Many of the experts in this canvassing said power dynamics play a key role in technology development and social and civic innovation and have substantial impact in regard to broad societal issues. These experts highlighted the discrepancies they see in regard to who has access to power and who controls the instruments of power. Some said well-meaning individuals in positions of power do not understand the issues faced by the general public that relies upon digital platforms and systems.
While some respondents are greatly concerned about the ways in which tech companies’ capitalist interests may affect social and civic innovation in the next decade, others expect that tech and social evolution will allow the public more opportunities to advocate for change. This chapter includes comments selected from those made by all respondents, regardless of their answer to the main question about the impact of technology on innovation by 2030. It includes predictions about the types of innovations that may emerge to counter abuses or imbalances in power. The comments are organized under five subthemes: Those in power seek to maintain it; those in power have no incentive to change; government regulation could address these problems; surveillance capitalism is coming to a head; and technology can be a catalyst for advocacy against abuses of power.
Those in power seek to maintain power
Some respondents were critical of today’s digital form of market capitalism, which has created an environment that is proving to be problematic on many levels. Money equals power. Those in control of digital systems and platforms are highly motivated to remove or subsume any threats to their dominance. Market capitalism in today’s digital realm has led to a small number of large players who are driven by driving up profit.
The companies hold all the cards. And governments don’t have the expertise they need to regulate in ways that will be effective or work out well.
Jonathan Morgan, senior design researcher for the Wikimedia Foundation, said, “I’m mostly concerned with the role of digital platform owners and technology providers as stiflers of innovation. People are pretty locked into the tools they use to live, work and socialize. Increasingly, these activities are mediated by a small number of economically and politically powerful companies that actively squash competition, undermine and jettison open standards and protocols and resist regulation. These are anti-competitive practices that stifle innovation; they are anti-social practices that inhibit the development of new social norms. Our continued use of/dependence on the technologies they provide props up these organizations, allowing them to continue to engage in activities that undermine the fabric of our society in a variety of subtle and not-so-subtle ways.”
Mark Surman, executive director of Mozilla Foundation and co-founder of Commons Group, wrote, “Right now, the big U.S. tech companies basically write the rules of the road. If governments and citizens can take back some of that power and build up the talent and vision to create civic innovation, we’ll see the kind of social innovation we need. That said, current trends don’t bode well. The companies hold all the cards. And governments don’t have the expertise they need to regulate in ways that will be effective or work out well.”
Henning Schulzrinne, Internet Hall of Fame member and former chief technology officer for the Federal Communications Commission, commented, “In certain countries, the state will make sure that there is no social and civic innovation, at least any that fundamentally threatens the existing power arrangements. In other countries, where private industry has largely captured regulatory and legislative bodies, protections of privacy and against AI-based discrimination, for example, or mitigation of social problems will be difficult as long as they are not aligned with industry interests.”
Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, observed, “A small number of platforms dominate communications, and they have devised techniques to minimize opposition. Consider how social movements arose in the past. Workers could organize other workers to seek better working conditions. Activists could join together in their communities to seek changes on matters from the funding for a park to the removal of a toxic waste disposal site. But Facebook prevents the use of its platform for any organizing against Facebook. By the company’s own terms and conditions, users are not able to establish groups with names such as ‘Facebook Users for Privacy Protection’ or ‘Stop the Trolls on Facebook.’ Ironically, the company cites intellectual property law to prevent the use of its own identity by others. That is how technology firms diminish civic innovation.”
Isaac Mao, director of Sharism Lab, said, “Technologies can help facilitate some kinds of social and civic innovations at first, but eventually those market leaders of technical products become barriers to further innovations because of their profit-driven nature. Social and civic applications running on those platforms are very vulnerable. It can be an on/off fate someday, like China’s WeChat platform. Technologies running in commercial interests will also drive out other smaller players and technologies. This is harmful. We need more open technologies and open platforms run by trustable organizations.”
A pioneering researcher of human-computer interaction commented, “I am concerned that technology will effectively undermine resistance to it. I believed the opposite until only a few months ago. Now, I am stunned by the amount of tech money thrown at the ‘morals’ of artificial intelligence, just when AI and surveillance are becoming synonymous. So, I am much more concerned.”
Estee Beck, author of “A Theory of Persuasive Computer Algorithms for Rhetorical Code Studies,” commented, “The [Federal Trade Commission] issued several recommendation reports from 1998 to 2012 on regulation of private industry’s growth with technology with regard to surveillance and privacy. Despite attempts of private industry to self-regulate, failures abound. The FTC will continue to target specific cases to apply remedy as they arise. Private industry will continue to push the bounds of ethical action.”
Stuart Umpleby, retired cybernetician, professor of management and director research at George Washington University, commented, “There is currently a lot of innovation in electronic media. We can expect some successes in improving the social responsibility of social media. There is increasing participation in state and local politics due to acrimony at the national level. Artificial intelligence can be used to identify hate speech and errors and point to better information. However, any methods intended to improve social media could also be used to coarsen discussion. The balance of change may depend on who has the most money. People are becoming more adept at using social media for group discussions. People from other locations, anywhere in the world, can be involved. Hence, people with other views can be included and ideas can be shared at greater distance. The gap between the digitally literate and the digitally illiterate will grow. There will continue to be many efforts to increase digital literacy.”
Jeff Johnson, a professor of computer science at the University of San Francisco, who previously worked at Xerox, HP Labs and Sun Microsystems, responded, “Although the question considers ‘social and civic innovation’ as a positive force, it can also be negative. Gaming the system for corporate or personal benefit is a negative form of social and civic innovation. Internet worms, viruses, hackers and bots that gather people’s information, target ads and messages or wreak havoc are another form of social and civic innovation. Not all innovations are positive. In the 1990s, Richard Sclove hosted a series of citizen panels on democracy in the (still young) digital age (see the book “Governance.com: Democracy in the Digital Age”). His prognosis was positive, but at that time the main ‘social’ media consisted of email lists, electronic bulletin boards and Usenet newsgroups. The rise of Facebook, YouTube, Snapchat and the like has unfortunately turned the tide toward the negative.”
Barney Dalgarno, a professor expert in learning in 3D environments at Charles Sturt University, Australia, said, “I think there will be a push for innovations and regulations to moderate the negative impacts to privacy and unbiased information distribution, however the vested interests of those who wield political and economic power are likely to prevail. In an environment where information distribution is heavily controlled by those with a vested interest in maintaining their control, I don’t see any pathway to a widespread rebellion against the unregulated internet.”
J.M. Porup, a cybersecurity journalist, said, “America today is an oligarchy enforced by the secret police. Preventing any kind of meaningful social or political progress is essential to maintaining that status quo. Information technology gives totalitarian power to the toxic partnership between Silicon Valley, Wall Street and the so-called ‘intelligence community.’ Power desires – always – more power, and fights like hell to prevent any loss of power. This technology shift rewrites constitutional law, yet we keep citing law as though technology cares a whit for words on paper.”
Mike O’Connor, retired, a former member of the ICANN policy development community, commented, “Follow the money and ethics. The forces of good are ethical, thoughtful and resource-poor. The negative forces are scurrilous and have plenty of money to buy/leverage the tech to advance their cause.”
Keri Jaehnig, chief marketing officer for a media-marketing agency, wrote, “The development and adoption of artificial intelligence and cryptocurrencies will change how we live. This will make the advantaged have more opportunity and will make the poor poorer. Employment displacement will absolutely occur. Some new industry and opportunity will evolve, but it is hard to gauge at this point how much and if it will ever be enough.”
Rick Lane, a future-of-work strategist and consultant, said, “We have already seen the power of tech to create misinformation campaigns when Silicon Valley companies and their supporters manipulate data and search to promote their own policy agenda. If data and search manipulation is not addressed, then the social and civic innovation that we all hope for in this new digital age will be stifled.”
Juan Ortiz Freuler, policy fellow at the Web Foundation, predicted, “Many innovations will take place with the purpose of easing some of the social tensions and increase surveillance to neutralize the rest. Enacting big social changes will become increasingly difficult. Unless action is taken within the next decade, power and wealth will increasingly concentrate in the hands of the few, and citizens will lose capacity to coordinate in favor of systemic changes.”
Shane Kerr, lead engineer for NS1 internet domain security, wrote, “As wealth and power consolidates, traditional options to achieve success in society decline. Historically this would have created unrest and demands for reform. With modern technology, it may be possible that large minorities or even majorities of society will be able to ‘opt out’ of competition for power and prestige, and instead find alternative ways to measure success and the quality of their lives. People are already able to create, share, modify and otherwise enjoy photography, video, music and so on in ways that were barely possible to previous generations. Things in this vein will likely become more and more significant. In an ideal world, those winning the competition for power and control will be convinced that their victory is ultimately hollow without being a part of the wider human experience and competition. In a less than ideal world, they will use their power to attempt to eliminate joy and prevent anyone who does not follow their path from being happy.”
The odds are in favor of these innovations to be driven by states and by corporations, rather than by civil society.
John Skrentny, a professor of sociology at the University of California, San Diego, said, “Beliefs in (short-term) shareholder value as the reason for corporate existence and the interpretation of antitrust law that views monopolies as bad only if they hurt consumers, coupled with the Supreme Court’s distortion of democracy to allow unlimited flows of cash and unlimited gerrymandering, all align as deep forces making democracy ever more difficult to achieve and sustain in the U.S., no matter the innovation capabilities of the people.”
Doug Royer, a retired technology developer/administrator, responded, “The love of money is the root of evil. (1 Timothy 6:10 – Christian Bible – one interpretation). Companies will, and their stockholders will, continue to desire profit. People will always want things cheaper. Governments will always try to grease the loudest wheel, even when it is just noise to get attention or money. However, a society having access to trends as they happen and to the people making the decisions keeps away more manipulation of the masses than ever before possible.”
Lokman Tsui, a professor at the School of Journalism and Communication of The Chinese University of Hong Kong, formerly Google’s head of free expression in Asia and the Pacific, commented, “I understand social and civic innovation to be innovation driven by civil society, for civil society. I believe there will be some social and civic innovation in the next decade. But I am also concerned that the odds are not in their favor. I believe that the closed and centralized nature of the new technologies of the next decade will make this very difficult. The odds are in favor of these innovations to be driven by states and by corporations, rather than by civil society. What I see happening is that, increasingly, states and corporations are forming alliances such that the development of future innovations benefit each other at the detriment of civil society. The development of the GDPR in Europe is remarkable precisely because I see it as an exception to the norm.”
Those in power have no incentive to change
Several of the experts in this canvassing expressed concerns that those in power have little incentive to change.
James S. O’Rourke IV, a University of Notre Dame professor whose research specialty is reputation management, said, “In thinking about whether technological innovations will improve or restrain society and contribute to the common good, the answer clearly is ‘yes’ to both questions. Western liberal civilizations have taken a laissez-faire approach to technology. ‘The market will sort this out,’ we’re told. In the interim, reputations are ruined, lives are pulled apart, wealth is unfairly or illegally transferred. Social and psychological trauma are the result. If technology created the dilemma we now face, technology will – without question – offer ways for us to mitigate harm and improve the lives of ordinary citizens. The problem, however, is one of incentives. Most technology firms and their entrepreneurial owners are driven far more by the accumulation of wealth than the improvement of society. ‘I’m all for improving life in this country,’ they say, ‘but only if there is clearly a market for that.’ An associated problem is that government at state and national levels is insufficiently clever to deal with such issues. The smartest, most innovative, most intellectually nimble among us don’t go to work for the government (especially in regulatory roles). The best and brightest do not run for public office. And the law always trails the effects of technology. Officials step in on behalf of the public interest long after the harm is done and the money is gone.”
Jonathan Taplin, author of “Move Fast and Break Things: How Google, Facebook and Amazon Cornered Culture and Undermined Democracy,” commented, “Google and Facebook are two of the largest corporations in the world (measured by market capitalization). They will use their financial and lobbying power to fend off significant regulation. … I would like to believe that real progress could be made on these issues, but I’m afraid that the financial power of the internet monopolies is too strong. I am highly doubtful that real progress will be made unless there is a catastrophe resulting in an autocratic state that leads to true citizen revolt.”
Art Brodsky, a self-employed consultant, wrote, “I would like to think technology could help the situation, but we’ve seen no sign of that so far. Big companies have too much to gain and too little to lose as a result of current abuses. They have no incentives to do anything. The government also is powerless. … We have seen no evidence that tech companies have the best interests of the public at heart. Through lax enforcement of antitrust laws and little privacy protection, they focus on their bottom line only. As with other businesses, there is no sense of social responsibility and no institution bold enough to impose one.”
Bernie Hogan, senior research fellow at Oxford Internet Institute, said, “Technology warps scales in favour of those who can wield the technology. It has always been the case, from the gun, the stirrup, the telephone and now the internet. This time, however, technology is operating on scales that we simply do not comprehend and cannot meaningfully do so. Google and Facebook can only make inferences about the rankings of their search results and newsfeeds, respectively; they cannot give a clear answer about why precisely one element showed up before another. High frequency trading algorithms are similarly abstract and opaque. … The notion that we are either going to have ‘no change’ or substantial improvement is remarkably rosy. We are much more likely to have increased inequality, greater more effective propaganda and dissent codified and monitored. We will see some change in data security. Mostly we will see advances in health, particularly in areas where big data classification is useful such as detecting drug interactions, classifying genes and so forth. In areas that require extensive human coordination, we are only likely to see more attempts at control and centralisation along with the march of stark inequality.”
Ellery Biddle, an advocacy director for Global Voices whose specialty is protection of online speech and fundamental digital rights, said, “Facebook, Google and Amazon each have a unique monopoly on the types of information they organize and offer to users. This means they are also the primary sources of many of our biggest problems. Unfortunately, all three of these companies have also occupied a significant amount of space (and injected a lot of money) in the academic, policy and civil society conversations that are intended to solve these problems. What we are left with is a situation of capture, in which the companies are creating problems with one hand and then presenting solutions for them with another. Take Facebook. This company has built a revenue model around the idea that clicks are good/profitable (as they generate ad revenue) and that material that receives lots of clicks should be given more visibility. It has also found unprecedented ways to profit from people’s data. This is what lies at the core of the fake news/disinformation problem. Fake news was always there, it just wasn’t so pervasive or present on our screens until we had a company that built a revenue model on clicks/shock value. In responding to the issue, Facebook has put on a great performance of engaging with fact-checkers and talking about disinformation dynamics. But the company has not changed its basic revenue model, which is the root of the problem. Facebook is never going to change this on its own – it makes far too much money for this to be a viable option. So, the solution must lie in some kind of regulation. Data-protection rules could actually have some impact here, as they would force the company to shift its practices away from endless data collection and tracking, which are deeply intertwined with the ‘engagement’ revenue model. We need to move away from this and seek solutions outside of these big tech companies. There may be other kinds of technology that could really change the game here, and bring us back to a more distributed, decentralized internet, but this has yet to take off.”
Bill D. Herman, a researcher working at the intersection of human rights and technology, wrote, “Private industry has every incentive to create more addictive tech, and little incentive to improve society. Innovation around that won’t happen in a direction that helps, at least not in total.”
There may be other kinds of technology that could really change the game here, and bring us back to a more distributed, decentralized internet, but this has yet to take off.
Philippe Blanchard, founder of Futurous, an innovation consultancy based in Switzerland, responded, “The major difficulty in the rise of a social and civic innovation comes from the pervasiveness of the general-purpose technologies and the globalisation. Technology will develop faster in less-regulated environments, and the critical mass of some use/technologies will push for its generalization worldwide.”
Emilio Velis, executive director of the Appropedia Foundation, commented, “There is a growing involvement of the internet and technology on behalf of society for civic change. There will undoubtedly be a great surge of these innovations in the next few years. The only drawback to this is the lack of economic incentives to the way they work, especially for underdeveloped settings. How can innovations thrive and be effective for the bottom of the pyramid?”
Leila Bighash, an assistant professor of communication at the University of Arizona, expert in online public information, news and social media, said, “While I believe technology will be used by democratic adversaries to subvert institutions and processes, technology will also continue to be used to try to mitigate those efforts. There are issues with big tech companies not having incentives to pursue pro-democracy projects. Unfortunately, many of them, with their advocacy of completely free/open speech, have created a situation where all speech is given a platform, and sometimes the messages that spread are harmful. Nonprofits and others do not have the means that those big tech companies have, so citizens and governments have to start pressuring or incentivizing large companies to engage in activities that will bolster democracy. If this pressure works, then social and civic innovation at a mass scale will occur. If the pressure doesn’t work, there may still be some smaller groups pursuing this innovation but it will not occur as quickly. We already see some efforts to build tools that mark sources of news on social media with indicators of their veracity. Volunteer groups who are highly engaged and motivated could be created/used to suss out mis/disinformation. Companies themselves could be incentivized by governments or citizen groups to remove messages, including deepfakes and other disinformation. Communication researchers are learning how fact-checking works to correct people’s misinformed views, and this research could help create new systems, tools and groups. Governments will have to start creating new laws, but of course this will likely be the slowest to move.”
Government regulation could address these issues
Many respondents to this canvassing suggest that government regulation may be the key to incentivizing companies to change.
Tracey Follows, futurist and founder of Futuremade, a futures consultancy based in the UK, wrote, “I feel that there is enough government interest in using technology to mitigate some of the risks, inequalities and harms that are emerging from the digital world. Most governments do not want to upset the monopolistic, global platforms that drive growth and create employment, and have not to date pressured them to pay their taxes and to come under regulatory policies. That will change over the next five years. In the UK, the government is looking at new regulatory structures to prevent ‘online harms’ and is also calling for tighter restrictions on the type of content that appears in social feeds and online in general. Hard to say how successful this will be national or regional governments play a cat and mouse game with global players. However, I think things will change and change quickly once the public cotton-on to facial recognition and voice assistance as surveillance. Already there are now questions being asked and court cases being heard about the infringement of privacy from facial recognition systems being used by, for example, the police. Coupled with further awareness of China’s social credit system, ordinary folk are about to wake up to a whole lot more than Alexa putting the coffee on in the morning. The governments will be forced to respond otherwise western citizens will begin to find ways to protest at their lack of privacy and start suing companies for the degradation of their mental health due to surveillance.”
I think new tools will likely be created to strengthen the voices of workers and the disadvantaged.
Ann Adams, a retired technology worker, commented, “Once the profit model changes, mitigation will follow. Unfortunately, governments have to intervene, as business currently has no incentive to change.”
Ioana Marinescu, an assistant professor of economics at the University of Pennsylvania School of Social Policy and Practice, an expert in labor policy, responded, “I think new tools will likely be created to strengthen the voices of workers and the disadvantaged. These tools’ emergence would be strengthened by regulations that empower people.”
Susan Price, founder and CEO of Firecat Studio, a user-centered design and communication technologies expert, said, “As the technology and civic leaders’ understanding of the issues mature together we’ll see the pain lessen over time as more appropriate regulation is put into place.”
Melissa Michelson, a professor of political science at Menlo College and author of “Mobilizing Inclusion: Redefining Citizenship Through Get-Out-the-Vote Campaigns,” wrote, “Despite the many shortcomings and negative impacts of the digital age, I remain optimistic that innovators and leaders will find ways to overcome those negatives to use digital tools to allow for overall positive impacts on our social and civic lives. Every generation is threatened by the perceived drawbacks of new communication technologies, including television and telephones. Change is scary, and it can be easier to see the threats than the promise, but I believe that civic-minded people will find ways to control those negatives and allow for the benefits of the digital world to enhance and strengthen our democracy, whether that is through regulation, market competition or other new technologies that we cannot yet imagine.”
Roger E.A. Farmer, research director at the National Institute of Economic and Social Research, London, and professor of economics at the University of Warwick, author of “Prosperity for All,” wrote, “There is no yes-or-no answer to this question. Technology is already influencing the political process. A lot depends on how tech-media giants are regulated. Twitter, Instagram and Facebook are monopolies in the transmission of culture in the same way AT&T was a monopoly in the telecommunications industry in earlier decades. They should be broken up or regulated and treated as media organizations by the courts.”
While some experts saw potential in government regulation, others debated if governments will be able to address these power imbalances and if potential regulation will solve any of the current issues. They suggest that among the potential hang-ups to meaningful regulatory change is the fact that many lawmakers are ill-equipped to create such legislation. They also question the potential efficacy of regulation.
Doc Searls, internet pioneer and editor-in-chief of Linux Journal, said, “For most people, the first response to disturbing disruptions is regulatory: ‘Give us new privacy laws!’ ‘Break up Big Tech.’ ‘Turn Silicon Valley back into fruit orchards!’ But that puts the regulatory cart in front of the development horse. We need development before everything. And we need norms after that. Those are the horses and the harnesses. The regulatory cart should follow the lead of both. With the GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation) in Europe we have a helpful lesson in how creating regulations in the absence of tech is a giant fail. What the GDPR does is address wrongdoing by perpetrators who are highly incentivized financially to keep doing all the wrong things they’ve been doing ever since they found they could track people like marked animals for the purpose of harvesting data about personal activities and using that data to aim ‘relevant,’ ‘interest-based’ and ‘interactive’ ads at those people’s eyeballs everywhere they go in the digital world. Those ads don’t work … but they do pay the perps; and it’s too damned easy for the perps to put up insincere and misleading ‘cookie notices’ that obtain equally insincere ‘consent’ and thus to claim compliance. Successfully! At least so far. Meanwhile, all we need as individuals is the digital equivalent of privacy technologies we’ve had for the duration in the natural world: clothing and shelter. Getting those in the virtual world is job one. Fortunately, some of us are already on the case. Stay tuned.”
Bruce Bimber, a professor of political science at the University of California, Santa Barbara, commented, “The scale of social innovation needed to bring societies successfully into the future is enormous. At least two problems arise. The first is that we can’t get there incrementally, just by accumulating bits and pieces of adaptation and innovation; yet the sort of big change need would disrupt too many powerful interests invested in the slowly changing status quo, from which so much money can be made. The second is that political institutions in many places have been too much hollowed out, polarized and captured to provide leadership for bold change.”
Annemarie Bridy, a professor of law specializing in the impact of new technologies on existing legal frameworks, wrote, “In recent public hearings, policymakers have demonstrated repeatedly that they lack a basic understanding of how today’s most socially consequential technologies work. Without better-informed policymakers, we have little hope of effectively regulating developing technologies that profoundly impact human behavior and social welfare, including those involving automated decision-making and pervasive biometric surveillance.”
Neal Gorenflo, co-founder, chief editor and executive director at Shareable, a nonprofit news outlet that has covered the latest innovations in the sharing economy, responded, “If history is any guide, the United States should see a civic and perhaps even a religious revival. However, circumstances are different, the power imbalances may be at or progress to a point of no return soon. The ever-increasing power and pervasiveness of technology, the speed at which it is deployed, the inability of government and public to even understand it, never mind control it, the downgrading of our individual and collective behavior and decision making all bring into question if citizens can rally like we have before. I hope we can aim to be part of that, but I have my doubts, too. We may have been asleep at the wheel too long to avert disaster.”
Some experts said change may best be found in the design of innovative new companies and tools that are built with public betterment in mind.
Ethan Zuckerman, director of MIT’s Center for Civic Media and co-founder of Global Voices, said, “Development of social media technologies over the past 20 years has suffered from the false assumption that technology is and can be neutral. The assumption was that platforms like Facebook could be used for good or for ill, and that platform designers should work to keep their tools as open to as many uses as possible. We’re now realizing that no technologies are neutral. Build a technology around the idea of increasing engagement and you’re likely to create incentives for clickbait and disinformation. Over the next 10 years, I hope to see a wave of new platforms consciously designed to evoke different civic behaviors. We need mass innovation in design of social tools that help us bridge fragmentation and polarization, bring diversity into our media landscapes and help find common ground between disparate groups. With these as conscious design goals, technology could be a powerful positive force for civic change. If we don’t take this challenge seriously and assume that we’re stuck with mass-market tools, we won’t see positive civic outcomes from technological tools.”
Development of social media technologies over the past 20 years has suffered from the false assumption that technology is and can be neutral.
Alex Halavais, an associate professor of critical data studies at Arizona State University, wrote, “There has long been a tension between civic uses of networked technologies and their co-option by both industrial and government actors. From open source projects, including things like Wikipedia, to the blogosphere, the early social web has largely given way to advertising-based platformization. Throughout this process there have been attempts to make space for more civic and public online spaces, but these have met with relatively meager success. There is a growing backlash against the corporate web, which creates the opportunity for new projects within the cooperative web. These are hardly a sure thing, of course, but there seems to be a growing interest in approaches that ‘route around’ corporate excesses by platforms that seem beholden to advertisers, and to a much lesser degree to government regulation. We already know how to build cooperative online spaces, and revelations of the last couple of years are providing ways for those who interact online to seek out alternatives at a growing rate.”
Mark Andrejevic, an associate professor of communications at the University of Iowa, commented, “It is possible that we will see significant social and civic innovation in other regions than the U.S., but I am not optimistic about our current trajectory because the tools that we rely on for civic life are part of the problem. We have entrusted so much of our information ecosphere to huge commercial platforms that have evolved to fit neatly with the means and modes of contemporary information consumption in ways that are not conducive to the formation of functional civic dispositions. This is the problem we face: To innovate at the civic level we need communication systems and practices that allow us to deliberate in good faith, to recognize the claims of others we do not know, to form ‘imagined communities’ that bind us to a sense of shared, common or overlapping public interests. There is a Catch-22 involved here: We need to create new tools, but to create new tools we need civically functional modes and means of communication to start with. This is not to say that there is no way out or that history has somehow stopped. It is to suggest that we have reached the point that successful social and civic innovation will only result from a profound crisis or social breakdown. We will be building on the ruins. We have demonstrated that even when we see the coming crisis we have lost the ability to avert it. This strange paralysis haunts our current moment economically, politically and environmentally.”
Surveillance capitalism is coming to a head
Surveillance capitalism is a term used to describe the market-driven business practice of digital platform providers and others of offering a “free” or reduced-rate service while collecting data about users to sell to third parties, often for marketing purposes. Many of the experts in this canvassing see this as a major underlying flaw in the design of today’s digital information platforms – the primary cause of many digital threats to democracy. Some experts believe that public outcry about how their data are being used could be a catalyst for changes in privacy law.
Christian Huitema, president at Private Octopus and longtime internet developer and administrator, said, “Surveillance is a business model. Asking surveillance companies to be more respectful of privacy is asking them to make less profit. This is not going to happen without some kind of coercion. That may come from laws and regulations, but companies are pretty efficient lobbyists. Laws and regulations will only happen if a popular movement pushes them. Actually, if such a popular movement develops, it might start pushing back against the pillaging of personal data. That would be a first step in reining in the surveillance capitalists.”
Seth Finkelstein, programmer, consultant and Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Pioneer of the Electronic Frontier Award winner, wrote, “I’m not hopeful about ameliorating the social media hate mobs. The driving causes there are too deeply linked to the incentives from outrage-mongering. I should note there’s a cottage industry in advice about social media pitfalls and good conduct. But this is hardly better than the simplistic ‘If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.’ That’s not bad advice in itself, but it’s no substitute for something comparable to laws and regulations against fraud. Corporations that have their entire focus on selling advertising around outrage and surveillance are not stewards of news, democratic institutions, beneficial self-expression and so on. They are not ever going to become such stewards, as that is not what they do. However, it is generally not a good career strategy for someone to advocate programs such as extensive public funding of news and education, strong worker protections, laws encouraging unions, general support of public goods (that will likely not produce speaking fees or think-tank grants from those corporations). I suspect some the recent interest in the effects of ‘algorithms’ is in part a way of talking about these problems in a more politically acceptable manner, without directly addressing capitalism. This is all tied into the issues of inequality, plutocracy and the destruction of civic spaces. Monopolistic big businesses aren’t your friend, unless you’re a plutocrat. Either such companies are reined in, or society becomes highly distorted by their profit imperatives. We can make minor changes around the edges here, with stronger data protection laws, or demanding the marginalization of some specific bad actors who have grabbed the attention of a bunch of pundits. But that is all simply addressing the worst symptoms, not the cause. The particular technological background is different in various eras. But we shouldn’t let that blind us to the historical underlying fundamental political conflict.”
Digital technology will continue to provide mechanisms for violating privacy and trust that outstrip mechanisms for protecting them.
David P. Reed, pioneering architect of the internet, an expert in networking, spectrum and internet policy, wrote, “Social and civic innovation will be countered very effectively by technological surveillance and behavior modification technologies being developed to maximize corporate profitability. This highly effective technology inhabits the very tools of future social and civic innovation, enabling money to be directed efficiently to control each innovation in the direction that serves interests other than those of the citizens themselves.”
Scott Burleigh, principal engineer at a major U.S. agency, commented, “The negatives of the digital age are rooted in the growing elusiveness of privacy and of trust. Digital technology will continue to provide mechanisms for violating privacy and trust that outstrip mechanisms for protecting them. People who care about these things will come to spend as little time on the grid as possible. I think there are technologies that actually could help, and I would like to believe that they will, that I’m wrong about this. But I don’t think I am.”
Vince Carducci, researcher of new uses of communication to mobilize civil society and dean at the College of Creative Studies, predicted, “What has variously been termed ‘platform’ or ‘surveillance’ capitalism will not prevent social innovation per se so much as direct it a particular way. Twentieth-century institutions such as unions, state bureaucracies and social welfare systems will continue to be disrupted by technologies that concentrate power in fewer hands.”
Matt Moore, innovation manager at Disruptor’s Handbook, Sydney, Australia, said, “Technologies will help and hinder social and civic innovation. They will drive people apart. They will bring people together. Based on our track record, these outcomes are inevitable. Their scale and scope are still largely unknown. The first 20 years of the World Wide Web (from, say, 1990 to 2010) gave many hints of new communities, new social possibilities. To me, these feel like they have been lost – or at least obscured. The web feels like a far more corporate space, controlled by a small number of large companies (Facebook, Google, Amazon) whose main business model is surveillance capitalism. Our cities will be ever more filled with sensors producing data that will feed into artificial intelligence systems. In theory, this will make cities more efficient. In practice, it may make them more chaotic – as large volumes of partial, biased data give us the illusion of omniscience. If data truly is the ‘new oil’ then that presumably means we will fight wars over it and its side effects will be toxic and expensive. On the plus side, as demographics change, technology can help us form the new communities (of age, identity, interdependence) that we will need in the next decade.”
Scott B. MacDonald, an experienced chief economist and international economic adviser, wrote, “We should be very deeply concerned that technology will be used for better control and influencing of people and not necessarily for their betterment. The more information we know about people can allow a better customization of their lifestyle, but it provides knowledge of what they read and think. Social media and the like also will be formed by influencers, who will seek to determine what is morally right – either arch-conservative ideas or social justice warrior frameworks, both of which lend themselves to a ‘Brave New World’ landscape where you don’t have to think; you can discuss, but only as long as your views conform with the views passed via technology from the commanding heights.”
David Cake, an active leader of ICANN’s Non-Commercial Users Constituency, commented, “Privacy and surveillance is becoming understood as one of the largest, and most complex, issues that must be addressed in the wake of technological change. Attitudes to privacy is emerging as one of the biggest dividers in responses to social and civic innovation. It is clear that privacy and surveillance concerns will only be partially mitigated, as surveillance becomes increasingly practical. But attitudes to use of surveillance techniques will be a major social divider between nations and societies. We see huge rifts emerging around the issue (such as attitudes to the GDPR) and there are certainly nations who are pushing ahead with aggressive surveillance and social control mechanisms. But the existence of the GDPR, and the widespread acceptance of the need for it, is a hopeful sign that acceptance of the need to regulate privacy invasive practices is rising.”
Some respondents were hopeful that these issues will be worked out if new economic systems are designed and implemented to meet the needs of the digital age. One of them is Henry Lieberman, a research scientist at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab (CSAIL). He wrote, “The continued progress of science will make advances in all areas, such as physical and mental health, etc. The perceived ‘dangers’ of digital technology – loss of privacy, job loss, fake news and hate speech, ‘dehumanization’ of society, etc., are mostly pathologies of capitalism, not pathologies of technology. The next economic systems won’t have the perverse incentives of capitalism that lead to most of these problems. See http://www.whycantwe.org/.”
A pair of experts said government surveillance is a growing issue that will be of great consequence in the coming decade.
John Sniadowski, a systems architect based in the UK, wrote, “Many sovereign states are busily weaponising digital platforms to disseminate misinformation, AKA propaganda. In decades prior to the internet, states would regulate the broadcast media. Now they take action to assert control over digital lives by using technology to increasingly track individuals on a scale never before possible. Also, by enacting laws enforcing the use of ‘digital surveillance’ via gagging rules and other enforcement laws, it becomes increasingly difficult for individuals to lawfully protest. Also, technological advances allow the building of the so-called ‘great firewall of China’ where all but the most sophisticated digital citizen is denied information channels that the state consider prohibited and illegal content.”
Rob Frieden, a professor of telecommunications and law at Penn State who previously worked with Motorola and has held senior policy-making positions at the Federal Communications Commission and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, said, “Sadly, I do not see individual or even collective ‘self-help’ efforts as having sufficient effectiveness vis-a-vis the tools available in a surveillance society. Governments appear to have a nearly unlimited budget to acquire the latest and greatest technologies for surveillance. How can an off-the-shelf encryption option providing ‘pretty good privacy’ match the power, range and resources available to governments?”
Technology can be a catalyst for advocacy against abuses of power
Many of these experts say that power imbalances and privacy concerns may mobilize the citizenry to push for change. Technology facilitates connecting with like-minded others to inform them of maleficence and advocate for redress. Just as previous digital movements have used technology to rally people together for causes in the past decade (e.g., Arab Spring, Black Lives Matter, the #MeToo movement, the Women’s March), a number of these experts anticipate future movements will continue to harness technological tools during the coming decade.
Alexander B. Howard, independent writer, digital governance expert and open-government advocate, said, “Civic innovation in the U.S. has come from multiple sources in the past and will continue to do so in the future. Cities, states, Congress, federal agencies and even the courts will all build better services, interfaces and governance frameworks for public access to information, participation, policymaking and voter registration. So will existing tech companies that work with them, along with ones yet to be founded that will pioneer models for participatory media that don’t depend on surveillance capitalism. Media companies, particularly nonprofits, will be a key force for innovation in connecting the public writ large and specific communities to trustworthy information and one another by adopting and developing both open and closed networks. Libraries and schools will perform similar roles in many communities, as teachers continue to experiment with improving education. Researchers and scientists at universities will collaborate with watchdogs, technologists and government to build better tools and approaches.”
Technology change is fundamentally disruptive – in other words: The more technology changes, the more things stay insane.
Charlie Firestone, executive director of the Communications and Society Program and vice president, Aspen Institute, wrote, “I am optimistic about the use of technologies towards positive uses in addressing our democratic society. I think this will come as a reaction to the abuses that have given rise to the ‘techlash.’ As abuses increase, which will likely happen in the coming few years, a reaction will bring reforms that will enhance democratic elements such as 1) civic participation and dialogue; 2) more widespread registration, financial contributions and voting; and 3) connecting to neighbors.”
Micah Altman, director of the Center for Research in Equitable and Open Scholarship at MIT, commented, “A 19th century French critic famously quipped: ‘The more things change, the more they stay the same.’ And there are many regularities in human preferences; limits on individual human physical, emotional and cognitive performance; and entrenched societal interests that create substantial inertia in human social and civic institutions. However, in the last decade and a half we’ve witnessed social-media-powered revolutions, crowd-sourced surveillance and countersurveillance, do-it-yourself redistricting and even a public-participation draft of a national constitution. This decade will see many more experiments, some will have impact, a few will stick. Technology change is fundamentally disruptive – in other words: The more technology changes, the more things stay insane.”
Christopher Savage, a policy entrepreneur, responded, “Technology always starts with the rich/privileged and then diffuses to everyone else. Electric lighting. Cars. Landline phones. TVs. Computers. Mobile phones. Etc. This is going to happen as well with the means of influence over ideology and opinion, and, thus, with political power. Over the last decade professional political/policy folks have begun to learn to use technology tools (from cable news to email lists to targeted ads to Twitter-enabled flash mobs) to do what they’ve always done: create pressure on elected officials and bureaucrats to do what the professionals want. But the democratizing effects of widely dispersed tools for reaching potential political allies at the grassroots level, combined with growing populist/popular distrust of traditional institutions and interest groups, will begin to erode the message control of those groups. The internet has disintermediated countless institutions that had long had bottleneck control in their domains – from newspapers to taxicab companies to hotels to travel agents. Traditional influencers of opinion and ideology (interest groups and political parties) are ripe for disintermediation as well.”
Douglas Rushkoff, a media theorist, author and professor of media at City University of New York, said, “Interesting that you didn’t have an answer that was more like, ‘Technology will hamper but not prevent our ability to enact social and civic innovation.’ Tech will make it harder, but it won’t prevent us from doing so. As inequality increases, eventually people will need to turn to one another for mutual aid. Communities will have to form for basic survival. The wealthy may move into augmented realities in order to shield themselves from the realities of the 99%, but most others will begin to find rapport and then solidarity by looking up from tech at one another, instead.”
Jamais Cascio, a distinguished fellow at the Institute for the Future selected by Foreign Policy magazine in its “Top 100 Global Thinkers” predicted, “By 2030 the benefits of these social, civic and technological innovations won’t be fully visible. The primary driver for ultimately succeeding in beneficial innovation is, in my view, generational, not just technological. Millennials and (in other regions) similar cohorts that grew up surrounded by networked communications will be taking on greater political, economic and social authority. These are people for whom effectively all media has been diverse, hyperbolic and created for ongoing engagement (not just one-and-done watching). They are likely to have greater skills at recognizing manipulation and seeing webs of influence (rather than lines).”
Charles Ess, a professor of digital ethics at the University of Oslo, said, “Despite the looming, if not all but overwhelming, threats of surveillance capitalism versus the Chinese social credit system, there are some encouraging signs that people can develop and exploit the more-positive possibilities of current and emerging technologies. First of all, however, it seems clear that putting hope in technology alone is simply mistaken if not counterproductive. As Merlyna Lim (2018) has convincingly demonstrated in her extensive analysis of global protests since 2010, successful activist movements and ensuring social and political transformations depend on ‘hybrid human-communication-information networks that include social media’ – but in which ‘the human body will always be the most essential and central instrument.’ (‘Roots, Routes and Routers: Communications and Media of Contemporary Social Movements.’ Journalism and Communication Monographs. May 2018.) The rising interest in hacker spaces, DIY and so on shows some indication that at least some numbers of people are increasingly interested in better understanding and utilizing these technologies in the name of good lives of flourishing and democracy, rather than simple consumption. If these movements can be encouraged, such human-social-technological amalgams will continue to spark eruptions of activity and movements in the right directions – as at least counterexamples and counterweights to the otherwise much darker and daunting developments.”
Gina Neff, senior research fellow at the Oxford Internet Institute studying innovation and digital transformation, wrote, “Without broader participation in the conversations today that lead to the tools of tomorrow, civil society will be left behind. Too many people are being left behind in the decisions about today’s technologies and data ecosystems.”
Rey Junco, director of research at CIRCLE in the Tisch College of Civic Life at Tufts University, observed, “We have seen social technologies be used for good and to promote social and civic change. CIRCLE conducted polling of youth aged 18-24 around the 2018 midterm elections. A relevant finding from this polling was that youth were much more engaged in offline activism (such as attending a march, sitting in or occupying a place as an act of civil disobedience, walking out of school or college to make a statement or participating in a union strike) in 2018 than in 2016 and that this increase in participation is significantly correlated to online activism (or what had traditionally be termed ‘slacktivism’). In other words, there is clearly evidence that technology use can spur civic innovation and lead to the spread and uptake of youth movements. The prototypical example of such a movement is the gun violence prevention movement. For months leading up to the 2018 election cycle, young people highlighted the problem of gun violence and school safety in many communities and made it part of the national conversation, which made a sizable impact in politics and in the media. Parkland students founded Never Again MSD, which called for protests and demonstrations to lobby for anti-gun violence legislation and co-organized the March for Our Lives in Washington, D.C., along with numerous voter registration drives and get-out-the-vote efforts. They used social media such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to spread their message, and in turn caught the attention of other young people across the nation. Indeed, this movement elevated the conversation around gun violence prevention to a central theme for the 2018 midterms. Therefore we can expect, at some point, that technology will be used not only to further and spur social and civic innovation, but also to help solve some of the problems that said technology has created – such as the spread of misinformation and the contributions to political polarization.”
Axel Bruns, a professor at the Digital Media Research Centre at Queensland University of Technology, said, “Adversity breeds innovation, and the present moment is one of severe adversity both for society in general and for a range of distinct societal groups in particular. At the same time that technologies are being used to surveil, control and attack them, such groups are also innovatively repurposing technologies to respond, resist and fight back. While this will generate significant change, it will not simply have uniformly positive or negative outcomes – the same tools that are being used constructively by minorities to assert and protect their identity and interests are also being used destructively by other fringe groups to disrupt and interfere with such processes. Technology is not neutral in any of this, but it is also not inherently a force for good or bad.”
Paola Ricaurte, a fellow at Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society, wrote, “As technologies evolve with new functionalities, awareness about their risks and harms will increase. People will demand the improvement of their quality of life, the respect for human rights and the environment. However, there will be greater difficulties for those who are excluded from the digital economy to participate actively in the generation of new knowledge and to resist against the power of big tech.”
At the same time that technologies are being used to surveil, control and attack them, such groups are also innovatively repurposing technologies to respond, resist and fight back.
Prateek Raj, an assistant professor in strategy and economics at Indian Institute of Management, Bangalore, commented, “Technology is already shaping social and civic institutions in developing countries like India. We live in a digital world, and it is bound to shape our physical reality. As long as local grassroots activism is strong, we can expect positive innovations driven by technology to happen as well. The key issue, however, is to make sure that no single entity has too much power in the digital world, so that it can block civic innovations from gaining salience. One such threat is the crisis in local journalism due to the drying up of advertising revenue (that today goes to digital giants), and prioritization of visceral content in online social media feeds.”
Jaime McCauley, an associate professor of sociology at Coastal Carolina University expert in social movements and social change, observed, “Despite its shortcomings, social media and technology have proven to be useful in civic engagement, from the Arab Spring to neighborhoods organizing on local issues. Human history is one of innovation. We will continue to use whatever tools are available to us for good AND ill. Hopefully, good will win out.”
Banning Garrett, an independent consultant and futurist, said, “Much of the problem with technology has been a result of its democratization. While the current focus is on the extraordinary power and wealth of the big tech companies and their ability to harvest vast amounts of our data for commercial purposes, it is also case that technology has been democratized and put into the hands of users incredibly powerful tools of empowerment. These technologies – both the hardware like iPhones and platforms like Facebook – are powerful tools for individuals to not only ‘publish’ their views but also to organize others to act politically. We have already seen this for the last decade, of course, but it could take new and powerful forms in the future as virtual communities become better organized and more powerful politically, bypassing existing political parties and influencing institutions and political outcomes directly. How this will all evolve will not depend on technology but on developments in the economy and political leadership. The post-Trump era could be more of the same divisive, partisan politics, or it could move toward a rejection of the current trends. Social and civic innovation will influence which direction the country goes and will also be influenced by the trends.”
William L. Schrader, founder of PSINet and internet pioneer, now with Logixedge, predicted, “I see more freedom coming for oppressed people throughout the world. Whether it is LGBTQ, people of color, people of caste, people with or without money, people of religion – I see the technology supporting social media actively leveling the playing field for all. And NO, it will not be complete by 2030, but who would have thought that we’d have gotten this far in progressing positively by 2019 after Stonewall riots in 1969? The educated populace will win over the uneducated, the unbiased will win over the biased, and the belief that people are basically GOOD will prevail. But it will take time. We all have a choice to be positive or negative, and I stand by my beliefs that the internet, in general, will be an overall help to society in every way.”
Mike Gaudreau, a retired entrepreneur and business leader, wrote, “Polarization of politics will continue and positions will harden in the U.S. two-party system. The left will become too utopian and the right will veer toward national socialism that suits those who think immigrants are the cause of their issues. I fear there may be another civil war in the U.S. in the next 10 to 20 years, or at least a period of upheaval as seen in the 1960s.”