At last, hope: we won’t have to sub­mit to the tech gi­ants

The Guardian - Journal - - Front page - John Har­ris

Aquar­ter of a cen­tury ago, the Cana­dian au­thor Dou­glas Cou­p­land pub­lished his third novel. Mi­croserfs was the tale of a group of young Mi­crosoft em­ploy­ees who de­cide to exit the realm of Bill Gates in Wash­ing­ton state and chase a dream of their own in Cal­i­for­nia places that, back then, sounded like the epit­ome of fu­tur­is­tic magic:

Palo Alto, Menlo Park. As well as pre­scient flashes of the world to come, what al­ways stuck with me was its air of techno-op­ti­mism, per­fectly crys­tallised when the cen­tral char­ac­ter’s mother has a stroke and is rescued from si­lence by a set-up at­tached to an Ap­ple Mac­in­tosh. The novel’s clos­ing pages cap­ture her and her fam­ily mar­vel­ling at the fact that she has be­come “part woman/ part ma­chine, em­a­nat­ing blue Mac­in­tosh light”.

The book was pub­lished in 1995, when com­put­ers sud­denly of­fered an ever-ex­pand­ing win­dow on to the world. Many of us had no doubt that the leap from old to new rep­re­sented noth­ing but progress. By the start of this decade so­cial me­dia plat­forms were be­ing hailed as a means of in­di­vid­ual and col­lec­tive eman­ci­pa­tion. But where has this faith in the fu­ture gone?

We know the ba­sic script: de­spite the dig­i­tal utopia we were promised, our lives are now dom­i­nated by a tiny num­ber of om­ni­scient, greedy and es­sen­tially un­ac­count­able tech com­pa­nies. Google, Ama­zon and Ap­ple all have cases to answer, but the fail­ure to match huge power with any sense of com­men­su­rate re­spon­si­bil­ity is be­ing most vividly played out at Face­book, amid mount­ing hor­ror about its po­lar­is­ing ef­fects on not just po­lit­i­cal dis­course but ba­sic so­cial sta­bil­ity. Once our de­fault set­ting was to ac­cept, open, down­load. Now it feels like many of us in­creas­ingly fix­ate on the op­po­site op­tions: delete, quit, can­cel.

Last week I was in Ber­lin, the city that in­creas­ingly stands as Europe’s tech cap­i­tal (an hon­our the ef­fects of Brexit look set to con­firm). For two days the city’s south side was host­ing Dis­rupt, one of an on­go­ing se­ries of events or­gan­ised by the tech­nol­ogy in­dus­try news out­let TechCrunch. They take place in Europe and the US, of­fer­ing a chance for star­tups to jos­tle for in­vest­ment and at­ten­tion, along­side in­ter­views and dis­cus­sions cen­tred on where the world may be headed next.

Some of what I heard was grimly pre­dictable. An ex­ec­u­tive from Face­book-owned In­sta­gram par­ried ques­tions about the re­cent de­par­ture of the firm’s founders and its par­ent com­pany’s prob­lems and took refuge in the kind

of bro­mides that now sound laugh­ably hol­low: “The user is the North star for all the de­ci­sions we make”; “We want to make you feel close to peo­ple who you can’t see ev­ery day”. I heard pre­sen­ta­tions from would-be CEOs who had a de­press­ingly fa­mil­iar at­ti­tude to the magic they could blithely work with lim­it­less oceans of per­sonal data; some of the peo­ple en­thus­ing about data-har­vest­ing “smart cities” seemed to be wait­ing for their chance to take 21st-cen­tury surveil­lance to its log­i­cal con­clu­sion.

All that said, Euro­pean tech is rather dif­fer­ent from its Amer­i­can coun­ter­part. In­sid­ers talk about a con­cern with pri­vacy that runs much deeper than in the US, partly be­cause of the lin­ger­ing mem­ory of

Big Brother in for­mer Com­mu­nist coun­tries. With Sil­i­con Val­ley hav­ing long since colonised so­cial me­dia and a huge swath of on­line con­sumerism, peo­ple tend to con­cen­trate on more finely tar­geted in­ven­tions aimed at busi­nesses, the work­ings of gov­ern­ment, medicine, char­i­ties or NGOs. Many tech ty­coons still try to per­suade us that they are here to unite humanity, with profit as a mere side-ef­fect, but most of the at­ten­dees I met were will­ing to chew over the pro­found philo­soph­i­cal ques­tions tan­gled up in the power and reach of dig­i­tal cap­i­tal­ism, and the ur­gent ne­ces­sity for gov­ern­ments to get to grips with them.

Most im­por­tantly, I met plenty of clever peo­ple, still brim­ming with a be­lief in the fu­ture, with cre­ations that made their op­ti­mism look en­tirely rational. A trio of de­vel­op­ers from Spain, now res­i­dent in Ber­lin, are close to com­plet­ing a nav­i­ga­tion sys­tem for blind and vis­ually im­paired peo­ple. A small team of peo­ple, split be­tween Boston and Lis­bon, ex­plained an in­ven­tion for peo­ple with se­verely re­stricted mo­bil­ity, al­low­ing them to type and talk us­ing rapid-fire pre­dic­tive text, and sur­vey their sur­round­ings with a 360-de­gree cam­era.

Much-mis­un­der­stood blockchain tech­nol­ogy re­mains a by­word for the of­ten shady and uncertain world of cryp­tocur­ren­cies, but at its heart is some­thing with no end of other uses: a means of giv­ing an im­mutable sin­gle iden­tity to peo­ple and prod­ucts, which lies beyond the reach of hack­ers. One startup held out the prospect of refugees us­ing blockchain IDs to se­cure es­sen­tial ser­vices – such as bank­ing – rather than be­ing faced with the usual walls of im­pos­si­ble bu­reau­cracy. With a sim­i­lar sense of al­tru­is­tic ex­cite­ment, a for­mer Nokia insider from Dubai told me about Dhonor, a sys­tem he has in­vented that will al­low the com­po­nent parts of med­i­cal treat­ment – from drugs, to batches of blood, to do­nated or­gans – to be in­deli­bly recorded and ver­i­fied, thereby of­fer­ing in­di­vid­u­als and gov­ern­ments a way out of a world of il­licit organ trad­ing, con­tam­i­nated blood sup­plies and coun­ter­feit medicines.

Later I saw a hoard­ing that said #BurstYourBub­ble, and spent an hour learn­ing about a Ber­lin-based news plat­form, Nuzzera, which gen­tly alerts read­ers to stories and opin­ions beyond their usual po­lit­i­cal frame of ref­er­ence – and, if they re­spond pos­i­tively, slowly and sub­tly car­ries on ex­tend­ing their hori­zons. “It started with Brexit,” one of its founders told me. “We were tak­ing about that and Trump. And Al­ter­na­tive für Deutsch­land. Ev­ery­body drew it all back to al­go­rithms and so­cial me­dia, and do­ing things dif­fer­ently.”

As with so many of the coders, de­vel­op­ers and cash-strapped en­trepreneurs I spoke to, they had no guar­an­tees that their cre­ation would not ei­ther col­lide with the power of big tech and dis­ap­pear, or be gob­bled up. But their en­thu­si­asm did its work.

Since I re­turned home I have found my­self less sus­cep­ti­ble to techno-dread, and have re­con­nected to some of that 1990s op­ti­mism.

“The be­lief that to­mor­row is a dif­fer­ent place from to­day is cer­tainly a unique hall­mark of our species,” wrote Dou­glas Cou­p­land; and in the same spirit, one might come up with a few more apho­risms. Face­book does not have to own the fu­ture. Tech­nol­ogy is not re­duc­ible to Cal­i­for­nia dis­grace. And even though it some­times flick­ers, the mag­i­cal blue light shines on.


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