The movie Pacific Rim is about giant robots fighting monsters. It is one of many examples of science fiction focused on giant robots, but all of them have something in common: the giant robot is piloted by a human being.
If you think about that a bit, it's a very quaint idea. Can you imagine a world where technology has developed to the point where we have giant robots, but technology is not somehow advanced enough to autopilot them? The idea seems strange to us, because in many respects, we live in a world diametrically opposed to the one portrayed in mecha science fiction. In their world, human beings control towering 50-foot humanoid war mechs. In ours, we are ruled by 5 inch screens in our pockets.
The underlying psychological desire that mecha fiction appeals to is this: a world where technology augments the individual instead of replacing/controlling the individual. It is important that the mechs in these stories are humanoid, and not tanks or some other kind of war machine - in these worlds, we command machines that we created in our own image.
Technology that controls you
A point worth repeating: in mecha fiction, we control 50-foot-tall war robots, in our world, we are controlled by the 5 inch screens in our pocket.
To what degree can you control what you see on your phone? On any major social media site? The overwhelming trend of the last decade has been to replace user-controlled feeds with algorithmically curated ones. When you go to a newspaper stand, you pick which paper you'd like, which section you'd like to browse, and which article you'd like to read. When you open Facebook, what you see is decided for you by an algorithm mathematically optimized to maximize the amount of time you spend in the app. In the first scenario, the experience is like browsing a menu and ordering a meal. Choices are offered, a deliberation is made. In the second scenario, the content is slop, and the user is a pig eating it from a trough.
But the user has chosen to open Facebook, and chosen to sign up for the service. Isn't this a philosophical question about choice? Isn't free will real?
Who cares? Make all the metaphysical arguments you'd like, a sufficiently powerful recommendation algorithm will still be able to sway decisions enough for Facebook to make 86 billion dollars a year. Free will may or may not be real, but it is an empirical fact that the profitable choice is to act as if it isn't.
Technology that you control
I don't think it's possible to fix our information ecosystem. In fact, I don't even know if it'd be desirable to fix it - as perverse as it is, there is also a chaotically beautiful side to the internet.
Here's an anecdote to illustrate my point: I picked up guitar at the start of quarantine. What inspired this? Was it a childhood dream of mine? Maybe I wanted to be like my favorite rock stars? Or was it just the boredom?
None of the above. I got a targeted Facebook ad for Fender's free online guitar course. I remember this very distinctly as the moment I decided to learn guitar; I had never really thought much about it at all before that. Deep within the entrails of Facebook's recommendation engine, some algorithm made an educated guess that I'd enjoy picking up the guitar - and it was right. For all the horrible things Facebook has done, this was a real positive-sum, Pareto optimal moment. Zuck got his advertising check, and I got a new hobby. And for all that has been blamed on the internet, I owe it everything. Everything that I love doing, I have learned to some extent from the internet, whether it be the web development skills that I built exegesis with, my amateur interest in philosophy, my childhood love for art, or my newfound interest in guitar. I believe it is mankind's most beautiful invention.
Instead of fixing the information ecosystem, we should build tools that help us navigate it - to minimize the deleterious effects, and amplify the benefits. The antidote to an information ecosystem beyond our personal control is to create robust tools for information consumption and information processing that we can control.
If the internet is a hurricane of information, let us build steely exoskeletons to weather the storm.