Imagining New Institutions for the Internet Age

A sci-fi novelist on what he learned writing a trilogy of speculative novels that extrapolate how feeds shape our lives, politics, and future

Eliot Peper
OneZero
Published in
4 min readMay 21, 2019

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Photo: Motortion/Getty Images

FFeeds shape our world. Google uses hundreds of variables to determine the search results you see. A complex statistical engine produces your personalized Netflix queue. Facebook uses everything it knows about you and your friends to build your timeline. Your credit score is compiled from third-party data brokers. Taylor Swift uses facial recognition software to identify stalkers at concerts. Even these Herculean efforts are dwarfed in scale by the Chinese social credit system that will integrate data from many disparate public and private sources.

Feeds are inevitable to the extent that they are useful. Every minute of every day, 156 million emails are sent, 400 hours of video are uploaded to Youtube, and there are 600 new page edits to Wikipedia. There is so much more information than we can possibly digest, and feeds are the imperfect filters that we use to try to distill what we want from all that’s out there. But their imperfections generate horrendous side effects, like unjust parole decisions made on the basis of racially biased data. And even more fundamentally, the sheer scale of feeds, and their incomprehensibility to most users, give their masters enormous hidden power.

In a world awash in information, the curator is king. Behind each digital throne is an algorithm, a specialized artificial intelligence that is powered by data. More data means better machine learning which attracts more talent that build better products that attract more users that generate more data. Rinse, repeat. This positive feedback loop means that A.I. tends toward centralization. Centralization means monopoly and monopoly means power. That’s why companies like Google and Facebook post annual revenues that dwarf the gross domestic product of some countries.

As technology changes the structure and flow of power, how should we adapt the ways in which we share power and hold those in power to account? The obvious answer is to draft new laws, and governments are attempting to do just that — with decidedly mixed results. But even if national governments…

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Eliot Peper
OneZero

Eliot Peper is the bestselling author of eleven novels, including most recently, Foundry. He also consults on special projects. www.eliotpeper.com