According to the US Historian Melvin Kranzberg, “technology is neither good nor bad; nor is it neutral.” In the same way, many concepts in the debate on technologies have to be de-dramatised: Cyberspace does not exist. The ‘internet’ does not exist. The use of these terms reinforces the popular perception that we are dealing with an all-pervasive and amorphous entity that escapes anyone’s control.
‘Cyberspace’ and ‘internet’ are easy but mystifying catchwords for what in reality are a myriad of networking, information and communication technologies. These technologies are bound to have an effect, but what that effect will be is contingent upon dominant economic and political interests. Therefore, we should not fall prey to the fatalistic belief that technology develops autonomously, and that this is fundamentally beyond our control. Technologies are developed with a goal in mind, they embody certain values, and favour certain uses.
Even with self-learning applications of artificial intelligence, that is, even if we treat technology itself as a ‘black box’, choices can be made about its use and deployment. Many of the digital technologies we see today can either be used to empower individuals and communities or to constrain and control them. We can see this in practice when we look at the different approaches taken in, for example, China and the US. Leaving this terrain fully to engineers and the private sector is ill advised, and narrows the scope for democratic decision-making. This is especially so in the digital environment, which, unlike the natural environment, is fully man-made and malleable.
Cyberspace does not exist. The ‘internet’ does not exist. The use of these terms reinforces the perception that we are dealing with an all-pervasive entity
Unfortunately, EU regulators have largely forsaken this role. By and large they refrained from actively shaping and regulating the ‘internet’. The current infrastructure that we use to communicate and receive information online mainly serves commercial interests, with relatively little public control or oversight. The result is an online environment where citizens are being tracked and manipulated, and their personal data are maximally exploited for commercial gain. This is often presented as something inevitable, but we forget too quickly that things were different before, and that alternatives are possible. For instance, the postal service has been either fully or partially provided by public authorities, and has to comply with certain public interest requirements. For TV, most countries have public channels, and strict limits on advertisement.
On a more positive note, in Europe, public authorities are starting to realise that change is both possible and necessary. The General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) is being applied since May this year, and provides a much-needed update and improved enforceability of personal data protection rules. Businesses often claim that the GDPR hinders and slows down innovation in big data applications – but this is wrong. These rules simply steer technological development in a privacy-friendly direction, which makes eminent sense. Why would we want to compete with China in developing technology that undermines our privacy and leaves us all worse off?
Unfortunately, EU regulators have largely forsaken the role of actively shaping and regulating the ‘internet’.
The discussions about the next EU research and innovation programme, Horizon Europe, reveal a greater belief in the public capacity to steer technological development into societally beneficial directions. The future programme will set policy missions for research and innovation activity, and hence consciously direct technological development towards a solution of pressing global challenges. This is high time, and will hopefully help to reverse current trends, whereby the development and use of new technology has often served to increase existing inequalities, instead of minimising them. That funds are pouring into block-chain technology, which is an expensive technological fix for the lack of trust in public institutions, is both a sign of our time and should be a call to action. Why not focus our efforts on the fact that the majority of our citizens are still stuck in traffic jams while driving polluting cars, pay ever higher prices for outdated houses, and are putting in more hours at work for a real wage that is stagnant?
In 1999, the Harvard law professor Lawrence Lessig observed in his ‘Code and other laws of cyberspace’ that the US institutions for democratic decision-making were unwilling or unable to shape the ‘Internet’. He therefore predicted that commercial interests would dictate the way we communicate and receive information online. Twenty years later, that very future has arrived, and the EU is belatedly coming to terms with this reality. We should learn from this experience, and pursue a more activist approach when it comes to technologies such as artificial intelligence and robotics. We should not simply and solely focus on adapting workers and citizens’ skills to suit these technologies. Instead, we should be pondering what we want from these technologies, and how we can adapt and use them to the benefit of our workers and citizens. Technology should be a means, not an end in itself.