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Tech AND Liberation?! I just had to attend. To find myself successively disappointed and then engaged.

credits: Johns Hopkins University Press,  Techno Liberation Front

credits: Johns Hopkins University Press, Techno Liberation Front

Kudos to the UCL students who set up the TechnoLiberation event – they pulled together some interesting and varied panellists, chose an important topic, and filled a large lecture theatre with a wide variety of people. Thanks also to Andrew Orford for alerting me to the event, and for interesting conversations afterwards.

The panellists were:

Judy Wajcman (“Pressed for Time. The Acceleration of Life in Digital Capitalism”, LSE) – a sociologist and feminist,
David Wood (Chair London Futurists),
Marcos Cruz (Syn.de.Bio and BiotA LAB, UCL Bartlett School of Architecture),
– Chair: Jack Stilgoe (Editorial Board Public Understanding of Science, UCL).

I experienced my disappointment during the panellists’ presentations, when it became clear that ‘TechnoLiberation’ was a slight oversell, as what the participants seemed to be discussing was more prosaically whether current technological trends lead more toward positive or negative outcomes, seen from a broadly humanist viewpoint. There seemed to be no interest in whether technological tools could be leveraged in the service of radical liberation, or indeed used for serious oppression.

Instead, the broad terms of the debate were delineated most clearly by David Wood, who comprehensively and clearly set out his vision of increasingly rapid technological change in the coming decades, and contrasted two approaches as to how societies might manage this; either techno-optimism, or techno-progressivism.

Techno-optimism he defined as the broadly libertarian, free-market, ‘go-for-it’ approach that is the stereotype of the west-coast tech billionaire – where the ‘creative destruction’ of capitalistic approaches is seen as the most effective mechanism to produce maximal returns for humanity; accepting of inequalities of opportunity, outcome, and regrettable local results as necessary corollaries that won’t matter in the end as technology brings us to an age of abundance for all, so that even the most disadvantaged have enough.

Techno-progressivism, by contrast, while still positive about technological change, is more concerned to manage the purpose, impact and outcome of that change in the service of humanist ‘goods’ – not clearly stated, but obviously rooted in European liberal values. This approach requires more of government and society – more engagement, more understanding, more conviction as to what is desirable. David was very clear that this latter option is his favoured approach, that he is not convinced that exponential technological change, unfettered, can be relied on to deliver a humane outcome.

Marcos Cruz took a much narrower approach, confining himself to describing the ways in which he and his students, along with others around the world, are using technological tools such as fractal, iterative 3D modelling and printing to produce innovative architectural forms and potentially transforming the means of production of buildings (although he was rather vague as to exactly how). To be honest (and don’t forget, I’m an architect myself), this was pretty weak stuff, albeit visually engaging, so I’ll say no more, but since most of his contributions were off the main thrust of the debate, you’re not missing out, I promise!

Judy Wajcman’s approach was more discursive (more entertaining!), and broadly supportive of David Wood’s call for management of technological change, but she added a further dimension – instead of blindly (or wilfully?) using advancing technology to replicate and intensify existing social and economic relationships, we should consider whether technology offers opportunities to address social issues that are currently problematic – she proposed the position of women in society as one example. Looked at this way the possibility exists for technology to be socially transformative in a purposeful way.

My initial disappointment had by now been overtaken by engagement with the arguments and examples being offered, but I was becoming exasperated by the seeming political naivety of the proposal that social mechanisms – ie government – would be up to the challenge of managing the pace, character and direction of technological change. To imagine that western democratic structures are potential drivers of such an approach seems risible, given the feeble and tortuous attempts to address climate change – a much clearer and more widely understood problem, with a clear scientific consensus promulgated by a UN body.

By contrast, the autocratic Chinese state seems to have a much clearer (and arguably effective) purpose and intent to manage technological change – but there, the aims are rather far removed from those which seemed generally shared in the room.

My own view is that neither unfettered technological optimism, nor liberal technological progressivism are tenable if you desire humane outcomes.

Technological optimism’s proposition is at best unproven, and at worst terrifyingly dangerous.

The techno-optimist approach is in effect what we have in operation at present. In an uneasy alliance with globalised capitalism (the structures, motivations and practices of tech corporations are clearly distinguishable from those of more traditional conglomerates, but the former happily exploit mechanisms pioneered by the latter when it suits them), the tech sector is largely unfettered – too fast moving for lumbering government, end-running outdated legislation, blithely ignoring (or blatantly challenging) social and moral conventions, economically privileged by an enormous quantity and diversity of private capital. Congruent with the exponential growth of this sector, we have seen the rise to dangerous levels of inequality, environmental degradation and worker exploitation, together with increasing geo-political instability (not least as an outcome of the use of cyber-warfare tools enabled by the tech sector).

I am not for one second suggesting that the tech sector is in favour of these negative effects, or even that it accepts them as necessary corollaries to ‘progress’ – many individuals within tech are explicitly working against them (ref; green data centres, the Fairphone’s ambitious approach [1,2] and Elon Musk’s rationalist environmentalism). However, it is unarguable that the tools afforded to globalising capitalism by technological change have fuelled its growth, and along with that, growth in all of the negatives listed above. The balancing positives imagined by technological optimists simply are not appearing, except at the margins (where they are nevertheless trumpeted to exaggerate their impact by tech apologists).

Technological progressivism is incoherent, has no real constituency, and therefore lacks credibility as a real-world possibility

Technological progressivism, by contrast, is a proposition with only the faintest real-world purchase, without any coherent  platform and which derives from a loose array of proponents, most of whom are far from the levers of power (you might counter that the ‘optimists’ are similarly lacking a coherent organisation – but they oppose concerted action, while the progressives can only succeed on the basis of broad agreement within power structures). Even more seriously, a large part of the constituency that advocates might hope to mobilise for support are not progressives at all, but reactionaries and those challenged by change –  coalitions of groups with such wide philosophical differences are easily confounded, as opponents find it all too easy to exploit internal conflicts.

Nevertheless, you might point to the reaction of the EU to the Snowden revelations, with plans for a dramatic increase in restrictions on the use of personal data by tech firms, as an example of a real-world progressive move. But if we do look, we can find only articles which make it clear how difficult it is to balance the competing interests of individual privacy, social gain through shared data, commercial incentives to innovate, and practical enforcement [1,2,3] – it is clearly difficult to shape a policy that will maintain this balance – even if you could come to an agreement as to where the correct balance point is.

For the sake of argument though, let us imagine an agreed outcome that earns broad support across the EU, from citizens, political, legislative and commercial sectors, and that the current timetable is held to, so that strong legislation comes into force in 2016.

The problem with this is that in the three years that will have passed since Edward Snowden’s leaks, the revolution in cloud technology has transformed the way that almost all tech products operate. Instead of small amounts of data being stored on computers or in data centres owned or locally managed by each individually company, data of many more kinds is now stored on the servers of a relatively small number of global cloud providers – a number which is shrinking all the time and of which none of the major players is EU based. The technology has moved on, as it always does, at a pace which renders the painstaking compromise building and consultations look hopeless. At the same time, the global scale of the industry means that, whatever the EU’s regulatory framework, the reality will be that most EU citizens will have large amounts of their data saved in the cloud, mostly outside the EU, on services which will likely never be subject to any rigorous examination (and which will be covered by unread T&Cs which will do all they can to render the legislation irrelevant).

This single-case example serves to make clear my extreme doubts that the techno-progressive approach can have meaningful impact on what actually happens – and this is in a case where public concern is relatively high and relatively aligned with the progressive view.

What price Liberation Technology?

So am I a doom-monger – unconvinced by the progressive approach, fearful of the free-for-all that is the de-facto status quo?

Not at all. My hope lies in the observation that experience of freedom seems to work like a non-return valve. Once people have felt liberated in some part of their lives, it is very hard to push them backward – and many, many technological tools have had the effect of making people feel more free, more empowered.

Even if this freedom can be argued to be at the cost of some other ‘good’ (often privacy and control over data), it is nevertheless experienced as freedom, and a typical startup approach is to look for areas in which people feel constricted by current approaches, and for ways to open things up – to provide an experience of empowerment, of increased freedom. Often, this is more-or-less purely economic – as in the dis-intermediation that has so powerfully affected the fashion retail sector, but there are powerful examples of popular tools that have only marginal economic functions – Twitter is the obvious example here (as well as SMS in many developing nation settings).

The rapid lowering of so many of the barriers to entry into the digital sphere make it certain that, alongside the explosion in digital inventions that will tend to fuel negative social, environmental and financial mechanisms, there will be an equal flowering in what I call ‘Digital tools for self-reliance’ [with apologies to the wonderful charity, Tools for Self Reliance, which has volunteers refurbishing hand-tools for use in Africa].

Examples range from Twitter at one end of the scale range to Freegle at the other, from security/privacy tools like Telegram for messaging and the Tor browser, to low-cost computing devices designed specifically for the developing world like Datawind’s Aakash tablet. These tools, and hundreds, thousands, more like them, will, over the next decade, equip hundreds of millions of young people, many from the developing world, with the means to engage with the technological world in an unprecedented way. These youthful millions will have little or no stake in the perpetuation of existing models of privilege and inequality, and are likely to prove radically disruptive in numbers so large as to be able to have a significant impact.

Of course it is easy to imagine that even this huge new cohort could be subsumed into the global marketplace as mere consumers, but do remember that they come from communities that are more cohesive than the atomised societies of the West, and from places where the realities of daily life make politics local and immediately meaningful, so that I suggest they will be less susceptible than we might imagine. Additionally, there are new technological tools which support and enable new forms of community and new methods of political engagement and decision making, like the Occupy Movement’s Loomio and the Pirate Party’s Liquid Democracy tools.

This is the locus of my optimism – in new forms of community thrashed out by newly empowered young people from populations whose political senses are undulled by generations of access to socialised and bureaucratised healthcare, welfare, education and justice. New forms of community can be the places where new forms of social engagement are imagined that will provide a strong humanist counterweight to the free-wheeling engine of technological innovation.

Who knows whether this vision will be borne out, but nevertheless, this is where I see hope for humanity  – my version of techno-liberation – ¡Viva Liberation Technology!

For an exhilarating fictional read along these lines, see Cory Doctorow’s ‘For The Win’  –  a vivid attempt at imagining how the sort of impact I’m imagining might begin to be made.