Bright values
Steve Jones
Steve Jones • Jul 15

Bright values

by Steve Jones

Tim Berners-Lee (TBL), the father of the World Wide Web, asked in a recent open letter published by the World Wide Web Foundation, “How many voices of would-be leaders are being silenced by a toxic internet?”.  TBL gave his invention to the world for free and, I am sure, had high hopes for the positive impact it would have on people everywhere.   Unfortunately for all of us, the toxicity of the internet is not a bug in the system. It is a feature deliberately baked in by far lesser men than TBL. This toxicity is essential to drive attention; because attention, even if it takes the form of outrage, is all that matters. This toxicity is destroying the internet experience and is now targeting the very fabric of our society. 

...the toxicity of the internet is not a bug in the system. It is a feature deliberately baked 

 Beware! Here be rabbits!

The internet has always been a great place to fall into rabbit holes and potentially keep falling for hours. Unfortunately, the rabbits have changed.  Getting dragged into these rabbit holes by social media algorithms is nothing like Alice tumbling after a tardy bunny, oh no.  These rabbits bore into your brain and destroy your ability to distinguish truth from fiction, then ruin your relationships with friends and family and finally, your remaining links to reality.  In the end, all you see is the information bubble chosen for you by some fancy mathematics.

At Bright, we believe that this has to stop and that merely layering controls on a profoundly flawed system will not solve the problem. We need a new way of connecting with people, information, and services online.  We also believe that if we are to win this, the defining fight of the 21st century, we must tackle the most significant problems first, and for us, that means the egregiously misnamed social media.  

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 Oh no! Here be Trolls!

Fundamentally, humans are social animals, and the irony is that we are now “connected” to more people than ever before, over a wider area, at an unimaginable speed. Yet, we are lonelier than we have ever been.  This loneliness is also not a bug.  The lonelier we feel, the more we attempt to connect, and every time we reach out, we provide another data point in the algorithm and another opportunity to sell us something we don’t need or want.  Bright feels that we need real connections with real people and that virtual social relationships must more closely resemble those of the physical world, including knowing to whom you are connected.

...we are now “connected” to more people than ever before, over a wider area, at an unimaginable speed. Yet, we are lonelier than ever

The anonymity of the internet is the 21st century equivalent of a bridge; it provides a safe place for the trolls to hide until it is time to leap on the next victim.  In the 21st century, the Billy Goats Gruff are women, the LGBTQIA2s+ community, the “libtards” on the left and the “fascists” on the right.  Indeed, it is hard to imagine anyone who isn’t a potential target for the trolls, the cancel culture or even threats of rape and murder.

 The truth may hurt, but not as much as lies.

The Earth is not flat. Man did go to the moon. Vaccines do not cause autism. Vaccines do prevent children from dying of measles.  Yes, in much of the world, measles is a deadly disease. Humans are causing widespread and accelerating climate change.  We are rapidly driving the extinction of the natural world.  All of these statements are true. There is tremendous room to discuss what to do about them. We can even discuss the various models used to predict outcomes and timelines. We can and should discuss corporate and political manipulation of data on any of these issues.  We can and should express our opinions on any of these issues, and we all have an unlimited right to be wrong.  However, we do not have the right to be disrespectful, unkind, threatening, and not entitled to alternative facts. Alternative facts are lies, and even 3-year-olds understand that lying is wrong. Unless possibly when the question is how you look in that pair of jeans?

 Science doesn’t need your belief; it needs your participation

The Pandemic has brought into focus a critical problem with the understanding of science.  Most people are surprised to know that the science on any topic is never settled. Science is not about facts. It is about theories and the data that support or contradict those theories.  Knowledge moves forward by testing those theories.  A central premise of science is that what we do must be capable of being disproved.  Otherwise, it becomes an article of faith and not science at all. 

The second thing that people get wrong about science is theories are not wild and baseless speculation. They are the fundamental building blocks of understanding and carefully built on prior knowledge, and rigorously tested.   The frequent updates on what we know about COVID-19 and how to prevent it are not bugs in the system. They are the system working.   Science progresses through theory, testing, and discussion. Usually, the public is not privy to the process.  It has caused much consternation and discomfort, and for sure, scientists and physicians could do a lot better at explaining, but finding the truth is a participatory process.

We discover truth through discussion and dialogue; sociable, thoughtful, respectful, vigorous certainly, but hopefully kind. 

Truth, the big, exciting truths about the human condition and how the universe works, are not found through dogmatic and increasingly loud declarations by demagogues, nor the collective cries of tribes convinced that they alone ‘know the truth”.   We discover truth through discussion and dialogue; sociable, thoughtful, respectful, vigorous certainly, but hopefully kind.   Bright will provide a forum for this.  It also doesn’t matter if the truth you seek is understanding how gravity works? How to manage relationships during a pandemic? Whether true happiness is cat videos or dog shaming videos (obviously cat videos)?  Whatever truth we seek can only be found by dialogue. 

The Bright answer to TBL’s question, “How many voices of would-be leaders are being silenced by a toxic internet?”; is “we don’t know, but one is too many, so let’s do something about it” after all, that’s the Bright thing to do.

In the spirit of Bright, reasoned discussion and seeing both sides, we should acknowledge that the Troll in the Three Billy Goats Gruff may just have been a staunch free-market capitalist, charging what he felt was the fair rate for bridge use. In that context, the Billy Goats Gruff negotiated in bad faith and, in the end, mercilessly murdered him, escaping any form of justice.  I feel that this is a discussion worth having!

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Steve Jones
Steve Jones

Steve is a recovering public health scientist and academic. He is a Terry Pratchett fanatic (which explains a lot when you know him). He loves Dr. Who and can now watch almost every episode from the sofa not behind it. He has the great good fortune to be the COO of Bright and work with this amazing team. He has travelled a lot often to places with dangerous diseases. He thinks this was fun.

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