At present, YouTube has an estimated 1.8 Billion unique visitors in a given month — just over three times the population of the European Union. Facebook sees approximately 2.2 Billion unique visitors in the same timespan — more than any single religion on Earth can count adherents. And, of course, 2/3rds of Earth’s total population use a mobile phone, most of which are connected to the internet.
But just because the industry has saturated our lives doesn’t mean they’re handling that power responsibly or humanely.
Expert analysts have concluded that the slaughter of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar is primarily fueled by misinformation that the Facebook algorithm has favored or, at least, not punished — despite ceaseless protest by the Myanmarese government. In the United States, the Cambridge Analytica scandal indicated just how easy it is to poach our information and use it to set us against each other. Meanwhile, history books will be forced to explain how the expedited growth of the fascist Far Right worldwide owes much to something as prosaic as the Autoplay feature on YouTube.
Disinformation. Data and privacy leaks. Plunging self-esteem and self-harm rates among teenagers. Cyberbullying. Election hacking. The optimized dissemination of fake news. Social isolation and atomization. Device addiction. Even the aiding of genocide.
All of our pervasive social tensions existed, and were exploitable, long before the social internet. However, there wasn’t until very recently a global collection of multinational corporations whose short-term-profit-oriented business model was worsening those tensions, making people agitated and willing to keep clicking and sharing their agitation at all costs.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. The dream of the internet wasn’t to fuel hatred, or sell our information to malicious advertisers, or leak our data. It was to connect. To inform. To liberate. A lot of our problems had benign origins: Pop-up ads were invented to fund new voices that might otherwise get drowned out. The algorithms that now embed institutional racism in courthouses were originally commissioned to curb bias. The platforms that now enable armies of division and hate were designed to help people keep tabs on their friends and family.
We want to go back to that dream.
When the practitioners within an industry stop treating it like a trade, and start treating it like a profession, industrial sociologists call it “professionalization.” It’s a simple word, for a very complicated, big, messy, revolutionary process whereby a trade slowly becomes a profession, with enforceable, uniform professional standards and a culture of accountability.
When professionalization has completed in a given trade (think medicine), there’s
A. a community of professionals (think the American Medical Association),
B. formalized knowledge (think medical school),
universal standards (“First, do no harm”), and
standards are enforceable (think laws against malpractice, or all the ways someone could lose their license).
Professions emerge when a group of concerned, determined, committed, respected and connected individuals organize to work in a morally permissible way, or to work to support a moral ideal. For example, doctors organize to cure the sick safely, librarians organize to promote access to information, engineers organize to ensure safety.
There are countless sociologists and historians who have traced professionalization as a process, whether it be in medicine, engineering, law, or a myriad of other lines of work. Some of the writers who’ve particularly influenced our starting point here include Andrew Abbott; Ernest Greenwood; and Laurence Bherer. But you don’t have to crack open a dense sociological text to know: the tech industry still acts like gung-ho amateurs, when our very society is increasingly hanging in the balance of the command line. It’s time for that to change.