Man­ag­ing the Dig­i­tal Dis­rup­tion

The Times of India (New Delhi edition) - - Times City -

to ex­press an opin­ion was re­stricted to very few to one where not only ev­ery­one has an op­por­tu­nity to say what they like to whom­so­ever they wish in what­ever tone and man­ner they fancy. To­day, the pow­er­ful are rou­tinely abused in the harsh­est pos­si­ble terms in full pub­lic view. This is an ex­tra­or­di­nary change, and it has taken place in less than a decade. For this change to have hap­pened purely through a process of or­ganic so­cial evo­lu­tion might have taken decades, and may never have come about at all.

The dra­matic con­se­quences are all around us. While so much of the change is pos­i­tive, the darker ef­fects are rea­sons for grave worry. The in­creas­ing po­lar­i­sa­tion of the world, the rise of var­i­ous com­mu­ni­ties pro­pelled by hate, the pro­lif­er­a­tion of fake news, grow­ing in­tol­er­ance on all kinds across the ide­o­log­i­cal spec­trum — these are all the di­rect and in­di­rect re­sults of our tech­no­log­i­cal ca­pa­bil­i­ties.

Should the prob­lem be tack­led at the dis­tri­bu­tion end? This might not please votaries of free mar­kets and of the free­dom of ex­pres­sion, and un­der­stand­ably so. Surely, the tech­nol­ogy com­pa­nies have the right to fur­ther their busi­ness with­out ex­ces­sive con­trols that other busi­nesses are not sub­ject to. Also, while they have been slow to do so, they are mak­ing some ef­forts to reg­u­late the vast so­cial space that they have cre­ated.

Ar­guably, this may not be enough. The start­ing point for any search for so­lu­tions should not be that these plat­forms are nec­es­sar­ily evil em­pires bent on world dom­i­na­tion, but that it doesn’t mat­ter even if they aren’t. They sim­ply do not know the power that they wield, again, not be­cause of ig­no­rance, but be­cause it is nei­ther vir­tu­ally im­pos­si­ble to an­tic­i­pate the full cas­cad­ing so­cial con­se­quences of their ac­tions, nor would the pres­ence of good in­ten­tions be enough. With­out in­tend­ing to, they have changed the course of cul­tural evo­lu­tion, and have sub­stan­tially al­tered the con­di­tions that help or­der so­cial re­la­tions and pro­vide a sem­blance of equi­lib­rium.

In the ab­sence of such so­ci­etal pro­cesses, the only mean­ing­ful op­tion might be to reg­u­late the tech­nol­ogy it­self. Such enor­mous power should not be wielded by ac­ci­dent, which is what is the case to­day. And to make some changes, for in­stance, to disal­low abu­sive lan­guage and hate speech on so­cial POWER SHIFT: Usu­ally de­mands are made of the gov­ern­ment to reg­u­late a pri­vate player, but here, a pri­vate sec­tor com­pany is be­ing pe­ti­tioned by mem­bers of a pow­er­ful po­lit­i­cal party to reg­u­late, of all the peo­ple, the Pres­i­dent of the US Don­ald Trump

me­dia plat­forms is not dif­fi­cult. Broad­cast sites have al­ways drawn some outer bound­aries that can­not be breached. This might hurt the plat­forms com­mer­cially, but even­tu­ally as cre­ators of new com­mu­ni­ties, the idea of ex­hibit­ing a mod­icum of so­cial re­spon­si­bil­ity is hardly an un­rea­son­able one.

Of course, the prob­lem is such a view is that the state would have to step in to for­mu­late these kinds of reg­u­la­tions and that is fraught with its own set of con­se­quences. The temp­ta­tion of any rul­ing gov­ern­ment to use reg­u­la­tion to skew things to its ad­van­tage is a big one, and poses dif­fi­cult ques­tions when it comes to the thorny area of guar­an­tee­ing free­dom of speech. Also, to­day for many gov­ern­ments, this kind of so­cial me­dia ecosys­tem en­ables their brand of pol­i­tics.

We have handed over the fu­ture di­rec­tion of the world to a small group of peo­ple who have nei­ther the abil­ity nor the man­date to play such a role. How­ever, any at­tempt to con­trol them would re­quire the in­ter­ven­tion of the state, and this is, in some ways, even more dan­ger­ous, par­tic­u­larly given the rise of dem­a­goguery across the world. This is the great stand-off of our times. We can see how the path that we are on could lead to dis­as­ter, but do­ing some­thing about it could be even worse.

Some would ar­gue that this is a need­lessly alarmist view and that tech­nol­ogy has al­ways dis­rupted so­ci­ety for a pe­riod of time be­fore get­ting ab­sorbed. The spin­ning jenny, the steam en­gine, the print­ing press, the au­to­mo­bile and the oral con­tra­cep­tive pill are only some of the tech­nolo­gies that caused sig­nif­i­cant upheavals in the way we led our lives. They too caused great un­rest in their time, but even­tu­ally be­came part of our progress nar­ra­tive. It is pos­si­ble that what we are see­ing now is a pe­riod of tran­si­tion be­tween two eras and that some sort of equi­lib­rium will be re­stored even­tu­ally. How­ever, while there was a time when the idea of progress was re­garded as an in­her­ently pos­i­tive idea, to­day we are far too aware of its costs to take such a pre­sump­tively op­ti­mistic view. So, we sit and watch while we con­tinue to hur­tle to­wards our fu­ture with eyes closed and fin­gers crossed.

san­[email protected]

REUTERS

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