We are living through a period that is experiencing a step change in technological capability. It is happening at a more rapid rate than previously witnessed in human history, and it is happening against a turbulent backdrop where we could be on the cusp of systemic economic and political change. The context in which this change is taking place is important to understand, as the further diffusion of technology is viewed largely with fear, as it is held to be a force that will exacerbate trends that are already fomenting so much dissatisfaction in the world today. Yet technology cannot be suppressed or wished away, and it’s important to remember we have a certain agency in shaping it. Technology will have a strong bearing on what whatever new system emerges, and how that new settlement affects people’s everyday lives.
Since the Second World War, Western nations have experienced two broad periods of political and economic hegemony. The second of these, neoliberalism, has enjoyed a long run since it rose to prominence. Its penetration has been such that its adherents sought to present neoliberalism as a ‘natural order’, and not an aggressively promulgated human invention that extends far beyond the tenets of classical liberalism. Neoliberalism has brought us everything from the Clinton years to New Labour’s “light touch” regulation of London’s financial industry. And that was just the notional left. Today, neoliberalism’s time appears to be up, and not simply because the global financial crisis revealed a fatal weakness in its workings, or the symbolism of damning visual indictments such as the Grenfell Tower disaster.
The present, for many, is an opportunity for a once-in-a-generation change. But the terms on which that change should happen are elusive. As long as there is no single world that everybody wants, there will never be unanimity on what desirable long-term goals and outcomes are. But broad consent on certain matters is less difficult to achieve than we might imagine. It is possible to imagine a political consensus forming around the goals of resilient communities, where people have security and opportunity; of open societies that offer protection for the individual from the collective, as well as protection for the collective from the individual; and of economic systems where fiscal policy is used for progressive ends, a whittling down of offshore finance is accompanied by a global drive for tax justice, trade liberalisation can be effected without permitting a race to the bottom, and, crucially, where a universal respect for the environment helps us to attain an ecological civilisation.
And yet, no viable alternative to neoliberalism has emerged. Even though the prevailing neoliberal narrative is losing its persuasive power, replacing it is not a trivial matter, because there are many powerful people with a stake in preserving the status quo. A compelling new story is needed, one that unites large groups of people and cuts across the traditional lines of the political spectrum. Perhaps the most important component of this new story of economic and social change is the consent and participation of a mobilised and empowered public. And a key question here is whether this can be aided by technology. The rapidly growing capability of computing power, as manifested by artificial intelligence and other digital technologies, is typically framed as a threat, such as the dangers posed by the automation of employment. But technology, like economic systems, isn’t neutral. Nor is it inherently deterministic. While there have been attempts in science fiction and philosophy to understand technology and how it can empower people, the script for how we effect change in the coming few decades is yet to be written.
If we are to shape a future that is designed to promote human welfare, it likely won’t be through the platforms that exist today. Power and influence have steadily become concentrated in Silicon Valley over the last few decades, and with it a disconnect between their goals and an identifiable common good. Big companies can sometimes be trusted, but trust should be limited and highly conditional, whatever humanist values a company might claim to espouse. So while Silicon Valley partly stands apart from traditionally exploitative capitalist models that were sometimes based on military conquest, it is not by some quirk that the behemoth companies located there have become triumphalist and arrogant in their worldview, with some exhibiting truly toxic corporate cultures. So much so that the backlash against “Big Tech” is already beginning. Tech giants no longer appear to be getting away with the ruses that have underpinned their business models, and are acquiring a broad coalition of enemies, who would otherwise struggle to find common purpose.
Despite its ubiquity and apparently unassailable position in social media, the way Facebook is conceived, designed and operates means that it especially cannot be a vehicle for authentic, positive social change. Particularly salient in Facebook’s rise to political importance is the nefarious ingenuity of its News Feed Editor, with its ability to map brains and identify patterns of engagement. It has a demonstrable ability to shift and skew a Facebook user’s worldview. In addition, what of Facebook’s assault on the individual mind? It is argued that Facebook is little more than a surveillance company, in a way that would have the most totalitarian regime gasping in admiration. Facebook, whose algorithms are used first to study us, then to manipulate us, has few compunctions about experimenting on their users, and plainly views concerns about privacy as an irritation.
There is a broader problem with the way technology has been evolving, and it is a problem that necessitates widespread efforts to correct its shortcomings. Just how should technology be steered from here, given that its development in recent decades has apparently been with the intended aim of removing actual human interaction from the picture—something that might explain Facebook’s remarkable ability to foment unhappiness, and the explosion of savage hostility across all social media. It can in large measure be explained by the way so much tech innovation has been entrusted to a narrow group of like-minded people who are unrepresentative of the population at large – the male libertarian engineers of Silicon Valley.
There are further problems. While allowing for the fact there will always be dislocations to accompany technological advances, and there will always be winners and losers in business, technological breakthroughs are, at present, all too widely conceived as enablers in the winner-takes-all economy. In intolerably unequal societies throughout human history, insiders have usually lacked the foresight to adapt or to be conciliatory when the established order becomes untenable, preferring to cling on to the bitter end. This time the bitter end includes the backdrop of climate and ecological breakdown, so the challenge for technologists is very great. Real and tangible social benefits as a feature of technological innovation, rather than the trite goal of “disruption”, should be the ultimate design metric.
Technological advance is not going away, so it is incumbent on technologists, lawmakers, regulators and civil society to find a way to curb the worst excesses of online life, and to construct an agreed framework that respects the importance of a common reality to solve the world’s biggest problems. Our framing questions need to be about designing and innovating with societal considerations foremost. Instead of eliminating (and impoverishing) human interaction, we should seek to embed a value system and sense of purpose in our new technologies that promotes equality and creativity, and harnesses the power of networks to enable their penetration to every area of society, in every part of the world. Technology can be shaped to support societal needs, and there are some technologies which might lend themselves to an inclusive evolution—while allowing for the fact that we cannot script the future, and technologies can end up being repurposed in ways unforeseen by their original developers.
A chief characteristic of a “democratic technology” is that participation in its development should be accessible. This would help extend the palette of good ideas and help promote the crucial characteristic of transparency, a glaring lacuna in the current technology landscape. Key factors might include low barriers to creation and dissemination, along with a decentralised core platform, which would suggest that artificial intelligence has the potential for profound impact beyond what it is already comprehended. The need for data sets makes it compatible with a paradigm of open source, networked, collaborative effort, albeit with a high level of technical knowledge and a need for quality data. Here there are potential barriers to entry. One is that big companies who are investing heavily in AI are bagging a lot of new people with that technical knowledge. Another is that data, frequently referred to as the “new oil”, might become ever more jealously guarded. Openness would appear to be how a truly empowered and networked community would interact with technology, but it is largely anathema to the tech behemoths of today. Openness further demands certain characteristics of the social and political environment to ensure availability isn’t restricted. Looking across jurisdictions around the world, this is far from being the case everywhere, so there is a concurrent political problem.
Many politicians make pledges to decentralise power and empower local government and local communities, but succumb to centralising tendencies once in office. The trust deficit that can exist with centralised power is arguably overcome by cleaving to the principle of subsidiarity, with the ultimate goal of local resources being owned and managed by local communities, to the benefit of that whole community. Emerging technologies that enable digital decentralisation can render these centralising tendencies irrelevant, and potential benefits include autonomy, efficiency and transparency, and the promotion of greater trust. This is partly what animates enthusiasm for Bitcoin, even if there are reservations about the long term reach of cryptocurrencies. Fears that virtual currencies could be used for money laundering and tax evasion mean they might become limited by regulation, or central banks may eventually decide to issue their own digital currencies. But while it is difficult to predict whether any particular virtual currency will become ubiquitous in commerce, there is evident potential for distributed ledger technology accessed by crypto tokens to provide a new model for participation in the economy.
What will it take to bring about effective diffusion of these technologies? Facebook’s global dominance has been achieved through the size of its network—which, by giving ever-greater utility to its users simply by dint of growth, has inexorably given Facebook an exponentially amplified influence. But if we are saying that Facebook’s role in the “eyeball attention economy” means that it cannot ever be an authentically liberating platform – indeed, there are many efforts afoot right now to create an alternative online future. Facebook will somehow have to be displaced or superseded, because network effects will only grow in significance in the connected world of the 21st century. A possible pathway to achieving individual autonomy is via the strongest form of network effect, in which users do not simply derive increased utility from the service through the addition of new users, but have an actual stake, and so also benefit from enhanced value of ownership as the network is enlarged.
This ongoing digital revolution is creating a new global commons, and it is taking place very quickly. There are mammoth tasks for readying institutions to cope with this digital transformation, and it is essential to build an infrastructure and create standards that will enable dissemination of these new technologies, so that the widest possible cross-section of humanity can share in their benefits. The aim should be that any new technology or platform needs to be geography agnostic to the extent that it is available in the remotest parts of the least developed countries. Moreover, there are multiple ethical debates to be resolved around areas such as privacy and automation, while emphasising the crucial importance of tech plurality. Tackling these will likely necessitate the formulation of a new social contract. As such, there is an onus on us all to engage in this topic, as the social, economic and environmental stakes could hardly be higher.