In this article, Cory Doctorow discusses how we can demand better technology. Can we imagine a world where we have the ease and convenience of technology without giving away our security and privacy?
This is a false binary: you don’t have to be “protech” or “anti-tech.” Indeed, it’s hard to imagine how someone could realistically be said to be “anti-tech” – your future is going to have more technology in it, so the question isn’t, “Should we use technology?” but rather, “Which technology should we use?”
To hear Facebook tell it, staying in touch with your friends is impossible, unless you give in to continuous, covert surveillance of everything you do online. Ask Apple and they’ll tell you that having a functional phone is inseparable from allowing a distant, multibillion-dollar corporation decide who can repair it and whose software you’re allowed to use. Ask Google and they’ll tell you that providing a critical search-interface to the web can’t be done without (again) spying on everything you do.
Have you ever considered what you are giving away through your technology? When you phone tracks your every movement, your emails are all read, your social interactions and private messages are parsed through machines. What is the cost?
The question of what postcapitalist tech, or noncapitalist tech, or even mixed-market tech would look like is up for grabs. It’s easy to see the self-serving logic of insisting that such a thing could not exist: if you’ve just raised millions with the hope of getting rich yourself, insisting that your technology’s apparent avarice is an unfortunate necessity, rather than a choice you’ve made, can buy you a modicum of respectability.
In 2018, companies from John Deere to GM to Johnson & Johnson use digital locks and abusive license agreements to force you to submit to surveillance and control how you use their products. It’s true that if you don’t pay for the product, you’re the product – but if you’re a farmer who’s just shelled out $500,000 for a new tractor, you’re still the product.
Viewing the internet age through an economic lens means giving up on tidy stories like “Craigslist killed newspapers and democracy died.” Instead, we have to tell complicated stories like, “Reagan deregulated business and defanged anti-trust, and so newspapers were snapped up by private equity funds that slashed their newsrooms, centralized their ad sales, and weakened their product. When Craigslist came along, these businesses had been looted of all the cash they could have used to figure out their digital futures, and they started to die.” The news business had weathered multiple technology-driven shocks from the telegraph to television to the Great Depression.
the reason we’re still talking about decades-old SF movies like The Matrix and The Terminator – the reason smart people keep issuing foolish warnings about our primitive AIs making great leaps and becoming our overlords – is that these AI-apocalypses resonate with our current corporate situation. Corporations – artificial persons under the law – are colony life-forms that use us like gut-flora, maneuvering us to help them thrive and reproduce, jettisoning us or crushing us if we cease to serve their needs.
The people of tech – the people without whom Google and Facebook and Apple and Amazon couldn’t keep the lights on – are not gut flora. They’re human beings with agency and willpower, and they are subject to moral suasion. They are capable of building a technological future that gives us the things we love about our technology, without inflicting the harms of these systems upon us. What’s more, they also labor under these harms. The humans behind the corporate veil are capable of compassion and solidarity, they can be reached and moved and enlisted.
Our technology can make our lives better, can give us more control, can give us more privacy – but only if we force it to live up to its promise. Any path to that better future will involve technologists, because no group of people on earth is better equipped to understand how important it is to get there.