Published by Agnes on the 12th June 2023
In the first part of this article, I will explain how what started up as the “free internet” has turned into a dystopian, monopoly-controlled nightmare.
But this isn't just another blog post complaining about how everything is going down the drain. In the second part, I will propose how we can use the next phase of the technological revolution to take back our power.
Ever since the launch of ChatGPT, the frenzy over the potential (and danger) of technology has reached the level of a true electric buzz. And while ChatGPT's ease-of-use has made the hype around it trickle into broader layers of society much faster than most technology nerds expected, this latest advance in human-made technology is just another small step in an accelerating (r)evolution.
In trying to understand what the hell is going on right now, it may help to step back and look at other examples of technological evolution.
The same way CDs became outdated with the advance of the MP3-Player and the MP3-Player became outdated once smartphones and music streaming became a thing, it is pretty clear that we are entering a world where things like search engines and many of the apps and websites we use today will become redundant.
Why type something into Google and go through the effort of scrolling through multiple websites and picking together your information, if you can just ask ChatGPT or another Large Language Model?
Our human bodies and minds are evolutionarily geared towards energy conservation. It's what got us to where we are now, after all. If there is a tool that is easier to use than the multiplicity of tools we have at our disposal right now, our inherent life-conserving laziness will make us embrace that tool with open arms, without thinking too much about the possible side effects. This is not a theory, but can be seen in practice. Only a few months after its launch, ChatGPTs website is already reporting 100 million users and a billion visits per month. This means that people and businesses are already avidly using it for research, idea generation, translation, writing, content creation and much more. And this is just the beginning. As expected, big tech has already started to make their moves. Microsoft, who effectively owns ChatGPT, has already integrated it into its search engine Bing and Google recently launched a competitor version called “Bard”. But big companies aren't the only players getting involved. There are also a few open-source versions that are demonstrating very high capabilities.
Long story short: Things are about to get very… interesting.
The genie is out of the bottle and there is no putting it back in, even if we wanted to. Whether we like it or not, the future is already in our hands. Or is it us who are in the hands of the future?
What I am trying to say is that the discussion around whether all this is a good or bad thing has become largely irrelevant. We have already entered the next phase of human-created technological advancement, so we have to deal with the consequences. Whether we like it or not.
If all this feels overwhelming to you, you are not alone. To be honest, I feel the same.
But we can't let the feeling of technical acceleration anxiety paralyse us into inaction. If we do this, the tech giants and other power-hungry players will do the work and present us with new “solutions” that will be as comfortable as they will be detrimental to the last bits of our privacy and freedom.
We have seen what big tech has done with our data up to this point. We have also seen the platforms we use turn into marketplaces trying to sell us things while selling our private information to the highest bidder.
Of course, I am by far not the first person to be concerned about this. There are plenty of smart people out there, who have warned of the growing monopolisation of power in the hands of big platforms. According to Nick Srnicek, author of “platform capitalism”, we have already entered an era where power lies in the hands of large companies like Meta (formerly Facebook), Alpha (formerly Google), Microsoft, Amazon and others.
The activist Corey Doctorow has also pointed out that most platforms follow a strategy he likes to refer to as “entshittification”. It basically consists of accumulating new users by providing a genuinely useful (and usually underpriced or free) service at first. This all changes once the platform has reached a sufficiently large number of users. Once monopoly has been assured, the platform then starts to place an ever-increasing number of targeted ads in front of its users (as Facebook and Google have been doing for years) and charging a high fees on every transaction between seller and buyer (as is the case with Amazon, Booking.com, Google Playstore and others). Even though this diminishes both the user experience and the value the platform provides to both users and businesses greatly, most people will stay on, because they have grown used to the platform, everyone else is using it and competition has been effectively eliminated. There is simply no alternative.
While we may think that we are living in free-market capitalism, the concentration of power has been moving into the hands of the few.
But wait a minute… Wasn't the internet supposed to democratise access to information?
It's true that platforms like YouTube, Google, Twitter or TikTok have taken out many of the old gatekeepers by giving people a place to share their pictures, videos and thoughts with a potentially global audience. The same goes for small business owners, who are able to access a theoretically limitless global customer base. But the reality looks very different. While the illusion of open access and free flow of information remains, power is actually being concentrated in the hands of a smaller and smaller minority. What looks like a free market, is in fact an increasingly lopsided space.
Long story short: We have entered the increasingly monopolistic age of platform capitalism, a world where access to information, goods and services are mediated by a middle man who keeps all sides in a stranglehold while making sure that the house always wins.
All this isn't exactly secret information. But despite the negative track record of the big tech players, both legislation and public opinion have been slow to catch up. This is partly because the digital revolution is quite literally creating new worlds at accelerating speed. Things are changing at a head-spinning rate. I have heard many start-up founders compare the process of creating a scaleable business to building a rocket that is already flying in mid-air. Even the people building these society-altering technologies are operating at a speed that leaves little time to think about collateral damage.
But it's not just overwhelm that's at play. It's no secret that the big tech companies have been using the resources and power at their disposal to lobby governments and either buy up or kill any competitor threatening their hold on power and market share.
As I have already noted, none of this is exactly new information. Most of my friends have never heard of Corey Doctorow or used the word “platform capitalism”. And yet, all of them are complaining about the addictive quality of Instagram, the rising Uber prices and the fact that their phone seems to be listening to their conversations. (While Instagram is indeed addictive and Uber prices have indeed been rising, the third claim is a bit more contentious. According to data protection advocate Mariano delli Santi there is no need for big tech to listen to our private analogue conversations. They already collect enough data on us through other means.)
While it is true that most normal human beings (including myself) lack the technical understanding, let alone the willingness (and time) to dive deep enough into all the sociopolitical and ethical questions, most people are vaguely aware that our accelerating ferry-ride into a new tech-controlled new world is not exactly serving our best interest. And yet, it feels impossible to quit: WhatsApp, Spotify, Google Drive and Microsoft Word are so… convenient. Switching to an alternative would be way too much hassle.
I myself am a case in point. Despite knowing all this, I still hold a Facebook account (although like most people under 50 I barely use it), frequently post stories on Instagram (owned by Meta), handle the majority of my communication on WhatsApp (also owned by Meta) and am writing this article in a Google Drive doc on a laptop using Microsoft software.
Long story short: Even though I still remember a time before all of the above existed, I have become so dependent on these tools, I can no longer imagine life without them. And sadly, I am not an isolated case. While there may be many people who are fully oblivious to the foul game that is being played with their data, there are also plenty of people who continue to use these technological aids despite knowing that they are essentially being used by them.
It's pretty clear that the use of new tools like ChatGPT will only exacerbate the issues around privacy, misinformation, bias and censorship that have emerged around search engines like Google and platforms like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.
When I was showing the tool to my hairdresser, I asked it to write a text on why “blonde women are most beautiful”. But instead of doing what I had asked, it wrote a text with the title “Exploring Beauty Beyond Stereotypes: Appreciating the Diversity Of all Women”. At first glance, this seems like a great thing. Wow! ChatGPT is actively trying to get me to let go of stereotypes and nudging me to embrace diversity. But, to be honest, I found it scary more than anything. If even this early version is already engaging in such open censorship, then I really do not want to live in a world where this kind of tool becomes our primary access point to information.
Long story short: The same way that Google or Instagram may make your life easier, but aren't really working for you (but for the profit and objectives of its owners and shareholders), ChatGPT isn't really working for you either. It is working for whoever owns it. Which in this case is... Microsoft.
No matter what one may think about Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg and the other visible and invisible faces controlling big tech, I no longer want to live in a world where they mediate our access to information and by extension reality. I also no longer want to live in a world where every click I make, every picture I share and every word I type only serves to turn me into a more easily targetable consumer.
The crazy thing about writing the words above is that I am no longer able to imagine an alternative. I am a performance artist and writer. Imagining things should be easy for me. I'll take the fact that my imagination seems to have left me as a sign that reality has shifted in a way that is much more profound than I ever thought possible.
We are currently standing in the doorway of the next step in a digital revolution. And while it may seem inevitable that this next phase will be defined by the same players who have been instrumental in building our current reality, we have to remember that most of these mega-companies did not even exist 30 years ago. Facebook was founded in 2004, Amazon in 1994 and Google in 1998, making the seventies-born companies Apple and Microsoft look pretty old by comparison. It is also important to remember that while these companies are clearly not working in our best interest, it would be too easy to paint them as the bad guys. In fact, some of them started out exactly like the people behind this project. A bunch of young people excited about the possibilities of the future and genuinely hoping to make a positive difference.
Unfortunately, too much power in the hands of a few people has a way of fucking up even the best intentions. And here is the bad news - this isn't just the fault of the powerful. I am pretty sure Mark Zuckerberg (no matter how unpleasant we may find him) doesn't exactly enjoy having to think about all the social and political consequences of every decision he and the people who work for him make. It's simply too much for a single human being to handle. Most of us know that that big tech has a pretty ominous track record and has been engaging in a lot of activities that could be described as shady at best and downright criminal at worst. But my point is that even if Zuckerberg and others had a heart of pure gold and were solely motivated by altruism, they would still be causing a lot of collateral damage.
So, instead of blaming our current state of the world on Mark Zuckerberg while continuing to scroll through our Instagram feed, I have a better idea. Let's take our eyes off the screen for a moment, look at the sky around us, and realise that the world is in fact much bigger than those shiny screens that have been taking up so much of our time and attention. This should be as humbling as it is empowering. The people who hold the power over the technologies we use, are human beings, just like you and me. Even more importantly, the reality around us is also our responsibility. And yes, by “our” I really mean every single person alive on this planet right now.
It would be all too easy to raise our hands in exasperation and let other people figure it out. But history has shown us repeatedly that this kind of disempowered “not in my power” thinking can have extremely dire consequences.
It's also important to realise that it's very easy to theorise and criticise, while it's much more difficult to actually do something. And when I speak about “doing something” I am not speaking about making a petition, holding a panel or going on a protest. Instead, we should create something that truly changes the game.
Let's not forget that the companies that have come to monopolise the contemporary world all started out small.
We should also not forget that the companies that have monopolised our world only managed to do so because they managed to step into a new space that was not yet occupied by the powers that be.
And here is the good news. As we speak, there is a new space opening up that could truly change the game. If we use this window of opportunity, we can take back our power as swiftly as it was taken from us.
Let's change the game
Back in the days of our ancestors, humans used sticks and stones to fight wars. Let's imagine that there was an ancient tribe that was incredibly amazing at sword-fighting and managed to take over the whole world with their incredible sword-fighting skills. Once the dominance of the tribe had been asserted, most of the other tribes did not even to try to rebel. They felt they had no chance. The few that did try to rebel did so by building their own swords and spending hours every day perfecting their sword fighting skills. But all their attempts at challenging the newly established powers failed. The sword fighting tribe would either beat them or convince them to join their ranks.
Seems like a pretty hopeless scenario, right?
But what would happen if one of the rebels invented a gun?
A system or regime does not gain its power through force or violence. It gains its power by creating a new reality and convincing everyone that there is no other way.
It is the reason we will only ever hold so much power as we believe we have. So, let's imagine (or should I say remember) that we hold a lot more power than we think. And let's start acting from that space.
Don't worry, I am not saying we should swear off technology and return to our caveman roots. Instead, we should create technology that actually works for us, instead of extracting money and information from us. That was supposed to be the idea behind technology anyway. I don't really remember where we forgot about that part.
If our human brains and psyches are too weak and overwhelmed to beat a web that is infested with dark patterns, addictive notifications and platforms that manipulate us into buying their products, why not simply build a tool that helps us surpass all these traps? A tool that is smarter than Alexa or ChatGPT. A tool that isn't owned by any big tech company or government, but is safely stored on your own device and truly works for you.
Computers have already surpassed human data processing abilities and are doing much better than most of us when it comes to everything involving numbers. And as recent events have shown, they are also able to talk, write and answer questions in a human-like manner.
So, why bother with Google searches, calendars, apps and many of the other digital tools, if we can have one super smart digital assistant who takes care of ALL our needs that can be solved by a computer?
Imagine if you had an assistant that helped you take care of your schedule, handled your communication, helped you prepare your next work presentation, reminded you to wish your mom happy birthday and took care of your everyday admin. An assistant that could work for you 24/7 and never complained.
Now imagine that this assistant isn't a human, but a digital one. A Large Language Model connected with a speech-to-text and text-to-speech transformer and a database that includes your personal information and preferences, to be exact.
What would make this digital assistant different from all the other “digital helpers” we are currently using is that instead of milking you for personal information, manipulating you into spending more time in front of your screen and buying more things you don't need, said assistant would actually be working for you and you only.
In our view, this can only be achieved if said assistant is self-hosted, meaning that it is safely stored on your own device and if you are the one who actually owns it and the data you supply to it. On top of that, we would need to make sure that said digital assistant is open source and that whoever is creating that assistant (aka us and anyone who wants to join) fully hand both your assistant and the key to it over to you when you buy one.
Is this really possible?
We are convinced that it is.
Because all we need to do is connect already existing technologies in a new way. The digital assistant we propose would basically be a combination of the following basic parts:
1. A speech to text converter that enables you to speak to it.
2. An open source Large Language Learning Model that we will then train and fine-tune to serve as a personal assistant. (This Large Language Model would not be connected to the internet.)
3. A database consisting of general knowledge, as well as your personal information. (A vector database that stores unstructured data like old chat histories and a SQL database that stores structured data like your credit card details, accounting and medical data) This data would be stored on your device only and would only be accessible to you.
4. A second open source Large Language Model that can search the internet for you, but has no access to your personal data.
5. A controller that serves as an intermediary between yourself, the two Large Language Models, the internal data set and any data gathered from the internet.
6. A text to speech converter that allows your digital assistant to speak to you.
7. A device (like your phone) where you can store your digital assistant.
There are a few details to be figured out, but all the tools above already exist. If we put them together, we can create a digital assistant that you can - quite literally - talk to like you would to a human assistant.
Of course, the early versions of such an assistant may have some shortcomings. But given the speed at which technology is accelerating, there is no reason such a digital assistant could not be created and incrementally improved on in a very short period of time.
It is obvious that tools like ChatGPT and others are going to make a large part of the technology we use today outdated. Digital assistants are the logical next step and will do so in an even more life-changing way. The fact that have just entered yet another major technological revolution creates both a great danger and a great opportunity. Whoever steps into the newly emerging field, will be the one controlling it.
But what if we could use this historical movement to change the game?
While a digital assistant would be handy, it would also be incredibly dangerous. After all, whoever controls it (whether that be a human or an algorithm or a combination of the two), would be controlling us.
Having a digital assistant owned by big tech company would be like having a human assistant that may make your life easier, but doesn't actually work for you. It would be like having an assistant who secretly tells all your secrets to a third party who then uses all that information to manipulate you into buying things you neither want or need and doing things that are not in your own interest. To make matters worse, it would be like having an assistant who abuses your trust (and laziness) by feeding you information that supports the world view the real owner wants you to have.
Long story short: It's a trap that is too seductive for most of us to refuse walking into.
I know, the last decade has been a roller coaster and the technological acceleration has made us all pretty tired. There has been a lot to process. But should we really just lower our heads, give the rest of the privacy away and turn into even more easy-to-manipulate consumers without even considering another way?
We think we need a second paradigm shift.
Why not just make a digital assistant that ISN'T owned by a tech monopoly?
If we could have a digital assistant that actually works for us (and is securely stored on our own device), we could keep control of our private data and let that assistant help us reach OUR PERSONAL goals, instead of serving the goals of the company that owns it.
The creation of such personal and self-hosted digital assistants would not do away with all the technical and ethical questions that this new technology will raise. But they would at least level the playing field and give us a bit more wiggle-room.
And THAT is a cause worth fighting for.
Would you want a personal self-hosted digital assistant?
And, if yes, what do you think that assistant should be able to help you with?
If yes, get in touch and help us create this reality.
Interested in learning more about what we are proposing? You can find more information about our personal digital assistant and some real life examples here.I'm interested!
Enjoyed reading this? Check out our other articles about our digital assistant the future of our world.I'm all ears
*Kindling values diversity and freedom of speech. Different perspectives are presented in our blog posts and interviews, but interviewees' opinions don't necessarily reflect Kindling's views. Readers should exercise discernment.*