Thursday

29th Feb 2024

Editorial

Editor's weekly digest: The impossibility of the online public square

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Is it kind of funny to watch Elon Musk burn billions of dollars driving a popular social media company into the ground in a quixotic quest to build a better 'public square'?

I'd argue it is — if it wasn't equally sad that that money could have been spent on, I don't know, solving world hunger.

Read and decide

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But that's not the point I want to make.

Musk's acquisition of Twitter — which, just to relativise, for an average global citizen ranks in importance somewhere between 'I need to buy toilet paper' and 'what show should I watch?' — actually highlights another sore point about our life online: the lack of a non-exploitative online public square.

Pretty much all our interactions with other people online are mediated by for-profit companies, that limit and steer our possibilities for interaction to create shareholder value.

We've gone so far down this capitalist rabbit hole, that even imagining an alternative to the status quo seems impossible.

That's not for lack of trying. Mastodon, a non-commercial alternative to Twitter, has been making headlines since the Twitter acquisition (but it's shitty). Academics and activists have argued for public broadcasters to build spaces for online interaction (that never lead anywhere). And the EU is trying to use regulation to force social media companies into allowing interoperability (which they'll fight to the death).

The truth is, there is no viable alternative and there is none in the works. Kinda sad, but also true.

A while back I spoke to Geert Lovink, a Dutch media theorist who laid some of the groundwork for net criticism, who on the one hand said that nothing anyone is working on has any potential, but on the other hand was very optimistic that a paradigm shift could happen at any time.

He, and many other online critics, argue that the antidote to our current world of social media could be in the creation of digital infrastructure that could help create many, way smaller, platforms for people that are connected both in real life and online.

So not a massive platform that shows you pictures of your highschool classmate friend's ugly dog, but rather infrastructure that supports a more intimate group of people who can organise things together — from generating and sharing renewable energy for the neighbourhood, to local car sharing, to organising events in the local library.

(If you're interested in this, I would highly recommend the books Internet for the People by Ben Tarnoff and Platform Socialism by James Muldoon, the former dealing with alternative ways to create and own things online and the latter on how a more just society could make use of the power of online platforms.)

The big problem there, as with almost any problem, is money. There is no Elon Musk who will spend $44bn [€45bn] billion on supporting local community groups, simply because it will not generate returns.

A solution to that would of course be tax-payer funding to support crucial public infrastructure without expecting financial gains.

Unfortunately, Silicon Valley libertarian capitalist ideology has permeated social consciousness so thoroughly, that policy- makers believe there is no other way to innovate than spending money supporting fledgling companies that in the end only answer to shareholders.

And even more unfortunately, it's going to take more than a dummy billionaire buying a social media company and running it into the ground to change that view.

Lovink argued we'd probably need some massive external shock to initiate this paradigm shift — something like the fallout from China annexing Taiwan and the resulting global chip shortage.

I hope he's not right.

I do hope that the clown show happening around Twitter draws enough of a crowd — including policy- makers — to get the message across that it's not exactly ideal to have the world's largest communication platforms in the hands of fickle billionaires who haggle with horror writers over membership prices.

Onwards to the stories you should have read this week:

EU states want to keep hoarding passenger data, despite ECJ ruling

The European Court of Justice deemed that the indiscriminate collection of flight passenger data for counter-terrorism purposes risks violating fundamental rights. But a leaked internal document shows that EU member states want to continue the practice, in part because they seem to think that these data can predict future crimes.

Read it.

Cut 'red tape' — and watch EU workplace deaths rocket

In this op-ed, Claes-Mikael Stahl, deputy general secretary of the European Trade Union Confederation, highlights findings from a new report they published last Friday.

"With a trip to the United States planned for the month of his 19th birthday, dedicated student Tom Le Duault took a holiday job in an abattoir near his home in Brittany to earn some extra money.

But just hours into his first day on the job, he was crushed under a box weighing 500kg. This is one of the real life tragedies which lie behind worrying new statistics about fatal accidents at work across Europe."

Workplace deaths are on the rise among EU states, mostly driven by corporate-funded pushback on 'red tape' meant to protect workers.

Read it.

Kosmos-2558: Russia's orbiting satellite killer that could trigger Article 5

This story has all the makings of a spy movie: a top secret US reconnaissance satellite and a Russian probe launched to the same orbit earlier this year, that "can deploy a small, manoeuvrable subsatellite, armed with a projectile, that could catch USA-326 and shoot it down."

We dove into the story to find out if such a move could trigger Article 5 from space.

Read it.

COP27 is where EU starts paying for colonial climate change

"For too long, the link between the disproportionate impact of environmental destruction, colonialism and economic exploitation, have been ignored by governments in Europe and the rest of the global North."

Next week's global climate conference COP27 could be the setting where this dynamic is finally turned on its head, argues Sara Chander, co-founder of the Equinox Initiative for Racial Justice.

Read it.

ECB sets 2024 deadline for European banks to deal with climate risks

"Most banks have thus not yet answered the question of what they will do with clients who may no longer have sustainable revenue sources because of the green transition," ECB's green chief Frank Elderson said this week. "In other words, too many banks are still hoping for the best while not preparing for the worst," he wrote. So the ECB is now setting a deadline for the end of 2024 for banks to get with the programme.

Read it.

This was a (very) slow week in Brussels. We'll be back in full force next week. Nonetheless, thank you to all new subscribers to this newsletter, and as always, my various inboxes are open for feedback, suggestions, tips, leaks, ideas and gossip.

See you next week,

Alejandro

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