Digital divides: it doesn’t have to

“Democracy improves as more people participate,” Audrey Tang, the digital minister of Taiwan, wrote for The New York Times in 2019. “And digital technology remains one of the best ways to improve participation—as long as the focus is on finding common ground and creating consensus, not division.”

Back in 1994 when I first came across the Web I was struck by its tremendous democratic potential, of how it opened up society. Little did I realize that the Web would ultimately open up society to attack from malign hatemongers like Trump and Bolsonaro.

Little did I think that the “free” advertising-based model pursued by the likes of Facebook would be such a cesspit of waste and social poison. Little did I think that the Web would allow for the concentration of economic power in the hands of the Amazon and Google tech elite. And to crown it all, that this tech elite would relentlessly pursue tax evasion which would hollow out society, leaving little money for basic services, making things brittle and fragile.

The pandemic is good for the tech industry. They will be able to concentrate more power and wealth because of it, while avoiding even more taxes. While Bolsonaro devastates Brazil and the Amazon, Bezos can gleefully devastate small business, making societies serfs to the great lord, while paying his workers the absolute, absolute minimum. Tech and the return to slavery. That’s a story.

Our public spaces have been hollowed out by the elite. The Web and technology have been primary tools in this process. There is no sense of the fair society in the tech bro mindset, just a relentless pursuit of growth, profit and tax evasion.

Hate sells better than hope. Want is easier to advertise than need. To build a fair society is not to build one where the greedy tech elite accumulate vast wealth, but one where ordinary people can lead decent, honorable lives by getting paid decent wages and having decent healthcare. This is not an impossible dream. There is more than enough wealth and capacity to do this. We simply lack the will, the courage.

In Taiwan, we see a light of hope shining. They have used technology to help nurture consensus not division. The people genuinely participate in the policy space and they are listened to. Any Taiwanese citizen “can post a comment about the topic or policy being discussed,” Audrey Tang explains. “Crucially, other users cannot directly reply to these statements, which reduces the likelihood of trolling and abuse. Instead, they can click ‘agree,’ ‘disagree’ or ‘pass/unsure’ on each comment.”

The system then uses real-time machine learning to analyze all the votes and “produce an interactive map that groups like-minded participants together in relation to other, differently minded users,” Tang explains. “The map lays bare the gaps between various groups—as well as any areas of agreement. Ideally, this incentivizes people to post comments that attract more supporters, creating a path toward consensus.”

Coronavirus has shown us how fragile and interconnected our world is. Since 1970, there has been an explosion in wealth and technology, and an equally great explosion in inequality. Investment in the public space has been sucked dry by obscenely overpaid, tax-dodging vampires, leaving brittle shells that crack when the hard winds of a pandemic blow.

Before Bezos and Zuckerberg unleash their robot army, we should act. It’s not too late, though it’s getting there.

A Strong Democracy Is a Digital Democracy, Audrey Tang

One thought on “Digital divides: it doesn’t have to

  1. Mary Chipman

    The problem isn’t Bezos and Zuckerberg’s robot army, you have to look deeper, back to US v. Microsoft. Judge Penfield Jackson characterized Bill Gates as a Napoleon, “unethical”, as well as comparing him to a “drug trafficker” repeatedly caught as a result of telephone wiretaps. Judge Jackson’s statements were a response to several evasive tactics Microsoft used at the trial, including falsifying video evidence, non-responsiveness on the stand, and denying allegations contained in evidence. This is the summary in Judge Jackson’s findings of fact:

    “… Microsoft has demonstrated that it will use its prodigious market power and immense profits to harm any firm that insists on pursuing initiatives that could intensify competition against one of Microsoft’s core products. Microsoft’s past success in hurting such companies and stifling innovation deters investment in technologies and businesses that exhibit the potential to threaten Microsoft. The ultimate result is that some innovations that would truly benefit consumers never occur for the sole reason that they do not coincide with Microsoft’s self-interest.”

    And what is Microsoft’s self-interest? Their fiduciary obligation to shareholder returns, same as every other publicly held corporation on the planet. These multi-nationals have no allegiance to any nation, it’s all naked self-interest to drive up the stock price, which worked beautifully for Microsoft, enabling Bill Gates to remake himself as a warm and fuzzy philanthropist with the ocean of cash he amassed by playing dirty. Nothing is going to change as long as behemoth technology companies lock up the collective intellectual property of their employees in patents, stifle whistleblowers with gag orders, replace FTEs with contractors and pervert the justice system to their own ends with their armies of contract lawyers paid by the hour, so there is never going to be swift justice, or any justice at all for those wronged. Who among us has deep enough pockets to go up against Microsoft, Google, Amazon or any of the other big tech companies when the record clearly shows that they will cheat and lie under oath in order to win? How do you fight that?

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