Aral Balkan

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In 2020 and beyond, the battle to save personhood and democracy requires a radical overhaul of mainstream technology

Photo of a boy driving in a boat on a lake during the fires in Australia. Photo credit: Allison Marion.

As we enter a new decade, humankind faces several existential emergencies:

  1. The climate emergency1
  2. The democracy emergency
  3. The personhood emergency

In no small part thanks to Greta Thunberg, we’re definitely talking about the first. Whether we’re actually doing anything about it, of course, is very much up for debate2.

Similarly, thanks to the rise of the far right around the globe in the shape of (among others) Trump in the US, Johnson in the UK, Bolsonaro in Brazil, Orban in Hungary, and Erdoğan in Turkey, we are also talking about the second, including the role of propaganda (so-called “fake news”) and social media in perpetrating it.

What we seem entirely clueless and ambivalent about is the third even though all the others stem from it and are symptoms of it. It is the emergency without a name. Well, until now, that is.

The personhood emergency

You cannot understand the personhood emergency without understanding the role that mainstream digital and networked technology plays in perpetuating it.

Your TV wasn’t watching you, YouTube is

Traditional – non-digital, non-networked – technology was a one-way broadcast medium. That’s the one thing that a book printed on the Gutenberg press and your analog TV set had in common.

It used to be that when you read a newspaper, the newspaper did not also read you. When you watched TV, your TV did not also watch you (unless you specifically allowed an audience measurement company like Nielsen to attach a ratings meter to your television set, that is).

Today, as you read The Guardian newspaper online, The Guardian – and over two dozen other third-parties, including the aforementioned Nielsen – also reads you. When you watch YouTube, YouTube also watches you.

This is not some tin-foil hat conspiracy theory, it’s simply the business model of mainstream technology. I call this business model people farming. It’s part of the greater socio-economic system we inhabit that Shoshana Zuboff calls surveillance capitalism3.

And it gets worse: Alphabet Inc., which owns Google and YouTube, doesn’t just watch you when you use one of their services but they also follow you around the Web as you go from site to site. Google alone has eyes on 70-80% of the Web.

But they don’t stop there, either. People farmers also buy data from data brokers, share data with other people farmers, and even know when you use your credit card in brick and mortar stores. And they combine all of this information to create profiles of you which are constantly analysed, updated, and improved.

We can consider these profiles to be simulations of us. They contain aspects of us. They can be (and are) used as proxies of us. They contain highly sensitive and intimate information about us. But we do not own them, the people farmers do.

It is not too much of a stretch to say that within this system, we do not fully own ourselves. In such a system, where our very thoughts are at risk of being read by corporations, our very personhood and the concept of self-determination itself is put at risk.

We stand at the precipice of reverting from being people to being property again, hacked via a digital and networked backdoor, the existence of which we continue to deny at our peril. The prerequisites for a free society hang in the balance of our understanding this basic reality.

If we extend ourselves using technology, we must extend the scope of human rights law to include this extended self.

If we cannot define the boundaries of a person properly, how can we hope to protect people or personhood in the digital network age?

Today, we are sharded beings. The boundaries of our selves do not end at our biological boundaries. Aspects of our selves live on bits of silicon that may reside thousands of miles away.

It is imperative that we acknowledge that the boundaries of the self in the digital network age have transcended the biological boundaries of our physical bodies and that this new boundary – the extended self; the sharded totality of the self – constitutes our new digital skin and that its integrity must be protected by human rights law.

Unless we do this, we are bound to flail around at the surface of the problem, making what are no more than cosmetic changes to a system that is quickly evolving towards a new type of slavery.

This is the personhood emergency.

A radical overhaul of mainstream technology

If we want to tackle the personhood emergency, nothing short of a radical overhaul of mainstream technology will do.

We must first understand that while regulating people farmers and surveillance capitalists is important to reduce their harms, it is both an uphill struggle against institutional corruption and that it will not, by itself, magically result in the emergence of a radically different technological infrastructure. And the latter is the only thing that can tackle the personhood emergency.

Imagine a different world

Humour me for a second and imagine this: Let’s say your name is Jane Smith and I want to talk to you. I go to jane.smith.net.eu and ask to follow you. Who am I? I’m aral.balkan.net.eu. You allow me to follow you and we start chatting… privately.

Imagine further that we can create groups – maybe for the school that our children go to or for our local neighbourhood. In such a system, we all own and control our own place on the Internet. We can do all the things you can do on Facebook today, just as easily, but without Facebook in the middle, watching and exploiting us.

What we need is a peer-to-peer system that bridges to the existing world wide web.

What we need is the opposite of Big Tech. We need Small Tech – everyday tools for everyday people designed to increase human welfare, not corporate profits.

Practical steps

At Small Technology Foundation, Laura and I have already started building some of the fundamental pieces of one possible bridge from surveillance capitalism to a radically democratic, peer-to-peer future. And we will continue to work on the other pieces this year and beyond. But there are practical steps we can all take to help move things in this direction.

Here are some practical suggestions for various groups:

Everyday people

  1. Don’t blame yourselves; you are the victims here. When 99.99999% of all technology investment goes to people farmers, don’t let anyone tell you you should feel bad for being forced into using their services due to lack of alternatives.

  2. That said, there are alternatives. Seek them out. Use them. Support the people who make them.

  3. Understand that this problem exists. Call out the people responsible and defend others who do so. At the very least, don’t brush aside the concerns and efforts of those of us who are trying to do something about it.

Developers

  1. Stop embedding the surveillance devices of companies like Google and Facebook in your web sites and apps. Stop exposing the people who use your services to surveillance capitalism.

  2. Start looking at alternative ways of funding and building technology that do not follow the toxic Silicon Valley model.

  3. Drop “growth” as your success metric. Build tools that individuals own and control, not your company or organisation. Build single-tenant web apps. Support free (as in freedom) and decentralised platforms (without getting mired in the blockchain swamp).

The European Union

  1. Stop investing in startups and acting like Silicon Valley’s unpaid research and development department and invest in stayups instead.

  2. Create a noncommercial top-level domain (TLD) open to anyone in the world where anyone can register a domain name (with an automatic Let’s Encrypt certificate) for zero cost with a single API call.

  3. Build upon the previous step to offer every EU citizen, paid for by EU taxpayer money, a basic virtual private server with a basic amount of resources to host an always-on node in a peer-to-peer system that would unshackle them from the Googles and Facebooks of the world and create new opportunities for people to communicate privately as well as to express political will in a decentralised manner.

And, in general, at the very least, it’s time for every one of us to pick a side.

The side you pick will decide whether we live as people or as products. The side you pick will decide whether we live in a democracy or under capitalism.

Democracy or capitalism? Pick one.

If, like me, you grew up in the 80s, you probably unthinkingly accepted the neoliberal maxim that democracy and capitalism go hand-in-hand. This is one of the greatest lies ever told. Democracy and capitalism are polar opposites.

You cannot have a functional democracy and billionaires and trillion-dollar corporate interests and Silicon Valley’s Big Tech misinformation and exploitation machinery. What we’re seeing is the clash of capitalism and democracy and capitalism is winning.

Are we past a tipping point? I don’t know. Perhaps. But we can’t think like that.

Personally, I’m going to keep working to effect change where I feel I can be effective: in creating alternative technological infrastructure to support individual freedoms and democracy.

We’ve already laid the infrastructure of techno-fascism. We’ve already created (and are creating) the panopticons. All the fascists need to do is move in and take the controls. And they will do so democratically, before destroying democracy, just as Hitler did.

And if you think the 1930s and 40s were something, remember that the most advanced tools to amplify the destructive ideologies of the time were less powerful than the computers you have in your pockets today. Today we have machine learning and are on the brink of unlocking quantum computing.

We must ensure the 2030s are not like the 1930s. Because our advanced centralised systems of data capture, classification, and prediction plus a hundred years of exponential increase in processing power (note: I do not use the word “progress”) mean the 2030s will be exponentially worse.

Whoever you are, wherever you are, we have a common enemy: the nationalist international. The problems of our time transcend national borders. The solutions must also. The systems we build must be both local and global at once. The network we must build is one of solidarity.

We created the present. We will create the future. Let’s work together to ensure that that future is the one we want to live in ourselves.

My speech at the European Parliament at the end of last year at the Future of Internet Regulation event.

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  1. Or, more accurately, our habitat emergency as that’s what we’re at risk of losing unless we act decisively and do so now. [return]
  2. Spoiler alert: we’re not. [return]
  3. Although I am fond of surveillance capitalism as a term – it is precise and accurate in describing the latest iteration of capitalism that we inhabit – Shoshana and I differ on how we define it. Shoshana sees it as “a rogue mutation of capitalism”, somehow implying that capitalism is otherwise fine. I see surveillance capitalism as a natural evolution of capitalism. Systems of corporate surveillance do not corrupt capitalism, they amplify it and its extractive and exploitative nature. Surveillance capitalism, in my definition, is the interaction between surveillance and capitalism. Capitalism is about accrual of wealth. What happens when those with accrued wealth invest that wealth in mechanisms of surveillance that enables them to gather intimate insight about our lives which they then use to manipulate our behaviour to accue even greater wealth? You get the feedback loop between surveillance and capitalism that is surveillance capitalism. [return]