Neoliberal technology is shaping our world. Let’s turn the tables on it

Bob Bollen

Thursday, 05 January 2017

Neoliberal technology is shaping our world and is likely to make us narrow-minded and easily manipulated. At the same time, neoliberal technology is making the wealthy more powerful while little attention is paid to how it destroys our planet. Let’s turn the tables on it, making new technology more sustainable, equal and democratic!

In this article I hope to convince you that there might be a new change model which is worth investigating. It could bring about cheaper and more environmentally friendly products at the same time as leading to a better democracy.

Venture capitalists and multinational corporations work together to deploy new technologies in a way that ensures them a long term, continuing stream of income, which far outweighs a fair return on their investment. Might we be able to turn the tables on them through careful research, followed by a combination of methods such as crowd-funding, peer to peer lending, open source designs, assembly in local workshops, multi-stakeholder governance and micro-payments?

Take social media. If we’d all realised back in the mid 2000s that the social media ‘gorillas’ (eg Facebook, Twitter, Google) were intending to make money by selling our data about private aspects of our lives to other corporations, who would then use this to persuade us to buy stuff we don’t need, and so contribute to the destruction of the planet; would we have thought more carefully?

If we’d realised that it would also be used (perhaps deliberately, perhaps coincidentally) to grossly exaggerate our human tendency to feel comfortable in our own tribes, and to scorn and shout at those in other tribes, would we have acted differently?

What might we have done? We might have demanded that the secret algorithms determining what we are shown were subject to democratic review or regulation. We might have crowdfunded a non-profit, stakeholder governed service funded through micro-payments eg 0.01p per post.

At this point in time, using these or similar approaches may well be too late because the social media gorillas have solidified their market share. It will take a lot to shift them, but we shouldn’t necessarily give up.

But what of the future?

There are many new technologies coming along, where venture capitalists are hoping to milk us, and possibly enslave us even more too. Think gene & bio-tech. Think nano-tech. And combine these with artificial intelligence and the exponential growth in computing power.

They often try to hide their real intentions with soft-soap marketing like ‘collaborative consumption’ or the ‘sharing economy’. What could be more attractive than the idea of sharing things so we all buy less? But look at how Uber operates. It sells us, yes, easier, faster and cheaper services, but potentially endangers us by taking little responsibility for tired drivers, treats its drivers as customers too, and then takes an undeservedly large share from them for itself. (In 2015 Uber tried to increase its share of a ride from one fifth to a quarter! See The Guardian)

Let’s look at some other imminent technologies.

It’s easy to find examples that may well lead to reduced personal autonomy and/ or worse public services, such as:
– Many services using Artificial Intelligence (AI) reproduce all the prejudices in society – because it has been trained on data collected from social media: see this quite dense paper, and this article about profiling of US citizens on arrival at prison
– Public policy increasingly determined by technocrats: see Stephen Oberauer’s award-winning article “A Self-improving, Transparent, Democratic, Meritocratic, International System” Democratic!?
– Uber’s SmartRoutes service likely to cannibalise bus operator revenues possibly leading to decline in public bus services and less investment in transport infrastructure: see this from The Awl.

It’s not so easy to find examples of potential liberation, but consider these:
– Democratically managed, low carbon municipal energy generation and supply
– Community furniture & appliance construction, repair and upcycling workshops (wood, steel, 3D printing, nanotech etc)
– Locally assembled, community managed, electric car sharing & taxi services
– Community protein farms (fish, insect & animal husbandry, cultured meat), circularly linked with allotments, breweries and bakeries

Some may say that these sorts of projects couldn’t be financially viable. And we might find that this is the case right now. But this could change if, for example, oil prices rise significantly so impacting the viability of using petrol and diesel for transportation, and affecting the price advantage of consumer goods from China and the Far East.

A strategy is starting to emerge

It goes something like this:
1. For each emerging new technology assemble a panel of experts – consisting (at least) of technologists, business analysts and marketers – all would be committed to the values of equality, inclusivity, democracy and sustainability, and would work on this initially for free
2. Get them to assess the possible impact on society of new products and services offered using typical venture capital business models; and then brainstorm appropriate ways of minimising these impacts (from such perspectives as likely impact on personal behaviour, likely impact on employment conditions in the supply chain, likely impact on the natural environment)
3. Get them to brainstorm alternative business models for those products and services, and their probabilities of success (Here’s a question you might like to answer in the comments section: What might be the criteria for significant probability of success?)
4. For those which have a significant probability of succ