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 success: add technologists, engineers and project managers to the team; and ask them to come up with a viable plan
5. For those which don’t have a significant probability of success: propose how the technology should be monitored and regulated; and propose ways that individuals might decide whether and how to use the new technology
6. Publicise the work widely – and support people in putting the plans into action
7. Make all outputs available as open source

We know that venture capitalists investigate all these issues. They want to be sure their investments pay off. See for example Sir Ronald Cohen’s “The Second Bounce Of The Ball: Turning Risk Into Opportunity“. Cohen is an influential private equity investor and founder of Apax Capital Partners.

From my experience in IT, the challenges will not be in the technology, its construction or delivery of the service. We can do all this. The biggest challenges will be in choosing a winning marketing strategy – by that I mean choosing how to shape suitably priced offerings for each stage of growth; and then finding patient finance to support that.

Fortunately, we can find great advice from Geoffrey Moore’s highly readable “Inside the Tornado: Marketing Strategies from Silicon Valley’s Cutting Edge“. He gives many examples of how successful products appeared to suddenly gain massive market share and become – as he calls them – gorillas. They do this by moving from early successes with tech nerds – he calls them ‘early adopters’ – through an often long, but determined middle phase to a tipping point when everybody stampedes to the new technology and creates just one market leader – the gorilla. There is ample advice for how to approach each of these three phases, and how to recognise and prepare for the next. No doubt things have moved on since it was written, so we’ll need all the help we can get. And we’ll need to crack the problem of getting patient funding, too.

We are the 99% – we can make this work!

Look at our strengths
– We are the 99% – we will be both contributors and buyers for these products
– There are many amongst us who both intimately know, and are deeply concerned by, the methods and outcomes of the global technology corporations for whom they work – some of them will contribute
– Our messages of treating the environment sustainability, sharing open source designs, and governance by all stakeholder will win many hearts as well as minds
– Because our business models won’t feed anyone’s desire for excessive profit or design in obsolescence, our prices could well be lower too

In this way we hope to switch much of our buying towards products and services that give us both short term benefits and protect our long term well-being at the same time as bringing in a new form of business democracy!

“In order to change an existing paradigm you do not struggle to try and change the problematic model. You create a new model and make the old one obsolete.” Buckminster Fuller – architect, systems theorist, author, designer, and inventor

If you’d like to contribute to improving this strategy and starting to work on it, please get in touch at bollenbob48@gmail.com

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  1. Posted by Petros

    Re historical questions:
    “Take social media… would we have thought more carefully? ”
    “Would we have acted differently?”
    “What might we have done?”

    No, we would not (“we” being figuratively used for the general audience).

    1. We were/are repetitively warned that the states and corporations are going to use technology to spy on us (ECHELON https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ECHELON being the earliest example I remember) and only massive and well documented Snowden’s leak (endorsed by USG hysterical reaction) made us really believe in reality. But even that did not trigger any massive change (inertia!)

    2. For a mind conditioned to follow “homo economicus” role model of capitalist consumer (time-value of money being one of fundamentals) short term convenience will always prevails over long-term threat.

    3. We were/are kept in the narrative that is based on vulgarized construct of an “invisible hand” of a non-existent free market, appropriated by the corporate oligopoly. Thus, questioning benevolence of any given business entity is pointless. There is always an answer “the market will counter it”.

    4. We were/are not allowed to think clearly. Daily, we are, in a premeditated way, bombarded with a barrage of inputs, aimed to distort our view of reality, break all continuity of thinking and make our focus time-span as short as possible.

    “A strategy is starting to emerge”

    I see one missing module here: you have not declared a desired governance model. My favourite, of course, would be a consumer (users) cooperative or hybrid (multistake) one. Again, we do not operate in a neutral environment. People’s mind are continually molded into a set of values, grossly contradicting all goals we both share.

    So, let us create safe social spaces (vernacular, if you like) to protect our people from toxic propaganda. Create self-organised and collectively owned/controlled business entities, focused on fulfilling community needs rather than increasing metrics, defined for capitalist economy. And, by all means, employ science and technology as support factors for the social change.

    Every change in social system has to adjust all three aspects: governance, economy and technology. Their synergy is the magic sauce of successful transition.

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