Creating a Future Where Technology Serves Neither Kings Nor Capital, But Humanity

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 general tendencies we all share as human beings. One tendency is grounded in fear and can manifest in different forms, including anger, hatred, scapegoating, jealousy, arrogance, greed [and] addictive behavior…and across a range of intensity and scope, from mild and interpersonal to brutally violent and international, as in wars, genocide, etc. While this tendency and its various manifestations can be combined with strategic, tactical and technological intelligence (as in wars of aggression, financial exploitation, etc), it is incapable, in my view, of expressing wisdom.

A countervailing tendency is grounded in empathy, compassion and appreciation for and experience of deeper levels of fulfillment…When this tendency is combined with strategic, tactical and technological intelligence, I call the result “applied wisdom,” [as] reflected in the tagline for this blog: Ageless wisdom wielding 21st century technology.

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 characterstics of this stage in human history, 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 in wealth and related factors;
  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 have dystopian dynamics along the following lines:

1) The financial extraction engines of corporate capitalism, the financial corruption of political democracy, global economic and ecological dynamics, and austerity-weakened social safety nets, will combine to drive increased inequality. This, in turn, will increase stress and conflict at micro and macro levels of society, and the level of suffering 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 further increase social stress and proliferation of win-lose and increasingly violent “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, violent religiosity).

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 messaging 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 constrained 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 increasing inequality, oppression, suffering, violence and ecological decline. Not a pretty picture and, in my view, one we have the opportunity and responsibility to avoid.

Connecting as citizens & humans, not just as users & consumers

My hope is that this series of blog posts can make some small contribution to efforts aimed at avoiding the above scenario by harnessing digital technology to a combination of two powerful human attributes: 1) our ability to empathize with each other and; 2) our ability to develop and use technology to design and implement increasingly complex strategies and systems (a.k.a., ageless wisdom wielding 21st century technology).

In this 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 and peaceful world; a world 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 first post, Democracy & Digital Platforms: A Match Made in Heaven or in Hell? introduces the core thesis of this series, that: 1) the recent revelations about Facebook, Cambridge Analytica and the 2016 election reflect deficiencies in democratic functionality in both our public and private sectors and; 2) we should treat these events as a wake up call demanding democracy-enhancing changes in both of these sectors.
  • Serving Users (to Advertisers to Benefit Shareholders) examines key aspects and impacts of micro-targeted advertising-based 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 contradiction—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) grant their users a fuller set of rights and protections as “citizen contributors;”

2) apply their world-class technical and financial resources to the creation of efficient, engaging and effective democratic governance tools and;

3) apply these tools to their internal corporate management while also supporting their use to support healthier functionality in the public sphere of self-governance, e.g., in the form of increased trust and participation among a better informed population, and reduced corruption, deception and abuse of power.

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.

  • Creating a Future Where Technology Serves Neither Kings Nor Capital, But Humanity
    • Connecting as citizens & humans, not just as users & consumers
    • More (and more effective) democracy as part of the solution
    • The tech sector can help lead the next phase in democracy’s evolution
  • Democracy & Digital Platforms: A Match Made in Heaven or in Hell?
    • The Facebook F-up as a wake-up call
    • 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?
    • Conflicting definitions of “serving users”
    • 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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