Anyone who has watched It’s a Wonderful Life remembers this: George Bailey is an unlikely hero. He does not go to war. He is not wealthy. He runs a little savings and loan that always seems to be just on the brink of disaster — losing a single envelope of money containing a single day’s takings threatens to destroy the entire enterprise.
So why is this single life of such importance? We find out when we see the world without George.
Bedford Falls, once named for a local landmark, is now Pottersville, named for the man who owns the town. The bartender no longer owns the bar on the outskirts of town, it is owned by some shady character in the background (whose money can probably be traced to Potter). A field of houses owned by individual families is vacant, and Potter’s rentals are full. Once owned by a local family, the movie theatre is now part of a chain. Main street restaurants, once owned by families, are now bars and strip clubs where people go to spend money they do not have.
The entire town is owned by a single man — Potter — and rented back to the people. The people of Pottersville were living the modern dream — they owned nothing. But were they happy? There was a lot of glitz and glamour, certainly. They had the latest movies at the theater, drinks at the bar, and all the young women dressed in the latest styles.
But what were they building? Were they living fulfilling lives? Did people look out for one another, like George did for old man Gowen, or were people on the edges cast out as useless leftovers from a culture that only valued the young and beautiful?
While the movie’s point is that one person’s life makes a difference, the underlying assumption is that this life made a difference because George Bailey enabled other people to build something of their own. He bought a ramshackle house and made it a home, enabling hundreds of other families to make homes. He took over a small business and made it work, enabling hundreds of other small businesses to flourish. He helped create a world where people could create, and each person had dignity through their creations.
What of the modern digital world?
Digital Centralization via AI
The Internet started much like Bedford Falls. Everyone owned a little website, people ran little social services (remember bulletin boards?), and lots of people had their own email servers. Today, no one owns anything. No one owns their website, email account, or the software or hardware they use to create things. The Internet is centralized; a few small companies own all the physical and digital infrastructure.
Everything is a subscription, including the music you listen to, the movies you watch, the heated seats in your car — even the tractor a local farmer uses to plow a field.
Centralization has made a few at the very top very wealthy, like Potter. Everyone else rents space on one of a few social media services, from which they can be evicted at a moment’s notice for saying the wrong thing or supporting the wrong cause. Because of this, you don’t even own your reputation — it is entirely in the hands of a few large companies that can decide whether you “toe the company line” well enough to deserve promotion in some social media feed.
Will modern AI systems, these fascinating Large Language Models, make the trend of centralization worse or better? Most likely worse. AI systems consume a lot of power and information. Who can afford the power and hardware needed to make these things work? Who can afford to defend themselves in court when they appropriate the work of millions of people and feed it back to those same people as a “new service?” Only large companies, or at least companies well-financed by those made wealthy by the current system.
It seems the first part of the modern dream, “you will own nothing,” is already well on its way to becoming true. But, like the people of Pottersville, are we happy? Or would we have been happier building and fighting for a digital version of Bedford Falls?