Mar 12, 2024 - Business

One billionaire’s solution to our tech dystopia

Our Biggest Fight, by Frank McCourt

Book cover courtesy of Penguin Random House

In a world where accelerating global warming and worries of nuclear war fill the public daily with existential dread, infrastructure billionaire (and former L.A. Dodgers owner) Frank McCourt Jr. is here to warn us that one threat in particular dwarfs all others — the power of big technology companies.

Why it matters: McCourt doesn't just have a diagnosis of the problem, he also comes bearing a weirdly simple solution in the form of a new computer networking protocol.

  • McCourt's new book is a prime example of what scholar Evgeny Morozov has diagnosed as "solutionism" — the tendency among the rich and influential to convince themselves that for any problem there's a technological solution.

The big picture: The most extreme form of solutionism can be found in Elon Musk's conviction that the best way to prevent a wipeout of humanity is to colonize Mars.

  • Much of the crypto world is solutionist to a greater or lesser degree, and in fact, McCourt's DSNP protocol has deep connections to a blockchain project called Frequency.

Zoom out: McCourt says American life today is "well and truly on fire" and avers that everything from the fentanyl epidemic to rising youth suicide rates can be attributed to the problems with big technology companies.

  • "Our humanity and, indeed, our very lives are at stake," he writes. Big Tech "has stripped us of what makes us human."
  • Warning that we're slouching toward "dystopia" and an "era of digital feudalism that will make the Middle Ages pale by comparison," he adds: "This is not hyperbole."

Zoom in: McCourt's solution to this problem is to paint himself as a latter-day Thomas Paine, rallying the masses behind his revolutionary cause.

  • His goal: To "generate similar buzz and enthusiasm" for his DSNP protocol to that seen at Snapchat and TikTok, with millions of Americans choosing to "download a self-sovereign wallet."

How it works: What is DSNP? That's not easy to pin down. McCourt calls it "a new credentials-proving layer that allows you to create and prove control over a self-identifier that functions as a kind of universal login."

  • With DSNP, he says, "we must embed our rights directly into the technology, making them functionally executable."
  • That would create a human-centered internet where big companies no longer have any incentive to sow division to maximize engagement and attention.
  • The whole project feels quixotic, not least because the companies it seeks to disrupt would need to rearchitect their web browsers (Chrome, Safari, Edge) to work with the new protocol — or else all of us would have to move to different web browsers that support it.

Reality check: The most effective philanthropic interventions tend to be incremental rather than revolutionary. They also tend to receive much less fanfare. Consider two developments on Tuesday:

  • Bloomberg Philanthropies, a foundation that specializes in unsexy giving, announced another $200 million to help U.S. cities cut their carbon emissions.
  • Similarly, an umbrella group called Stronger Foundations for Nutrition released a framework helping foundations to work together to tackle nutrition and gender equality at the same time.

The bottom line: The more apocalyptic a billionaire becomes, the less practical his prosocial interventions will likely be.

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