Digital Platforms & Democratic Governance: Standing at an Historic Crossroads

As I explain on the bio page of this blog, I believe:

[T]he human race is, in fact, in a race. Not a race against other humans (though it sometimes seems that way), but rather a race against time, and between two tendencies we all share…One tendency is grounded in fear and can manifest, among other things, as hatred, prejudice, greed, addiction and violence…A countervailing tendency is grounded in empathy, compassion and a sense of deep and satisfying connection to oneself, to others, and to the natural world.

The digital anthropocene: a pivotal & high-risk phase of human history

The reason I describe this dynamic as a race is that the accelerating pace of technology development has pushed our planet’s life support systems into a pivotal stage that I and others refer to as the digital anthropocene. In a post on the blog of Michigan State University’s Quello Center, I described key characteristics of this stage in human history as I see it, including:

  1. substantial (and currently destructive) impacts of human activities on natural systems, a planetary phase referred to as the Anthropocene;
  2. continued and arguably mounting evidence that the status-quo dynamics within our dominant political and economic systems are aggravating rather than reducing inequalities, conflict, degradation of environmental and democratic self-governance systems, and potentially avoidable human suffering;
  3. the dramatic expansion in scope, content and functionality of digitally-mediated connectivity among humans and “things” via ever-more-capable information and communication technology (ICT).

When considering our future, it doesn’t seem too big a leap in logic and imagination to argue that, if humanity’s fear-driven tendencies predominate, the digital anthropocene will manifest self-reinforcing cycles of dystopian dynamics along roughly the following lines:

1) The financial extraction engines of corporate capitalism, the corruption of political democracy, the weakening of social safety nets, and environmental degradation and disruption will combine to increase inequality, social stress, violence and human suffering, especially among those at the bottom of the economic pyramid.

2) The increasing capabilities of digital technologies will be used by those who have and/or seek power to aggravate and manipulate human fears, weaknesses and tribalistic tendencies. This will both reflect and increase social stress and proliferation of win-lose and increasingly violent and environmentally destructive “solutions” to social problems. The power of digital media will be used to justify and promote these “solutions” by reinforcing belief systems upon which they are based (e.g., fascism, nativism, racism, nihilism, religiosity that embraces violence and/or rejects science).

3) In this increasingly threatening environment, social, political and economic institutions will use digital technology to defend their power in ways that further suppress freedom, erode trust, aggravate social tensions, and bolster rather than constrain the appeal of nihilistic and/or fascistic messages and movements.

4) The manifestation of digital technology’s immense constructive potential—including its ability to support broad access to higher levels of health, education, prosperity, empathy, democracy and peaceful coexistence (among individuals, social groups, nations and with the natural environment)—will be stifled and distorted in the increasingly stress- and antagonism-filled environment characterized by the above dynamics.

In short, a fear-dominated digital anthropocene will be characterized by mutually-reinforcing pressures toward increased inequality, oppression, violence, suffering and ecological decline. Not a pretty picture…and, in my view, one we have the responsibility and capacity to avoid.

Empathy + technology: a powerful recipe for shared prosperity & peace

My hope is that this series of blog posts can make some small contribution to efforts seeking to avoid the above scenario by harnessing digital technology to humankind’s more benign and enlightened tendencies in ways that create feedback cycles that strengthen these tendencies. As I see it, a key ingredient for success in such efforts is to encourage, leverage and harmonize two powerful sets of human capabilities: 1) to empathize, communicate and cooperate with each other and; 2) to develop, employ and improve technology to: a) better understand our world and the challenges we face living in it and; b) design and implement tools, institutions, strategies and systems that improve our ability to address these challenges.

In this more peaceful, cooperative and empathy-rich version of the digital anthropocene, the evolution of digital technology is used to support the design and implementation of win-win strategies leading to a more equitably prosperous, peaceful and sustainable human society; one characterized by expanded access to education, healthcare, economic opportunity, civic participation and communication capabilities that support the expanded scope of empathetic consciousness described by Jeremy Rifkin in his book The Empathic Civilization: The Race to Global Consciousness in a World in Crisis

As suggested by his February 16, 2017 Facebook post, Mark Zuckerberg seems optimistic that this more positive version of the digital anthropocene is possible and even likely:

As we’ve made our great leaps from tribes to cities to nations, we have always had to build social infrastructure like communities, media and governments for us to thrive and reach the next level. At each step we learned how to come together to solve our challenges and accomplish greater things than we could alone. We have done it before and we will do it again.

Not surprisingly, Zuckerberg sees Facebook playing a key role in this next “great leap” in “learn[ing] how to come together to solve our challenges and accomplish greater things than we could alone.”

[T]he most important thing we at Facebook can do is develop the social infrastructure to give people the power to build a global community that works for all of us…for supporting us, for keeping us safe, for informing us, for civic engagement, and for inclusion of all.

More (and more effective) democracy as part of the solution

While I share much of Zuckerberg’s optimism, I believe his vision is more likely to become a reality if we pursue the kind of democratizing political and economic governance reforms discussed in this series, which includes the following posts:

  • The Facebook F-Up as a Wake-Up Call reviews the recent revelations about Facebook, Cambridge Analytica and the 2016 election, considers public reaction to these events and the societal risks they highlight, and begins fleshing out the argument that these risks can be reduced via democracy-enhancing changes in both our “public governance” and digital platform sectors.
  • Serving Users (to Advertisers to Benefit Shareholders) examines key characteristics, risks and problematic impacts associated with micro-targeted advertising-based digital-economy business models, focusing specifically on Facebook’s evolution since it went public and began selling mobile ads in 2012.
  • Data as Power: Approaches to Righting the Balance considers a range of strategies for achieving a healthier balance of power and benefits related to the collection and use of data generated by and about citizens. This post recommends a collaborative effort involving policymakers, tech industry leaders, independent technology experts and other stakeholders to evaluate the strengths, weaknesses and compatibility of these data policy options, with the goal of developing a broad consensus on what combination of them is most likely to achieve this healthy rebalancing.
  • Interactions Between Political and Platform Systems considers the two-way interactions between digital platforms and public sector governance systems, using Facebook’s role in the 2016 U.S. election and that election’s aftermath as an example illustrating the nature of this interactive relationship, including its potential to support both destructive and constructive feedback loops.
  • A Purpose-Built Platform to Help Repair & Strengthen Democracy recommends that the dominant platform companies contribute financial and in-kind support toward (but do not control) the creation of an online platform whose sole purpose is to use digital technology to mobilize civic participation in ways that increase the ability of political democracy to reflect the needs and desires of its citizens, especially regarding broad and inclusive access to the resources and opportunities that support a safe and fulfilling life and reduce social tensions and violence.
  • Democratic Oversight of Platform Management by “Produsers” recommends that platforms apply their technical expertise to an expansion of democratic functionality in their internal oversight and management systems by providing their users with voting rights in the election of board members and key decisions about company policies that impact these users. That post’s advocacy of increased democratic oversight of platforms by their users is informed by several others in the series.

The tech sector can help lead the next phase in democracy’s evolution

Though intended for a range of audiences interested in the issues it considers, a key purpose of this series of posts is to encourage a more consistent and ambitious embrace of democracy by Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and his counterparts at Google, Amazon and other entities in the platform and digital tech sectors.

As discussed in a later post, several commentators have highlighted an apparent inconsistency—or at least a perceptual blind spot—in Zuckerberg’s attitude toward democracy. On one hand he seems eager to support the expansion of democracy in what we consider “public” or “political” arenas of collective self-governance.  On the other hand, these critics point out, Facebook operates largely as a dictatorship, with one “ruler” (Zuckerberg) and more than 2 billion “subjects” whose lives are impacted—often for their good, but sometimes in harmful ways—by the decisions he makes about Facebook’s operations.

With this apparent inconsistency/blind spot in mind—and with genuine respect for their impressive talents, resources and accomplishments—my invitation to Zuckerberg and his tech industry peers is to recognize that their users deserve the voting rights, freedoms and protections of citizens not only in the collective governance systems we call political; they also deserve these rights as users and contributors of value to the massive global online platforms that, to use FDR’s words (which echo Zuckerberg’s own), are “a kind of private government which is a power unto itself.’”

I agree with Zuckerberg that “a global community that works for all of us” is not only needed, but can be achieved. And, as this series of posts explains in more detail, I believe Facebook and its platform peers can most effectively help create that community by taking the following steps:

  1. apply their world-class technical and financial resources to the creation of efficient, engaging and effective democratic governance tools;
  2. make these tools available to support development of an independent and nonpartisan platform dedicated specifically to supporting healthy democratic functionality in the public sphere of self-governance;
  3. grant their users a fuller and more explicit set of rights and protections as “citizen contributors” (a.k.a., “produsers“), and use the democracy-enhancing tools they develop to include these users in the process of internal corporate governance, including election of board members and decisions on policies that most directly impact users (e.g., those related to privacy and protection from harm).

If the creation of such a community is something you’d like to see, and perhaps are working toward in some capacity, I invite you to read the other posts in this series and share your own thoughts about the topics they address and the suggestions they offer.

********

Below is an outline, with links, to all the posts in this series. Unless otherwise noted, bolding in quotations is mine, added for emphasis.

  • Digital Platforms & Democratic Governance: Standing at an Historic Crossroads
    • The digital anthropocene: a pivotal & high-risk phase of human history
    • Empathy + technology: a powerful recipe for shared prosperity & peace
    • More (and more effective) democracy as part of the solution
    • The tech sector can help lead the next phase in democracy’s evolution
  • The Facebook F-Up as a Wake-Up Call
    • A growing awareness of problems
    • Where to look for solutions?
  • Serving Users (to Advertisers to Benefit Shareholders)
    • An IPO + mobile ads: 2012 as a turning point for Facebook
    • Too busy driving growth to focus on privacy?
    • Serving users or serving users to advertisers?
    • Understanding & addressing social harms
  • Data as Power: Approaches to Righting the Balance
    • Our data is tracked & locked in a “black box” we don’t control or understand
    • The EU tightens privacy protections amid mixed signals in the U.S.
    • Platforms as “information fiduciaries”
    • Reallocating power & benefits when users share their data
    • Shifting from an “Attention Economy” to a more efficient “Intention Economy”
    • Who owns and controls the data used to develop AI?
    • Data as labor that should be financially compensated
    • Data as an infrastructural public good
    • A “data tax” that generates a “data dividend” we all share
    • Data portability as means to enhance competition & consumer choice
  • The Power of Dominant Platforms: It’s Not Just About “Bigness”
    • New forms of concentrated power call for new remedies
    • Platforms wield transmission, gatekeeping & scoring power
    • Antitrust needs an updated framework to address platform power
    • Creating a civic infrastructure of checks & balances for the digital economy
  • Democracy & Corporate Governance: Challenging the Divine Right of Capital
    • A “generative” or “extractive” business model?
    • Dethroning kings & capital 
    • Moving beyond capitalism’s aristocratic form
    • Embracing economic democracy as a next-step Enlightenment
  • Platform Cooperativism: Acknowledging the Rights of “Produsers”
    • Reclaiming the Internet’s sharing & democratizing potential
    • Scaling a platform co-op: easier said than done
    • The #BuyTwitter campaign as a call for change
    • Encouraging the wisdom of crowds or the fears of mobs?
  • Interactions Between Political & Platform Systems
    • Feedback loops reinforce strengths & weaknesses, benefits & harms
    • Facebook’s role in the election as an example
    • If we don’t fix government, can government help fix Facebook?
  • A Purpose-Built Platform to Strengthen Democracy
    • Is Zuck’s lofty vision compatible with Facebook’s business model?
    • Designed to bolster democracy, not shareholder returns
  • Democratic Oversight of Platform Management by “Produsers”
    • Facebook, community and democracy
    • Is Facebook a community or a dictatorship?
    • Giving users a vote in Facebook’s governance
    • Technology can help users participate in FB governance
    • Evolving from corporate dictatorship toward digital democracy
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