Why social media are like trains (and the internet is a railway)

When the industrial revolution was in full swing we had to move stuff, from port to mill, from mill to market. Time mattered because time was money. The industrial revolution brought about a previously unseen change in the ways we lived, worked and did business. It also brought about an explosion in connectivity.

Horse and cart was slow. Canals were better but still slow. The steam age brought us a new way of moving things around: the railways. When the first railways emerged during the 1840s, they were a disparate collection of privately owned lines. Different companies competed for the top routes but over time this kind of chaos and duplication was unsustainable. Railway companies merged and then merged again so that by the start of the twentieth century there were really only a small handful of major companies operating the trains in Britain.

By the start of the World War I, the railways were seen as so critical to our economy that they were brought largely under central government control. During the 1920s the consolidation continued as further mergers created the ‘big four’ railway companies and by 1948 the system was fully nationalised. In recent years, there’s been a process of semi-privatisation in the UK railways, though strong state control and planning remains.

Fascinating. But what’s this got to do with the internet. Or democracy for that matter?

Well, I think it’s got a lot do with both. The internet is the modern day equivalent of the railway. It’s a core part of the commercial infrastructure but it’s become a core part of our civic and social infrastructures too. Email, Skype, Facebook, LinkedIn, Google and Twitter, these are how we get to meetings, how we connect and maintain those connections. Today we rely on tools owned by people we have no real way of controlling, running across networks that risk becoming the toll-roads of the modern age. We have allowed a model of private governance to persist in the internet because we’re told that the market is the best way to regulate things.

Social and communication tools have reached a point where they, just like the railways, have become a core part of our critical infrastructure. Beyond the dancing cat videos, they serve as a critical public good. Is our level of management and control over these assets sufficient given the important role they play in our personal, business and democratic lives?

So this stuff is too big to fail. And it’s too important for us to be held to ransom by mercenary businesses or those who prioritise the share price over the social good. We need to be talking about this at a civil society and a policy level not leaving it to the technologists or the market. I’m not suggesting we nationalise Facebook but I am questioning whether we should be this beholden to private companies, allowing them to effectually self-regulate from wherever in the world they happen to be. Does there need to be some international compact that can enforce the public good in the social world? If there is, how do we keep it free from hidden agendas and abuse and how do we maintain and enshrine innovation; the last thing we need is a technocratic elite like the UN or the ITU taking more control over the internet! Whatever the answer it’s clear that, from ensuring net neutrality to privacy and disclosure of personal information, we have a long way to go.

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