Sometimes you hear high-profile executives talk about the problem technology poses to our democracy, but how many of them are actually trying to do something about it?
Frank McCourt is.
McCourt, a 69-year-old billionaire real estate developer and sports team owner, says he is now spending 90% of his time supporting our political system and society, focusing on the weaknesses of the Internet, across a network of companies and projects collaborating with the likes of Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen, Georgetown University, and various European NGOs.
It’s not a trivial matter.
A few quick notes on McCourt before moving on to his research.
You may have heard of Frank McCourt (not the deceased author of Angela’s Ashes), during his up and down tenure (2004 to 2012) as owner of the LA Dodgers. There’s an entire book or movie to be made about that period, though McCourt may not be all that keen on it being produced.
Now McCourt owns French soccer club Olympique de Marseille, one of that country’s most iconic clubs. (I recently attended a match, which I’ll come back to.)
Sports aside, it’s primarily McCourt’s internet crusade that’s garnering attention, which seems a far cry from his Boston-based multigenerational real estate business.
Or is it?
‘What are you going to do about it?’
McCourt recalls sitting around the table as one of seven brothers discussing the day’s problems. “I could hear my mother’s voice saying, ‘Great. You guys understand the problem. Now what are you going to do about it?’” recalls McCourt. That was then.
The problem now, McCourt calculates, is “a rapid erosion of our democracy and our political system,” he says. “This is something frankly growing in Boston, I never thought for one second that I would tell you about – the possibility that democracy would not survive in the United States. I am seriously concerned. I want our small family business to continue 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 country’s future and its ability to sustain what is the greatest democratic experiment of all time.”
Ok, 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 struggling to address the problem. He started three years ago with an entity called ‘Unfinished‘, who “works to strengthen our civic life in the digital age,” when he “wanted to find out what the hell was going on.”
“It started out intentionally ambiguous and quite open,” McCourt says. “We called our first project ‘unfinished questions’ and crowdsourced questions from people all over the world, asking them the one question they’ve been dying to get answered right now, or which is grave concern.
“It was inevitable that technology was on people’s minds,” she says. “The image that stuck with me was a group of young high schoolers from the Bronx, marching to Washington Square in Manhattan, putting up a huge sign that said, ‘Technology is our downfall. ‘ That really focused us a lot on the connection between technology and democracy”.
Beyond that, McCourt says, “Unfinished has a grand ambition, which is to reimagine the future of government, technology and culture, create a thriving multiracial democracy, and regulate the economy. That’s a big, big bottom line.
Subsequently, McCourt created Freedom Project work on the specific connection between technology and democracy. This week, Martina Larkin has joined Project Liberty become its managing director. Larkin, formerly with the World Economic Forum, works in London and its executive director works in Paris, giving the project a strong European and globalist flavour.
What exactly is Project Freedom?
Paradoxically, McCourt says this is not a technology project. “What I mean is that technology is just a tool, like a hammer. You can take that hammer, go out and build a house. Or you can take that hammer and go out and kill someone. Social media has actually been the hammer that is killing people, not the hammer that builds houses.”
“Project Liberty is a three-run project,” McCourt continues. “A technological track that is a DSNP extension [or decentralized social networking protocol, more on that below], but it also has a governance path and a movement path. It’s like a Venn diagram, three intersecting circles, that differentiates Project Liberty. I don’t think we will 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 also need to engage civil society, the citizens that this technology impacts.”
DSNPs are essentially a protocol that would use blockchain technology to allow people to control their data.
“So we’re really re-engineering the way the internet works, which would be for people not platforms,” McCourt explains. “Basically, we need to give people ownership and control of their data and not let our data get sucked into a few big platforms. They monetize and use our data in ways we’ve never given up on. Data is now even being weaponized, where we are tricking society into behaving in a certain way. Very, very unhealthy.
Fast Company points out that of Twitter blue sky project, launched by the company’s former CEO Jack Dorsey has similar decentralized characteristics. McCourt told Kara Swisher to come inside an interview at Georgetown University in October – both Swisher and McCourt are Hoyas and McCourt donated about $200 million to the school – that when McCourt heard Musk was buying Twitter he sent a letter to Musk, Dorsey and the board saying, “If you are serious about Twitter being a real, genuine, public square that is digital in nature, and you believe that, that requires a protocol to enable it, here’s a protocol.”
Swisher asked if McCourt ever got an answer. “Nope,” he said. “Disappointing but not surprising.”
What then, according to McCourt, is the fundamental problem with technology?
“The architecture,” he says. “When you ‘move fast and break things,’ then really important things like democracy get broken. There are no guardrails, there are no values built into the technology to make sure it works the way it’s supposed to. If you optimize for anger, you get anger. If you optimize for democracy, you get democracy.”
I asked McCourt about Frances Haugen. “I think he’s done a great public service by pointing out the problems with the current technology architecture,” she says. “We collaborated with Frances. Her ‘Duty of careThe initiative is a great project in this sense.
Before speaking to McCourt, I told a European colleague that he owns Olympique de Marseille. My colleagues’ eyes lit up. “Those fans are really out there,” he said. This intrigued me and I happened to be in that 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 one OM game is wildest of all. The 63,000 rabid fans chanted and jumped up and down non-stop for the entire 90 minutes, and setting off huge fireworks (they looked like explosives), both inside and outside the stadium that blew my socks off. My ears have been ringing for days. It was one of the wildest expressions of both individualism and tribalism I have ever witnessed.
Is there a connection between McCourt’s sports teams and his web activities? He thinks so. In April 2021 McCourt published an article in the French newspaper Le Monde, equating a recently canceled European soccer Super League, with the hegemony of 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. We must oppose such centralization and support a global movement that ensures that wealth and power cannot be limited to an influential elite. If we want to create a fairer and more just society, we need to give everyone a voice, not just a few.”
You can dismiss McCourt’s decentralized democratic vision as imaginative or naïve. But it seems much better to work on that, than to push for the opposite, which you could argue that 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 6:30am ET. subscribe
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