Editorial: Wild Wild Web

Tim Cole: Editor Smart Industry 2018

Tim Cole is the editor of Smart Industry – the IoT Business Magazine. His latest book,
“Wild Wild West – What the History of the American Wild West Teaches Us About the Future of the Digital Society” has just
been published in German by Vahlen/Beck.

When we think about the short, exciting history of the internet, it helps first to think back to the events that shaped what we like to call the American Wild West. Then and now, a new world was formed and, in the beginning, the only law was that of strength and willpower – that is, if there were any laws at all. Over time, the land was settled, cultivated and, finally, civilized (although Donald Trump may make one pause for a moment and consider just how far this process of civilization has come in my native country).

Will we one day look back on the early decades of the internet in a similar way? And what will the future bring?

After all, we know what came after the Wild West: first, the farmers ploughed the land and fenced it (in 1867, Lucien B Smith from Ohio received a patent for his invention of barbed wire, arguably more important for winning the West than the sixshooter). Then came the traders, the shop owners, the saloons, the sheriffs, the judges, the surveyors, the registrars, the railroads, the highways. Eventually, the wild land and people were calmed, and with that came prosperity, progress, and diversity. In the Age of the Internet, all of that still lies ahead of us. We are at a point today like the settlers on the banks of the Big Muddy river waiting to cross over into the promised land. That means all the hard work of turning the wilderness into a lush garden still lies ahead of us. First, we will need to clean up, create order out of chaos, pass laws and make sure they are enforced, prune the excesses, lock up the bad guys, put the robber barons on a leash, and make the land fruitful and life worth living.
All this won’t be easy and, in fact, the prospects aren’t that good. The other side appears too powerful: the Googles, Apples, Facebooks and Amazons. The rules and regulations set up to protect citizens and consumers appear too puny or simply don’t exist. No matter what politicians will tell you, the internet is still largely a legal vacuum. Günther Oettinger, at the time Europe’s digital commissar, was right when he told me in an interview for this magazine (see Smart Industry 2016) that we need a European Civil Code that, for instance, says clearly who really owns our data.

Oettinger is worried about the future of business if, for example, nobody knows who the CAD files belong to that a manufacturer sends online to enable a customer to 3D-print a needed spare part so production can start again faster than waiting for the part to arrive by truck. And who owns the data my car increasingly produces and sends to the car manufacturer every time I visit the garage? Car makers will tell you it’s them because you signed over the rights to your data when you accepted the terms and conditions – but did anyone tell you? All of this reminds me of the “Gilded Age”, a term Mark Twain coined to describe the era of the US Robber Barons – Rockefeller, Carnegie, Morgan and Vanderbilt, just to name a few. This was in the years between the 19th and 20th centuries, when the West had been won and gigantic corporate empires were built: powerful monopolies that exploited millions of people unchecked.

Eventually, resistance mounted; workers went on strike and burned factories down. The National Guard was called in to quell the riots at the behest of the Robber Barons and their friends, the most powerful politicians of their age.
Will we see similar resistance and unrest aimed at the overwhelming power of the tech giants? Will people take to the streets to demand their rights? Actually, this is already happening as we speak. Our SI columnist and futurist Gerd Leonhard has called for a kind of digital machine tax, the proceeds of which should go to those who are forced out of their jobs by robots and artificial intelligence. I would go further. Why not divert part of the obscene profits raked up by companies like Apple, which recently became the first company in history to be valued at a staggering one trillion dollars, into a worldwide relief fund to provide direct assistance to those suffering from the consequences of digitization and automation? A relief fund would at least lessen the worst effects of advances in technology, and Google and the others should pay for it! After all, they are the biggest beneficiaries; in fact, the only beneficiaries, at least for now.

Personally, I don’t want to live in the Wild West and, if you’re honest, gentle reader, you don’t want to either. After all, we can always watch it on TV.


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