faster, much sooner than we ever expected to have it. And that we as a species haven’t figured out how to really make use of that level of connectivity. But we will figure it out. Does that strike you as a reasonable point of view?
RP: It’s hard to see the future. But as far as I can see, the polarization of society is getting worse and worse. And having bad actors purposely try to foment hatred. I don’t really see how it’s going to get better. I really am quite pessimistic right now.
X: I am too, sometimes, but part of my job as a technology journalist is to help people understand the high-tech world around them. And I feel like I’m falling down on the job if I leave them feeling more pessimistic. I want to try and give people ways to think and things to do so that they can feel like they’re helping to make the world better. I bet you have all sorts of opportunities to talk with young people about whether they should go into engineering and whether they should become coders?
RP: Absolutely, they should. There’s no question about that. There are all of these things, like blockchain, where people say, “Oh, blockchain will solve that,” and that’s total nonsense. And information-centric networking has nothing to add. But to young people I would say, “All of the problems are challenges.” When I was young, I kept being real nervous that, “Oh no, everything will have been solved by the time I’m grown up and able to actually do anything.” But it’s great that there are still interesting problems to solve. Maybe there’ll be some incredibly imaginative ways of forcing people to see different viewpoints. I don’t have the solutions, but what I would tell young people is, this gives you opportunities for things to think about.
X: So, you’re a hopeful pessimist.
RP: Maybe. Or I pretend to be when talking to young people. Rather than, “We’ve totally screwed up the world, between global warming and pollution and hatred. It’s not going to be worth living here in 20 years. Good luck.” I wouldn’t say that.