Talking science fiction, technological self-determination, inequality and competition with physicist Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a physicist at JPL and the author of many popular, smart books about physics for a lay audience; his weekly Mindscape podcast is a treasure-trove of incredibly smart, fascinating discussions with people from a wide variety of backgrounds.

The latest episode (MP3) is a 1h+ interview with me, on wide-ranging subjects from adversarial interoperability, inequality and market concentration; science fiction and its role in political discourse; and the power and peril of technological self-determination.

For those of you who prefer to read, Carroll is kind enough to provide a full transcript.

0:02:52 SC: So here’s an ambitious question to start us off then. We’re clearly not in equilibrium; the internet and the way that we use it is changing rapidly. Do you see us approaching a future internet equilibrium? Even if you can’t say exactly what it is, can you imagine various forms of steady states that we will eventually reach in terms of how we use the internet and how it affects our lives, stuff like that?

0:03:16 CD: I think there’s actually a risk of that. I would not call that a good outcome. As other people have observed, the web has become five websites filled with screenshots from the other four, and that domination of the web by a small number of firms that continues to shrink, and who clearly carve out competitive niches for one another, and occasionally compete with each other, but mostly are content to just sit pat, that has been, I think, a net negative for the internet, and for human thriving, and for things like human rights. And I fear that the path to that becoming permanent is that regulators will observe the dysfunction of a highly concentrated internet, for example, a single social platform with 2.3 billion people on it, whose choices about algorithmic filtering and recommendation drive all kinds of negative outcomes, including people who understand how to game the system to livestream mass shootings in Christchurch.

0:04:16 CD: And that they’ll say to these firms, “Since we can’t imagine any way to make you smaller, and therefore to make your bad decisions less consequential, we will instead insist that you take measures that would traditionally be in the domain of the state, like policing bad speech and bad actions.” And those measures will be so expensive that they will preclude any new entrants to the market. So whatever anticompetitive environment we have now will become permanent. And I call it the constitutional monarchy. It’s where, instead of hoping that we could have a technological democracy, where you have small holders who individually pitch their little corner of the web, and maybe federate with one another to build bigger systems, but that are ultimately powers devolved to the periphery, instead what we say is that the current winners of the technological lottery actually rule with the divine right of kings, and they will be our rulers forever. But in exchange for that, they will suffer themselves to be draped in golden chains by an aristocracy of regulators who are ultimately gonna be drawn from their upper echelons, because when you only have five companies in an industry, the only people who understand them well enough to regulate them are their executives. And so you end up with just a revolving door.

0:05:28 CD: And so the aristocracy will call upon the tech giants to exercise a noblesse oblige, where they will suffer themselves to make certain concessions to the public interest at the expense of their shareholders, but in exchange they will be guaranteed a regulatory environment that precludes anyone ever challenging them. And I think that will be studied, but not for long, because I also think that if we think that Google and Facebook are intransigent today, if we give them a decade without even having to buy potential competitors to prevent them from growing to challenge them, imagine how bullyish and terrible they’ll be in 10 years.

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