Book Review: Beyond the Valley

Beyond the Valley: How Innovators around the World Are Overcoming Inequality and Creating the Technologies of Tomorrow, by Ramesh Srinivasan (2019, The MIT Press)

Beyond the Valley is an important look at what’s wrong with the internet’s control by Big Tech. UCLA information studies professor Ramesh Srinavasan also offers practical examples of possible remedies.

How it’s all gone wrong

The first part of the book is all about the disasters we’ve uncovered in recent years. Remember these lowlights?

  • When right-wing political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica took data generated from millions of Facebook “personality tests” to develop profiles for micro-targeted advertising. Those profiles then helped Brexit campaigners in the United Kingdom and Donald Trump in the US.
  • Google’s journey away from its original “don’t be evil” motto
  • Amazon’s bullying of vendors, union-busting activities and tax evasion
  • Apple’s attempts to dominate how you listen to music
  • A variety of problems with artificial intelligence

Srinavasan warns that the technology companies will always choose profits over people. The history to date has not been positive.

As robots replace more workers, companies have no interest in how those replaced workers will survive. He suggests that a universal basic income (UBI) such as that proposed by 2020 presidential candidate Andrew Yang may mitigate the problem.

Perhaps you read about Amazon’s Rekognition facial recognition software. The ACLU of Northern California compared a database of criminal mugshots with photos of members of Congress. Srinavasan writes “For Congress as a whole the error rate was 5 percent, but for nonwhite members of Congress the error rate was 39 percent.”

Problems with technology and the internet aren’t limited to North America, of course. Repressive regimes use a variety of techniques and policies to enforce their rule. Srinavasan especially attacks China’s surveillance state and its social credit regime. The latter is the government’s policy of monitoring people’s behavior online and assigns “credit scores” to determine how well you contribute to society. Cross the government too often, or associate with people who do, and suddenly you can’t ride the bus as often.

Srinavasan explains: “A poor credit score that comes from expressing ‘bad’ speech online, smoking cigarettes, or playing too many video games could result in a range of punishments, from losing one’s freedom to travel, to public humiliation.”

Hope for the future?

Beyond the Valley isn’t all gloom and doom. The last part of the book looks to a variety of potential solutions, and alternative visions, to promote democratic control of the internet.

Among the options described:

Those of us who have been watching the movement for a (re)decentralized internet know that some enthusiasm for this idea comes from Libertarian circles, who hope to finance (and profit from) a decentralized web on the blockchain.

Srinavasan and journalist Adam Reese collaborated on a chapter about blockchain. They describe several projects and conclude (like me) that “We have no illusions about blockchain saving the world. All the same, these networks’ decentralized architectures make them potentially valuable tools for building grassroots solutions that support the needs of ordinary users. … we’ll keep our eyes open for emerging voices and continue to listen to those who talk past the hype.”

As with any academic work, Beyond the Valley is extensively documented with books, articles (both journalistic and scholarly), and web links (though I wish he had included more links to the projects and organizations he’s covered). Yet it is easy enough to read for most people.

Srinavasan doesn’t offer any panaceas, but some hopes for the future. . If you have any curiosity about how to solve the problems and inadequacies of the internet, it’s worth reading. I expect to be mining that bibliography for a while.