Case studies and implications

We rely on technology for almost everything…and yet no society in the world has yet stood up to demand greater control over its digital destiny. No country has committed itself to building a technology that is as fair as it is convenient (Fox, 2017).

The new technologies do not entail a radical reshaping of modes of doing things. A driverless car is still a car (Das, 2016).

Google’s tools are not the objects of value exchange. They do not establish productive consumer-producer reciprocities. Instead they are ‘hooks’ that lure users into extractive operations and turn ordinary life into a 21st Century Faustian pact. This social dependency is at the heart of the surveillance project (Zuboff, 2015, p.82).

The first chapter of this book considered a sample of publications to explore some of the many contested issues that have arisen between promoters and critics of the IT revolution. It concluded that there are substantive reasons to believe that the Internet, in particular, falls short of what it was originally intended to be and, indeed, what it could yet become. It underperforms when assessed for fairness and egalitarian uses. It seriously over-reaches as a medium that is dedicated to selling and to extracting value from the general public – habitually without their knowledge or permission. Hence the Internet we have is a degraded – and to some extent degrading – version of what it could be had it been designed and implemented differently. That is, according to positive values exercised in the public interest, rather than an oppressive, diversionary realm dominated by powerful corporations and providing unlimited opportunities for abuse.

The upcoming pages focus on three specific case studies – the Internet of Things (IoT), the rise of Autonomous Vehicles (AVs) and the Silicon Valley. The former is already being portrayed as a kind of unquestioned default assumption. The latter widely promoted to replace standard vehicles driven directly by humans on conventional roads. The section then outlines salient features of the two most dominant Internet giants, Facebook and Google, with two goals in mind. First, to identify ways to improve our understanding of their interior human and cultural aspects and second, to use the insights gained to explore what should be done and by whom – an issue addressed in the subsequent sections. Taken together these sections help define a draft agenda that can be critiqued, modified and put to wider use. The overarching goal is not merely to help moderate the exploitive impacts of IT but to evolve strategies that better serve more constructive, humanly valuable ends.

How, for example, can people begin to better understand the uses, abuses and limitations of algorithms? How can the vast potential of ‘big data’ be captured and applied in ways that support egalitarian uses within civil societies while avoiding the slide toward becoming an oppressive instrument of power and control? How can the ‘dark’ side of the Internet be rendered less dangerous, less of a continuing threat to the normal operations and general wellbeing of entire societies? How can the increasingly monopolistic and dehumanising aspects of ‘surveillance capitalism’ be moderated and replaced by more open and genuinely participatory forms of economic and social organisation? This alone constitutes a huge and challenging agenda. Yet, behind all such IT-related questions lies another, deeper one that has arguably been eclipsed by the rampant and all-consuming growth of Internet phenomena. How can humanity employ its vast new technical capacities to moderate its multiple impacts on the global system and, over time, shift toward more far-sighted options that reduce the growing risk of ‘overshoot and collapse’ futures (Floyd & Slaughter, 2012)? This is the great question that few people – including Internet entrepreneurs – care to consider. Yet it arguably represents the greatest existential threat in history.

There is a very real possibility that putting all this technical power and capacity to work primarily for the radically limited instrumental purposes of surveillance, advertising and selling may come to be seen as amongst the greatest misuses of human ingenuity ever. So it is time to question the existing narratives, structures and dominant values that continue to drive the Internet as we know it. Society as a whole can do far better than to proceed into a cultural desert operated increasingly by remote AI devices for the benefit of a dominant few.