Dear Mr. Cerf,
You have many admirers for your pioneering work in the launch of the internet, and we count ourselves among them.
You earned your unofficial sobriquet, the “Father of the Internet,” by envisioning a utopic network on which data and research could be shared freely around the world – helping scientists and academics solve problems with unprecedented swiftness and efficiency.
But as with many utopians, you did not envision the extent to which the thing you helped to create could also be used to destroy.
You did not foresee how the internet’s most powerful companies would wind up facilitating a poisonous atmosphere of fake news, corrosive divisiveness, and criminal activity.
You can hardly be blamed for this. While the storm has been brewing for some time, it has really exploded with force in the last two years. Back when you were helping to design the internet architecture known as TCP/IP, such a nightmare scenario would have seemed like the stuff of improbable science fiction – much like the internet itself.
But there were people who saw the storm coming, long before the internet was part of daily human life.
A recent NPR story reminds us that while you and your team were busy inventing the world wide web’s infrastructure, author William Gibson was busy inventing the term “cyberspace” as he wrote his groundbreaking 1984 sci-fi novel Neuromancer. His book would also include descriptions of an online realm where hackers waged war on multinational corporations and societal threats included cyber-espionage between the United States and Russia.
If Gibson’s astonishingly prescient imagination was lacking, it is only because it did not go far enough.
Even his creative mind could not predict an online landscape dominated by corporations that figured out how to use the internet to generate billions of dollars in revenue with virtually no accountability for how they went about doing it.
A landscape where Facebook could amass 2.1 billion monthly active users through an interface that was pointedly designed to be addictive, and where YouTube could inadvertently promote videos calling school shooting victims “crisis actors” and make money off the subsequent views generated.
The founders of these companies saw a need in society and set out to fill it, just as you did. But unlike you, their original motivations were driven by profit. As the profits have gushed, their ruthless quest for traffic-driven ad dollars has pushed us away from the enlightened vision of your initial creation and toward something much darker.
It is time we started righting the ship, Mr. Cerf.
As Google’s Chief Internet Evangelist, you can help be the change from within, to help shape a culture of innovation that ventures outside of its bubble to cull input from a wide range of diverse perspectives.
Google has become so ubiquitous, it has touched nearly every facet of human life – for better or worse. Shouldn’t an entity with that kind of far-reaching power be consulting with brilliant representatives from many different communities outside of technology? With artists, scholars, scientists, philosophers, and beyond? With the goal of fixing what’s gone wrong and reducing the internet’s potential for harm?
For, while William Gibson was (and remains) a genius, he is far from alone in his capacity to see and articulate the future. There are many people in the world who share this gift. They come from many different walks of life and from many different disciplines, and thanks to your work, it is easier to connect with them than ever before.
“Every musician knows that as long as music is available on YouTube for free, it won’t likely sell very well elsewhere, especially with all the available apps that can rip mp3s right from YouTube videos into your personal library,” wrote the composer and advocate Maria Schneider in 2016. “So, if YouTube is going to corrupt all other income streams for those who invest their lives and means into the making of music, then YouTube should at very least pay a living wage, right?”
Words like those make us lament how much farther along we could be in the fight against piracy had YouTube only consulted wise and eloquent artists like Schneider as some of these issues became apparent. How many billions of illegal plays of copyrighted songs and videos might have been averted had the company designed its platform with help from someone like her? Or from someone in the film industry? Or a publisher? Or a photographer? Or a painter?
Or better yet, from all of them?
There are signs that a shift has begun regarding moral accountability in Silicon Valley. After being outed for its role in spreading harmful misinformation, Facebook has promised to hire teams of third-party fact-checkers and increase security around political ads that appear on its service.
After the egregious actions of a handful of its users made international headlines in February, YouTube vowed greater transparency and “new consequences to apply in the rare event when one creator’s actions harm the entire community.”
If YouTube really wanted greater transparency, however, it would open up its new and developing projects to regular input from intelligent minds from a wide array of industries and backgrounds, and take it seriously. Same goes for Facebook, Google, Amazon, Apple, and the other powerful tech corporations that are shaping the way humans interact, and what it means to be human at all.
But don’t take our word for it – here are the recent comments of one of your own peers, regarded as the “inventor of the World Wide Web” Tim Berners-Lee.
“I want the web to reflect our hopes and fulfil our dreams, rather than magnify our fears and deepen our divisions,” Berners-Lee wrote in The Guardian. “This means thinking about how we align the incentives of the tech sector with those of users and society at large, and consulting a diverse cross section of society in the process.”
Clearly, Berners-Lee believes that it’s not too late to encourage your insular world of inventors and engineers and investors and analysts to venture outside of the tech space, Mr. Cerf. To seek out new perspectives and listen with open hearts and minds, and to turn the design of online systems into a true communal endeavor that benefits us all.
You fathered an internet of which you are justifiably proud. But it is an internet that has in many respects grown toxic.
The question now is, will you help save your grandchildren?
The CreativeFuture Community