This post is a write-up of the Digital-born media carnival that took place in Kotor, Montenegro (14. – 18. 7). It’s intended for an international audience that’s why I am writing it in English.
“Where are you coming from?”
I’ve cooperated with SHARE foundation from Belgrade ever since we’ve met for the first time in Kotor some five years ago.
The SHARE conference introduced me to a huge group of activists, lawyers and digital natives thinking about and working in the field of digital rights, economy and media landscape.
I’ve also had the privilege of participating in a debate on regional digital developments with participants coming from different countries and noticed a distinct line between the west and the east.
This line separates the perception of the national state and private companies and gives an important lesson in bridging a political gap in managing the online sphere in general.
To put it bluntly – we are all blind (wo)men trying to describe an elephant.
“Who do you trust more?”
I first noticed the distinction when participating in a group discussion on fake news and manipulation. A question was raised on what can different actors do about it and how should be tackle the problem of online propaganda.
Quickly two opposing fronts were established – one claiming the job should befall on the shoulders of techno-giants operating from the digital universe (but being firmly planted in California or a tax haven) while the others warned that the role of a digital police should fall squarely into the auspices of the national state. Both sides quickly offered arguments that supported their claim.
For the techno-giants aficionados the reasoning was simple. The government is corrupt and cannot be trusted. We have to rely on the benevolence of foreign private companies which care about the user and want to improve its user experience using the product. Additionally, these private companies are offering their product for free which enables the local political opposition to organize and be heard. Also – the country
For the state fans, the logic was reversed. Private companies should not be trusted to self-regulate themselves as we’ve seen copious amount of cases where self-regulation did not work and the companies just tip-toed around severe problems with their product (hate-speech, state-sponsored propaganda, hacks and break-ins). It was up to the government to execute it’s role as the protector of the people to protect them from the interests of private companies.
I tried to bridge the gap between those two groups and at the last panel that was focusing on the autonomous algorithms I finally got it. It’s a question of trust.
People from both camps reacted very passionately. Trusting your government was out of the question for the tech fans, since they probably has first-hand experience of trust misuse by the government officials. And the same time the state fans were vary of the idea where the state is in charge of the internet. It seemed so… final.
You must go deeper
The debate opened up another door to the basement of the mechanics of the world we live in. Question about (self)regulation usually ends by realizing that both sides (companies and states) are broken and should not be trusted.
However – you have to open up a textbook and ask yourself – what’s the primary role of these two actors? What’s the DNA of a private company made up and what’s there in the DNA of a national state?
You soon realize that trusting a private company is never a good thing. Especially when we are debating Facebook which plays into the political agenda of every nation state it’s present in.
In the West, the Facebook is perceived as a leech, sucking up personal data and making a product out of people. Moving east, you get the vibe of a beacon of democracy which in this case is just misplaced word for capitalism. Moving further east, you see that Facebook is actively participating with regimes, actually helping putting out the opposition.
Of course, national states are not exactly the same. Some care about the people, some don’t. Some pay attention to the welfare of their citizens, others don’t. But when we are talking about (self-)proclaimed democratic states, the role of the state should be the same.
Did you try turning it off and on again?
So why isn’t that working in practice? Why do the democratic countries and their politicians abuse power given to them by the constituents? Why is there a political disbelief in the democratic process with people claiming the system is broken?
Well, it mostly has to do with outputs. Election results, political candidates and the whole political arena has been turning into a circus for a while now. There’s a sense of theater, Jerry Bruckheimer directed blockbuster where the loudest gun wins and there’s only room for one.
Common values of our society are getting destroyed by collective social dementia where we are forgetting that democracy is a system that has many parts with different roles. And every part matters. You cannot outsource your role, you cannot forgo it.
In our society of shock doctrine, always-on circus arena and instant gratification, we are losing our sense of political usefulness and our sense of purpose. We are constantly waiting for the hero to appear and solve everything with its mystical powers. From this perspective, Facebook is a likely candidate for the role. It supposedly liberates regimes, it supposedly saves people, it supposedly cares about them. Just think – whenever an emergency situation emerges, Facebook is asking you “Mark yourself safe!” How many times did the government ask you the same question?
Implicit and explicit
I often say the government sucks at self-promotion. Despite the fact that the government and the state is responsible for almost every aspect of our lives (and we’re confirming that by delegating power to its institutions) people repeatedly perceive it as the enemy.
Just think – the notion of the press being the fourth estate and a watchdog is planted in the idea that government needs oversight from the people. Despite the fact that the people are effectively in charge of the government, we very rarely execute our power. Not only do we boycott elections, but we very rarely engage in politics by running for offices, participating in the decision-making process or using our political power where it matters.
What we do very often is engage in clicktivism online. Not only does that have very little actual effect (if it’s not combined by offline activities) but it also gives out a notion that we ARE doing SOMETHING. And who do you think wants that feeling to last? Who do you think benefits the most when we equate political activities with the usage of online platforms?
The fact that we are explicitly participating online thinking that’s the same as participating in the decision making process and the fact that by doing that we are implicitly saying the government is broken and should be replaced is a very dangerous notion. It furthers the incapacitated citizen and it prevents us all from forming a meaningful and effective political movement.
At the same time we are constantly arguing the notion that the actual politics are useless and that smart people should not do politics. We are constantly saying that political change should happen outside of the political arena. And that the system does not matter. This further prevents from systemic change to take place since everybody is saying that the system we are using and living in does not matter.
Regulation and self-regulation
When you apply the question of governmental regulation on the setting described in the past few paragraphs, you get an expected result. Everybody’s knee-jerk reaction is – keep the government away from my life. Keep it away from doing more harm. Limit it and keep it as small as possible. Let others take care of everything.
The lie of self-regulation was started by the industry which wanted zero outside control. The industry which wanted to do as is pleases without politicians, charged with protecting people’s lives meddling in. It did that by emphasizing the supposed uselessness of the government and its own moral high ground and social supremacy.
This is especially problematic when you talk about the media and advertising but also when you are focusing on the tech-sector which is becoming more and more ubiquitous and is at the same time claiming its political innocence. But since we are well on our way into the IOT society, we should really act fast and start regulating the intermediaries which are influencing the way of our lives.
Techno-determinism, so present in the modern western society can be understood as a form of cultural imperialism. Companies like Facebook, Google and Apple with their cleverly designed brands and logos which resemble non-governmental organizations and hide their true ugly capitalistic face where the bottom line is the annual profits and nothing else are constantly purporting this lie that technology is the way towards salvation. That we should all embrace it and let it embed in our lives even further.
Come to think of it, it would be kind of funny if it wasn’t so dangerous. The tech is saying we should replace political governance with state of the art technology. That we should bring down the political arena and replace it with high tech automated VR environment. Where an autonomous algorithm will take care of everything.
At the same time, current attempts of regulation are extremely stupid and are playing into the tech giants agenda of self-regulation. But saying the tech should self-regulate because the current regulation suggestions are stupid is like saying the thieves should roam free because of police violence. If you want to improve regulations, you improve regulations, not get rid of it.
In the end it all comes down to common values and social contracts. Values are important because then enable us to have a discussion that is based on mutual agreements of the space and time we’re having our discussion in.
By rooting for self-regulation we are actually admitting our own fault of being unable to engage in a meaningful political discussion and at the same time relaying our powers and responsibilities to a third party which is using everything in its power to delude us into recognizing it as a legitimate actor in this debate.
With the politicians wanting to break down the exact same values and change the political discourse, it’s no wonder people are saying the owner of Facebook should run for politics. He has everything one supposedly needs – charisma, money and power. Oh and every possible piece of personal data on every one of us. Which the politicians right now are arguing to regulate.
Do you trust yourself?
It really is the question of trust. Do we trust ourselves? Do we trust our mutually agreed upon political system? Do we use the rights that we’ve bestowed upon ourselves? Or are we just looking for a quick non-fix by delegating our powers to somebody else we like?
As we debate the political system and political change we should never underestimate our own role in it. We should never ignore the fact that by actively participating in it or choosing to ignore it we are co-creating it. We’re all carrying a piece of responsibility for it no matter what we are thinking our role in it might be.
By getting excited over the prospects of self-governing autonomous technology which is in the hands of private companies, we are worshiping false idols and negating our role in the process. Which cannot be emphasized enough.
I think what we could all need right know is some political evangelism. Instead of promoting gadgets, software and hardware solutions we should encourage each other to participate in the political arena. To take the fight where it really matters and to start paying attention the techno-companies are influencing policy development.
Just because the techno-sector is showing us its shiny face while hiding away the less appealing features and we are used of thinking about political engagement as a futile act it does not have to be so.
There are ample examples of useful and productive political participation where values were defended through positive and public debate. We should encourage civic studies in schools, help out young ones by showing them positive and useful ways of engaging into public debate and
Because of the aforementioned clicktivistic society and a lack of actual public engagement, younger generations are growing up without a real sense of communal participation. We should work on that.
But do to that we first have to shake our own prejudice and misconceptions about political power and engagement. We must first realize that we are an important part of the systematic development and we should act accordingly.