The exponentially increasing role of technology in our lives has been criticized as long as it has existed. For example, Socrates feared the advance of writing when it first emerged. The perspective from a group of dissenters whom spoke at a conference on reinventing the internet isn’t your typical techno-phobic “back in my day/we knew how to live before the internet/brainwashing young minds/young people won’t get off their smartphones”. Rather, they are a group of technophiles dissenting against the internet’s design, rather than its existence. Their blueprint for the ‘perfect’ internet is that in which nodes can communicate with one another directly and not be forced to go through a “data-sucking corporate hub“.
Astra Taylor wrote a book entitled The People’s Platform: Taking Back Power and Culture in the Digital Age (2014). Whilst Taylor appreciates the connectivity which social media and search engine technology provides, she acknowledges the “shadow narrative” which is being written simultaneously. She argues against the so-called ‘independent‘, ‘democratic’, ‘utopian’ internet design. Key takeaways from Taylor’s argument include:
- If an online product, service or platform is ‘free’, you are the product.
- Companies are profiting from our personal data. This links to the rise of the ‘surveillance state’; the government (internationally), corporations and research companies harvest data we give ‘willingly’ (or unknowingly?) and use it for purposes with questionable ethic. We aren’t ‘customers’ of social media platforms, we are the merchandise. We create value for corporations, not content for social media platforms.
Our thoughts, friendships and basic urges are processed by computer algorithms and sold to advertisers. The machines may soon know more about us than we know about ourselves (Achenback 2015).
- The ownership (which is predominantly corporate) of digital platforms is growing steadily towards monopolisation
- Because we are constantly connected to the internet, we are rarely fully present in one single place. This is a result of the growth of the attention economy. This serves as a massive opportunity for corporations to mine material and capital from our private experiences and emotions.
- The erosion of privacy: Edward Snowden, an ex-NSA whistle-blower, revealed the ability and tendency for the government to track everything online.
- The paranoia of machines replacing human jobs, and eventually (potentially) enslaving us in our own creations in a much-anticipated, yet feared, phenomenon known as ‘technological singularity‘.
“The economy accepts every advance in technology with a view to profit, without concern for its potentially negative impact on human beings.” Pope Francis
- There ought to be more (openly) government-supported internet platforms, to move away from corporations having monopoly.
- Information does not want to be free, it wants to be paid for (Taylor 2014).
The internet, although designed for democracy, has become a platform to generate profit. Capitalism surrounds this ideal like a python wrapping itself tightly around its prey. Humanists are those who feel that technological interest has surpassed human needs and nature. Humanists are generally associated with technophobes – but this is not the case. The dissenting group discussed in this post identify as humanists, yet in the sense that the internet needs to be redesigned to better represent and support humanity and democracy.
They want to go back to the basics – to a world where the interests of humans come before robots, algorithms and the needs of Silicon Valley (Achenback 2015).
Dissenting from the current internet environment is no simple task. Artificial intelligence, machinery and social networking is a permanently embedded structure in society.
Jaron Lanier is another dissenter. He is a designer of computer games and a self-proclaimed humanist. His view is that all internet users essentially work for platforms such as Google and Facebook; our private lives are transformed into content which these corporations can monetise. He argues that the internet’s current flawed design is a result of humanity’s collective choice; the decision to trade our privacy for internet service.
“For the last twenty years, I have found myself on the inside of a revolution, but on the outside of its resplendent dogma. Now that the revolution has not only hit the mainstream, but bludgeoned it into submission by taking over the economy, it’s probably time for me to cry out my dissent more loudly than I have before.” (Lanier 2000)
Douglas Rushkoff, another humanist, theorises that everything went wrong back in the middle-ages when currency was centralised. He examines how humans are content rather than creators in the internet environment, and the need for a discussion on how humans should be fitting in the ‘new’ economy.
The digital environment is. It exists in its own right; we have gifted it that power. It operates under the disguise of freedom, but is underpinned by a dark capitalist shadow. Technology is not the enemy; the enemies are sinister surveillance and sly capitalism. Social media is not the problem. Sharing personal information online is not the problem. The system which chooses to abuse this environment for its own self-interest is the problem. This is an important distinction to make as the internet’s capacity and influence continues to grow and develop into the future.
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