The World Wide Web began as a sort of democratic ideal.
There were no borders, no barriers; it was equal access and equal potential. And then … well, human nature took over.
These days, Niall Ferguson (shown here) says in a PBS special Tuesday (March 17), the Web is “an increasingly polarizing and unstable pace, where the truth itself is at a disadvantage.”
It’s also far from equal. In their respective fields, he said, Amazon has 40 percent of the business … Facebook has 70 percent … Google has 90 percent.
Scholars call it “the Matthew effect,” he said, defined roughly as “the more you have, the more you get.” To take us there, his three-hour documentary traces the history of networking.
It was almost exactly 500 years ago that we saw the power of mass communication. Martin Luther’s theses in 1517 might have drawn only scant attention … but in 1439, Johannes Gutenberg had invented then printing press; Luther’s words spread.
As other communications developed, people scrambled for monopolies. At one point, John Pender controlled one-third of the telegraph reach; later, U.S. railroad baron Jay Gould wrestled control of Western Union. And at one-point, one-fourth of all Americans read a William Randolph Hearst newspaper; by inflaming rumors, Hearst spurred the Spanish-American War.
A different approach began in 1964, Ferguson says, when the Rand Corporation began to plan a Defense Department communication system. “It was decentralized by design, (because) a decentralized network would be harder to attack.”
That began in 1969 and banned commerce until 1991. After that, everything changed.
Seven years later, Google was formed. “We had a much better (system), because Larry Page invented a better algorithm,” Eric Schmidt, who was the company’s CEO for a decade, tells Ferguson.
Others also found monopolies. In the early days, Ferguson says, Mark Zuckerberg said he admired Augustus Caesar, who “had to do certain things” to acquire power. Facebook, led by Zuckerberg, now has 2.5 billion active users.
Then there’s the free-speech part of the Web, which brings its own problems. “It’s so easy to just throw things out there,” Shawn Barigar tells Ferguson.
He’s the mayor and Chamber of Commerce president of Twin Falls, Idaho, which became a focal point of Web rage in the summer of 2016. The Drudge Report headlined: “Report: Syrian refugees rape little girl at knifepoint.”
In truth, Ferguson says, there was no knife, there was no rape and the boys weren’t from Syria. They were convicted of lewd behavior and given probation.
But rumors spiraled; the Breitbart News Network had one reporter in Twin Falls for three months. Without social mediat, Donald Trump wouldn’t have had a chance, Steve Bannon – then the Breitbart chief and later a Trump staffer – has said.
By 2016, others were in play. In four government buildings in Russia, Ferguson says, 900 workers, using nine languages, stirred U.S. dissent. Using false identities, for instance, some sent anti-police comments to blacks; others were anti-black and pro-police.
New contenders emerge, Ferguson says, both economically and poitically. Among China’s 8.2 million annual college graduates, almost half (3.6 million) are in tech fields. That’s 18 times as many as the 200,000 annual tech grads in the U.S.
– “Niall Ferguson’s Networld: 8-11 p.m. Tuesday, March 17, PBS
– Check local listings; some stations have pledge-drive shows or St. Patrick’s Day specials