Democracy in the age of technology

We don’t need to leave technology to remain just neutral, but to take political and civil action that works for the common good and makes us better off

The driving force behind this article was the lack of a critical approach and the intellectual marasmus of the “tech-elite” in Romania towards the unfair global business practices of the Silicon Valley oligopolistic sector, but also generally to the way current technological innovation (nowadays fueled mainly by AI research) affects our lives. Technology will change the way we work and communicate, how we regard privacy or the public domain, and how we value things, while it is drastically reshaping the social contract between capital and labour.

This debate is not about technology in itself but about the power systems related to it. It is about who creates the added value leveraging those power systems, who manages that value and who owns it. It is also about the role of state or public entities as mediators between oligopolistic tech corporations and citizens.

There is a huge discrepancy in the way “western civil society” through some of its voices of common sense, such as Evgeny Morozov, critically considers the threats to privacy and civil rights which unregulated, undemocratic technology could pose, and the hiatus within “eastern civil society” on this matter. It is no wonder that scandals like Snowden’s revelations, Wikileaks and Cambridge Analytica had no echoes either in the local media, or in the civil society there.

Instead of evolving into an open, democratic virtual space for debates or sharing ideas, the Internet is outrageously becoming the main lever of surveillance capitalism where private data-mining companies work hand in hand with secret services to extract profit from our data. This is precisely what Evgeny Morozov refers to as data extractivism”. This is no “lefty conspiracy theory” but comes out of the words of Sir Tim Berners Lee, inventor of HTML and of World Wide Web protocol:

What was once a rich selection of blogs and websites has been compressed under the powerful weight of a few dominant platforms. This concentration of power creates a new set of gatekeepers, allowing a handful of platforms to control which ideas and opinions are seen and shared.

These dominant platforms are able to lock in their position by creating barriers for competitors. They acquire startup challengers, buy up new innovations and hire the industry’s top talent. Add to this the competitive advantage that their user data gives them and we can expect the next 20 years to be far less innovative than the last.

What’s more, the fact that power is concentrated among so few companies has made it possible to weaponise the web at scale. In recent years, we’ve seen conspiracy theories trend on social media platforms, fake Twitter and Facebook accounts stoke social tensions, external actors interfere in elections, and criminals steal troves of personal data.

And it is not only about the Internet: mainstream economists, such as Nobel Laureate Joseph Stiglitz, also express their worries about the outcome of such an uneven race towards artificial intelligence. This is not only at the level of private companies, but also of nation states. Europe is indeed lagging behind Silicon Valley and China and is dependent on their technology, but of greater concern is the divide within Europe, with its Eastern and Southern countries being the most exposed to job automation risks. All the economic crises and their political consequences, such as the rise of far-rightists and fascists, have revealed that job precarity and the weakened bargaining power of labour are technologically induced.

Back at home, the Romanian “liberal elite” – apathatic with regard to the status quo outlined above – sees nothing abnormal here. By contrast there are basically a couple of rhetorics endorsing the current state of affairs. These claim that we have a personal responsibility to control our data and we have basically the choice to freely select between different service providers. This in the end is how the almighty market rules work everywhere. There is also the “disinterested” stance, claiming that our personal information is exposed anyway and it’s better to be in the hands of some private corporations than of some bureaucrats in parliament. To those, probably Edward Snowden would answer that “saying you’re not concerned about online privacy because you don’t have anything to hide is like saying you don’t care for the right to speak because you don’t have anything to say“. Those mindsets are simply missing the new political and social ecosystem. Data can be capitalized with serious consequences, as it was revealed by the Cambridge Analytica scandal. Unfortunately, in Romania just one single article reported these matters critically.

It is intriguing how it can be possible for civil society in a country kept under harsh surveillance for decades by its state secret police, Securitate, to be completely deaf to the public and mass espionage scandals in the West. It is no exaggeration to say that national security agencies there, such as the NSA and CIA, have at their disposal equipment and ways to spy on people which would have made Stalin jealous.

But it is not only about democratizing the Internet; it is about the control of the labour process and about the social contract between people and capital. It could be that the viral assertion, “data is the new oil”, was mocked as simple-minded, but it unveiled a simple fact: our society continues to be driven by the struggle between who owns the capital and who depends on it, and yes, data is the new capital.

In order to grasp more of the implications of technological change, beyond the current monopolistic status quo of the Internet, it is worth reading David Harvey’s paper, “The Fetish of Technology“, which outlines in a very concise manner some basic aspects of this capitalism-technology nexus. Control of technological change is essential for capital accumulation, and innovation is an essential intrinsic property of capitalists, whether they are oligopolists or monopolists. In Harvey’s view, there are three types of this control: firstly, adoption of a technological form that requires massive amounts of capital, making it difficult for potential competitors to enter the field (mainly in the case of industrial monopolies, such as car makers), secondly continuous innovation, which makes it impossible for others to catch up (here we have the tech giants, such as Facebook, Microsoft and Google), and lastly, control of property rights and patent laws. This is along the same lines as what Tim Berners-Lee referred to (see above) as the Internet platforms “locking in their position by creating barriers for competitors”.

Ok, so we have clarified the issues at stake: we are dealing with new business models where “big tech” corporations offer us cost-free Internet services in exchange for our data, which they can directly monetize by training their machine learning algorithms; moreover we are dealing with a new ecosystem where capital-generating innovation is in the hands of a few.

What is to be done then? Firstly, we need to open this debate and to raise civil awareness especially in those parts of the world which are fettered by this state of affairs, such as Eastern Europe. In his earlier article, Evgeny Morozov brings up a couple of possible scenarios. These could stretch from apparently ingenuous proposals like tightening the controls over “our data”, going through new laws, as was the case with GDPR and eventually extracting more taxes. Setting up public institutions, especially in the case of the EU, which could fill this gap, roll out necessary data infrastructure in a democratic way, foster research and open-source development, would be the first systematic approach to the issues and not simply “patching” them. Overturning the current status quo and re-designing the social and political model so that citizens play a prominent role in shaping the technology market should be the end goal. Let’s briefly discuss these possibilities one by one. 

Regulation could be a beginning, although this could easily end up simply dressing up the real issue, inducing a sense of normality and allowing big corporations to leave with clean hands, or in the worst case with some fines. Furthermore this could be good turf for their engineers since they will be forced to design better services. The European Union, via its officials, looks to be aware of the current monopolistic practices of Silicon Valley and is prepared to somehow sanction their excesses either by fines, taxes, or regulations. Some voices from the neo-liberal corner may speak up and argue that if we punish them too much, they may take their business elsewhere – a narrative very common in Romania, for instance.

A step beyond that, moving more towards technology sovereignty, was undertaken by DiEM25. Its initial paper drafts a series of short, mid and long term measures meant to democratize it and to empower European citizens as active participants and shareholders. Some ideas it appeals to are: funding a public EU institution to foster the development of a sovereign, autonomous, eventually anonymized, distributed data infrastructure under the control of its users; public audits and endorsements of encryption algorithms, along with a rethinking of the current intellectual property rights. These are very progressive and even audacious measures, given the current context, which need to be reconciled with DiEM25’s other two pillars, namely the New Deal, proposing a green-led technology investment programme, and labour. A big challenge here would be that all those commitments have to be supported by public institutions which are facing continously decreasing trust all across Europe, especially across Eastern Europe.

A “realpolitik” stance on that, given the existing world order, could be a strategic strengthening of Europe’s position versus the USA and China. When an ex-Google CEO is saying that he predicts the Internet will split in two, one led by the USA and the other by China, then there definitely should be something big at stake. As I mentioned, so far Europe is a tech-laggard compared to the other two super-powers. The role of Eastern Europe is particularly interesting here in the context of the Silicon Valley giants who, mainly via their subsidiaries, are exploiting their weak governments and also the increased resentments towards EU policies, to gain a foothold there.

Possible political actions in this sense are also sketched out by the AI expert and tech investor, Ian Hogarth, in his article. The ideas here are not claiming to reinvent the wheel, but are state policies already in existence, mainly in China:

  • Invest in research and/or academic institutions focused on machine learning
  • Set standards/ regulations so that technology develops in a way that is beneficial to the state’s domestic needs
  • Have the state as a key customer for domestic companies (see SenseTime and Chinese government symbiosis)
  • Block acquisitions of domestic AI companies by foreign companies to preserve their independence.
  • Block investment into domestic AI companies by foreign investors.
  • Block partnerships between domestic AI companies and foreign companies
  • Nationalise key domestic AI companies.

To what extent this can be reconciled with democracy and individual civil rights is a big question. As Yanis Varoufakis pointed out, democracy is, and should be, a continuous “work in progress state”. This is why it constantly needs to be updated to the latest political and economic realities.

Photo: Pixabay, CC0

Romanian expat living in Munich, Germany. Member of DiEM25 Germany and Romania and occasionally writer for DiEM25 official web site, reporting and having a special interest in Eastern Europe and Balkan areas. Member of a thematic DiEM25 discussions group about technology democratization and interested in digital colonialismus and economic dependency affiliations.

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