You sometimes hear high-level executives talk about the problem that technology poses to our democracy, but how many of them are actually trying to do something about it?
Franck McCourt is.
McCourt, a 69-year-old billionaire real estate developer and sports team owner, says he now devotes 90% of his time to strengthening our political system and our society, focusing on the weaknesses of the internet, through a network of companies and projects. collaborating with the likes of Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen, Georgetown University, and various European NGOs.
Not a small thing.
A few quick notes on McCourt before moving on to his quest.
You may have heard of Frank McCourt (not the late author of Angela’s Ashes), during his ups and downs (2004 to 2012) as owner of the LA Dodgers. There’s an entire book or movie to be made around this time, although McCourt may not be so keen on being produced.
McCourt is now the owner of the French football team Olympique de Marseille, one of the most iconic clubs in this country. (I recently attended a game, which I will come back to.)
Aside from sports, it’s mostly McCourt’s internet crusade that gets the most attention, which seems a far cry from his multi-generational Boston-based real estate business.
Where is it?
‘What are you going to do about it?’
McCourt remembers sitting around the table as one of seven siblings debating the issues of the day. “I could hear my mom’s voice saying, ‘That’s great. You kids got the point. Now what are you going to do about it?'” McCourt recalled. That was then.
The problem now, according to McCourt, is “a rapid erosion of our democracy and our political system,” he says. “It’s something that’s growing frankly in Boston, I never thought for a second that I would talk to you about – the possibility that democracy won’t survive in the United States. I’m gravely concerned. I want our small family business endures for another five generations. I’m sure others feel exactly the same way about what’s important to them and are deeply concerned about the future of the country and its ability to sustain what is the greatest democratic experiment in all the time.
Okay, so to quote Mom, “Now what are you going to do about it?”
To begin with, McCourt has founded a concentric group of companies and is working to solve the problem. He started three years ago with an entity called “Unfinished”, which “works to strengthen our civic life in the digital age”, when he “wanted to know what was going on”.
“It started out intentionally ambiguous and quite open,” McCourt says. “We called our first project ‘Unfinished Questions’ and collected questions from people around the world, asking them the one question they’ve been dying to get answered right now, or that’s of deep concern. .
“It was inevitable that technology would be on people’s minds,” he says. “The image that stuck with me was of a group of young high school kids from the Bronx, walking down Washington Square in Manhattan, holding up a huge sign that said, ‘Is Technology Our Loss.’ focus on the connection between technology and democracy.”
Beyond that, McCourt says, “Unfinished has a big ambition, which is to re-imagine the future of government, technology, and culture, to create a thriving multiracial democracy, and to adjust the economy. That’s a big, big guideline.
Next, McCourt created Project Liberty to work on the specific link between technology and democracy. This week, Martina Larkin joined Project Liberty to become its CEO. Larkin, formerly of the World Economic Forum, works from London and its executive director from Paris, giving the project a strong European and globalist flavor.
What exactly is Project Freedom?
Paradoxically, McCourt says this is not a technology project. “What I mean by that is that technology is just a tool, like a hammer. You can take that hammer and go out and build a house. Or you can take that hammer and go out and kill somebody. ‘one. Social media has actually been the hammer that kills people, not the hammer that builds houses.”
“Project Liberty is a three-pronged project,” continues McCourt. “A technical track that is a DSNP [or decentralized social networking protocol, more on that below], but it also has a governance track and a movement track. It’s like a Venn diagram, three intersecting circles, that sets Project Liberty apart. I don’t think we’re going to solve the erosion of democracy if we leave it to the technologists. We need social scientists, governance experts and those who can remind us of history. We must also involve civil society, the citizens on whom this technology has an impact. »
DSNPs are essentially a protocol that would use blockchain technology to allow individuals to control their own data.
“So we’re rethinking how the internet works, which would be for people, not platforms,” says McCourt. “Fundamentally, we need to give people ownership and control of their own data, and not allow our data to be sucked up by a few big platforms. They monetize and use our data in ways we never imagined. Data is even now being weaponized, where we are influencing society to behave in certain ways. Very, very unhealthy.
Fast Company points out that Twitter’s bluesky project, started by the company’s former CEO, Jack Dorsey, has similar decentralized characteristics. McCourt told Kara Swisher in an interview at Georgetown University in October — Swisher and McCourt are Hoyas, and McCourt gave the school some $200 million — that when McCourt heard Musk was buying Twitter, he sent a letter to Musk, Dorsey and the board saying, “If you really want Twitter to be a real, authentic public square that’s digital in nature, and you think it needs a protocol to enable that, then here’s a protocol .
Swisher asked if McCourt ever got an answer. “No,” he said. “Disappointing but not surprising. »
In McCourt’s mind, what then is the fundamental problem with technology?
“Architecture”, he says. “When you ‘move fast and break things’, then really important things like democracy are broken. There aren’t the guardrails, there aren’t the values built into the technology to make sure it works as intended. If you optimize for rage, you get rage. If you optimize for democracy, you get democracy.”
I asked McCourt about Frances Haugen. “I think she did a great public service by pointing out the problems with the current technology architecture,” he says. “We collaborate with Frances. Its “Duty of Care” initiative is an excellent project in this regard. »
Before speaking with McCourt, I mentioned to a European colleague that he owned Olympique de Marseille. My colleagues’ eyes lit up. “Those fans are really out there,” he said. This made me curious and I was in this part of the world last month so I decided to see what he meant.
I’ve been to all kinds of NFL, NBA, and college football games, but an OM game is wilder than any of them. The 63,000 enraged fans chanted and jumped up and down nonstop for 90 minutes and set off massive fireworks (explosives, it seemed), both inside and outside the stadium, which which made me jump out of my socks. My ears were ringing for days. It was one of the craziest expressions of individualism and tribalism I have ever seen.
Is there a connection between McCourt’s sports teams and his web projects? He thinks so. In April 2021, McCourt published an article in the French newspaper Le Monde, equating a recently canceled European Football Super League project with the hegemony of the Silicon Valley giants.
“The European Super League posed an existential threat to football – but the consolidation of the tech industry poses an existential threat to humanity. If left unchecked, it will drain our economy and consume our democracy. against this centralization and support a global movement that ensures that wealth and power cannot be limited to an influential elite.If we are to create a fairer and more just society, we must give everyone a voice, not just the some.
You can consider McCourt’s decentralized democratic vision as fanciful or naive. But it seems much better to work on that, than to push for the opposite, which one might say Silicon Valley has done.
It’s also much better than doing nothing.
This article was featured in a Saturday edition of the Morning Brief on Saturday, December 10. Get the Morning Brief delivered straight to your inbox Monday through Friday by 6:30 a.m. ET. Subscribe
Follow Andy Serwer, Editor-in-Chief of Yahoo Finance, on Twitter: @waiter
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