Andrew McLaughlin’s career has been “weird.” His word, not mine. It’s a modest summation for one of the world’s foremost web experts. I’d list his credentials, but honestly, just read his bio here. It’s long and yet completely devoid of fluff. A hint: McLaughlin was on President Obama's senior White House staff as Deputy Chief Technology Officer of the United States, Vice President of Tumblr, and Director of Global Public Policy at Google.
A graduate from Harvard Law School, he challenged the U.S. government's first Internet censorship law, which went to the Supreme Court in 1997 (his team won the Internet free speech ruling in Reno vs. ACLU). McLaughlin is currently the President of Digg, and works on growth initiatives at betaworks, a company that builds social web startups.
The following is an excerpt from our conversation about the future of Digg, the future of cyberspace, and the future, in general.
You were a member of President Obama's senior White House staff, serving as Deputy Chief Technology Officer of the United States. Now you’re at betaworks. How do you take this wealth of knowledge and bring your political ethos to betaworks' mission? What are the characteristics of a good idea when it comes to the social web?
Let me answer you this way: I came to betaworks because it’s a place where people are fundamentally optimistic and care a ton about the web. I have this distinct sense that a lot of people feel overwhelmed and bored with the unending flood of tweets and status updates. There’s just too much coming at them right now. They follow too many people. They have too many friends that aren’t really friends. This is a threat to the utility of the web. People mindlessly scroll through feeds – endless reverse chronological feeds. Tweets, Tumblr, blog posts, or Google reader – whatever your chosen poison is.
If you look at Digg right now, we have a small group of editors who use human judgments to pick what they think is the most interesting stuff on the Internet that day. So what I want to do is expand this model into the land of social networks.
Using algorithms, we can boil down everything that’s passed through your feed in Twitter in the last 24 hours to just a handful of the most interesting things – and not necessarily the most popular things. With math working through your social feeds, making intelligent judgments about which of your contacts, friends, followers, and followees are the most interesting and influential, alongside the work of our editors, we can distill this experience to a very clear, un-overwhelming, non-depressing, useful thing.
I spent a good decade doing policy work. I had two of the best policy jobs you could ever have: leading at Google and then being the president’s advisor. Now I’m trying to build and run companies better. But you know I keep one foot back in the policy world.
Let’s talk about the early cyberlibertarian ideal – this vision of the Internet as being a free frontier where geographical borders and government would not be involved. It still feels like a wild space to some of us, but in fact it is not.
Nobody was like, “The Internet is a magic happy land.” Early cyberlibertarians didn’t say that governments are somehow dematerialized online – because of course they aren’t. The argument was for governments to stay out. They said, “Don’t come here. Don’t regulate this. You have a chance to not fuck this thing up. You have the opportunity for people to be freer here than they have been elsewhere.”
I think that vision has largely been vindicated. There are countries that engage in censorship that our first amendment would not permit – even friends of ours like Germany, France, Brazil, Australia, Thailand, and India. While the view of the Internet as a wild west that nobody can govern is cartoonish, the rising generation of teenagers is freer to express their opinions than any other in human history. We’ve barely begun to wrap our brains around the implications of that.
What makes the Internet so revolutionary and deeply political in my view is that there is an ideology embedded in the architecture of the Internet itself. All the power lives in the devices that are at the edge of the network. That’s why there’s a staggering array of innovation.
With the old telecom model, all of the intelligence in the network lived at the core. The device sitting on your desk was basically this dumb thing that had twelve buttons. The telephone network was an incredible achievement, but it also didn’t evolve very much. In 40 years, from touchtone dialing the sum total of innovation was voicemail and call forwarding.
Now there are 7 billion people on the planet and 6 billion mobile subscriptions. I mean it’s staggering. Not all of those have data, but wireless broadband alone has 1.2 billion subscribers.
In a cosmic sense, this means we will look back on the 20th century as a kind of weird detour in human progress when the age of mass media was a step backwards in terms of individual autonomy and moral dignity. In an age of movies, radio, television, and even newspapers and magazines, the job of the individual is to consume – to be a passive reader of oracular truths produced by others.
People look back nostalgically on Walter Cronkite and John Chancellor giving you a kind of reasoned window into the news. Everybody had three major network shows in common to talk about the next day. Well great! But the downsides are Nazi propaganda and radio stations in Rwanda urging everyone to go out and kill Hutus.
Now, to a young person the idea that their job is to sit around and read is crazy. Their job is to create! It’s to write, comment, speak and engage in dialogue. It’s democratizing in a classic sense. Of course, a lot of it is garbage. But we’re human after all.
You are someone at the forefront of all this. You understand these issues not only more than most people, but far more than most people. So what does that feel like?
Well it makes me a total optimist. I think a little bit of exposure to the Internet makes you think, “Oh god, all this crap: the porn, the haters, the trolls.” If this is your window into the Internet you think people blow years of their lives fiddling away on it without any purpose.
But from where I sit, I look at how far the Internet has come. A small group of nerds in California have threaded together the world in ways which are inconceivable.
Look at China’s huge censorship apparatus. I got into the belly of it when I was at Google. I sat across the table from these 30-something Harvard Kennedy School grads who were back in China working their way up their government bureaucratic careers eagerly assisting the state in crushing dissent. What more disgusting an experience can you have facing the dark powers of the Internet?
And yet, look at China right now. There’s been a huge explosion of Twitter-type sites called weibo sites. They have essentially ended the government’s ability to control the spread of news. Even with all of the resources they pour into monitoring and censorship, even with the arbitrary arrest and detention of people in order to spread fear and intimidation, they cannot stop people from taking pictures of a riot or police abuse in Xinjiang or Tibet.
I’m just incredibly optimistic about what that means for the future of the world. It is of course turbulent and difficult. A lot of extremists use these freedoms to self organize and spread messages of hate. But this is vastly outweighed by the ability to connect people, spread news, and unite.