The age of the digital railroad tycoons (Connection Problem S09E03)

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Updates from the engine room

It’s been a busy few months. Among other things that are still too early to talk about, over at Stiftung Mercator, the team around Carla Hustedt that I’ve been working with for quite some time now is in the middle of launching a new digital policy think tank, Agora Digitale Transformation (ADT). I wrote up a quick summary in English, and if you read German there’s more background here. ADT is also hiring! There’s also been more strategy work with the European AI Fund, which I’m glad I get to continue to stay involved in, in a small way, after heading it for a little while as an Interim Director earlier this year.


The age of digital railroad tycoons

Note: I hope you’ll forgive me the slightly more aggressive stance I’m taking here, but something about the way Twitter might just be ruined by its change of ownership to Musk and all the baggage he brings to the table — the trollish culture, the high debt obligations, the bad management, the rightwing-friendly politics — is making me genuinely angry. Anyway, here we go.

Something strange has happened to the internet and its promise of democratizing power and access, and giving a voice to the voiceless.

For some time, it looked like the internet — and social media in particular — would make organizational boundaries more permeable and porous: It would counteract centralized control to a degree, and make things more fluid. It would put powerful tools in the hands of many, and thus power bottom-up movements. And this has happened, to some degree, depending on how and where you look.

And/but also, the internet first and foremost turned out to be a network — with network effects, and with a strong tendency to centralization. It has centralized ownership of (and ultimately, power over) platforms in the hands of a very, very, very small number of billionaires that control the fates of our digital communications networks.

Frankly: 15 years ago, I wouldn’t have believe this to be a plausible outcome. But here we are. Facebook, Whatsapp, Instagram: Owned by Mark Zuckerberg and Meta. YouTube and Google owned by Larry Page’s and Sergey Brin’s Alphabet. Twitter owned by Elon Musk. TikTok owned by Zhang Yiming’s ByteDance.

At the risk of stating the obvious: That’s a lot of power and control in the hands of a very, very small number of people. If anything, this smells a bit of the age of railroad tycoons, who went to great lengths to ruthlessly gain market share, turn a profit, consolidate their power. When Musk raves on Twitter about the unfairness of the “lords and peasants” dynamics, he somehow — incredibly! — manages not to mention that he himself is the lord he supposedly so wishes to remove from power.

(This generation of tech billionaires hasn’t quite reached the age where they would have heirs in place: It’s going to be interesting to see if they will try to translate not just their wealth but also their power into generational influence, or if their kids will end up tapping out to quietly ride out their dads’ wealth.)

This obviously isn’t a way to treat the digital infrastructure we need to communicate, to have societal debates at scale, to learn and to exchange ideas. We need to leave this new dark age of digital railroad tycoons behind and find a path towards a more enlightened way of running things.

Now there are alternatives to some of these platforms already: the Mastodons and Signals of the world. And they’re good and important. They’re also not enough. Their backing isn’t strong enough, their funding and mandates are too fragile still.

I cannot offer any solutions here, but I want to strongly reject this status quo as a viable option. There’s simply too much at stake here. As a stop gap, I would assume we need to adopt some of the more open and private platforms (Mastodon, Signal), and make sure they’re funded. There are also initiatives under way to fund open source digital infrastructure (like the newly launched Sovereign Tech Fund in Germany and others), which is great. But neither of these things will be enough.

We need to also look at aggressive policy options to both reign in the damage that these platforms can do if run badly, which is a real risk given there is no meaningful governance nor oversight in place; and to unlock the potential of a less fragile digital infrastructure. We need to both limit the potential downside and also, simultanteously, unlock potential upsides.

This is going to be a work of a generation. Let’s get to it, shall we?


Small bits & pieces

Robin Sloan reflects on the Spring ’83 protocol
This is as inside baseball as it gets, but Robin Sloan’s reflections on the “slow deliberate” protocol for online content is absolutely worth reading. I think there’s something here about the dynamics of quiet vs loud, patient vs engagement-driven platforms and protocols that resonates with me:

The problem is that even when patience “wins”, it loses, because patience retreats, while compulsion compounds. As an example: I’ve broken many of these twitchy compulsions for myself, and I’m much better off for it?—?and yet, I’m aware that my nirvana of patient, non-twitchy media consumption doesn’t have any gravity. As far as you’re concerned, it doesn’t exist! I’m off reading a book somewhere, sure, but everybody else is still tweeting, and the tweets, they call out to you?…? So, the partisans of patience need some new tricks. We need ways of taking up space?—?asserting our existence?—?on screens, without conceding an inch to the twitchosphere.

Germany still doesn’t have a digital budget
I can’t quite tell how bad this will be in practice, but it certainly doesn’t bode well that the German government didn’t manage to pass a digital budget to support their digital strategy — at least not for 2023. Apparently it might pass by 2024, a year before the current digital strategy is slated to finish. So… yeah, there’s that. Move along, nothing to see here.

How Big Tech Will Reshape the Global Order
Over on Foreign Affairs, Ian Bremmer makes the case that Big Tech will reshape the global order in ways that previously only nation states could have (I’m paraphrasing and oversimplifying). It’s worth reading, but I wanted to highlight one aspect specifically: Bremmer suggests some terminology that seems quite useful for analysis (highlights mine):

Political scientists rely on a wide array of terms to classify governments: there are “democracies,” “autocracies,” and “hybrid regimes,” which combine elements of both. But they have no such tools for understanding Big Tech. It’s time they started developing them, for not all technology companies operate in the same way. Even though technology companies, like countries, resist neat classifications, there are three broad forces that are driving their geopolitical postures and worldviews: globalism, nationalism, and techno-utopianism. These categories illuminate the choices facing the biggest technology firms as they work to shape global affairs.


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Who writes here? Peter Bihr explores how emerging technologies can have a positive social impact. At the core of his work is the mission to align emerging technologies and citizen empowerment. He works as an independent advisor at the intersection of technology, governance, policy and social impact — primarily with foundations, non-profits and the public sector. Peter serves as special advisor to Stiftung Mercator’s Center for Digital Society, and as Interim Director for the European AI Fund. He co-founded ThingsCon, a not-for-profit that advocates for responsible practices in Internet of Things (IoT), and co-hosts the Getting Tech Right podcast. Peter was a Mozilla Fellow (2018-19) and an Edgeryders Fellow (2019). Based in Berlin, he tweets at @peterbihr and blogs at Interested in working together? Let’s have a chat.

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