Where is the democracy in all this democratizing technology?

There's always a lot of talk about new technologies and democracy. But is expanded access alone enough to be democratizing?  Doesn't democracy also require that that access have some connection to systems of power? That those with access have visibility into the systems that govern the access? That they have some say over how the access is distributed, controlled, and held in check?

I bring this up for two reasons. Yesterday at an Independent Sector "listening meeting" I noted that the organization - and nonprofits in general - seem to exclusively refer to digital technologies as democratizing. This is a partial, and rear-view mirror, view of what's happening. Yes, more people have low cost or free access to voice their opinion and access information. No, not everyone has this. Yes, that information flows through new gatekeepers (cable companies, telcos, ISPs, and search/social media companies). Yes, many efforts at bringing the 3 billion without access to digital technologies online are controlled by a handful (2) US technology companies. (see notes on Zero Rating) This is not democratizing.

This partial view of technology by the nonprofit sector only sees digital technologies as forces for good. This lets the sector off the hook for questioning them. This is problematic. It may - at least in part - explain why most of the US nonprofit and philanthropic sector and the policy associations that purport to speak for it have been so dangerously silent on issues of net neutrality, broadband access, government surveillance, digital content ownership, free speech, and free association. 

Let me say (again) why I think these issues are so critical to nonprofits and foundations:

  1. Digital infrastructure, data and gadgetry are (at least partly) where we organize, express ourselves and associate in the 21st century. For more and more of us, they are the central place for these actions, which are then complemented by analog (offline) action. Digital action complements or accompanies most offline efforts at social sector provision.
  2. Therefore, these digital "spaces and tools" are where we associate, express and protest. They are - therefore - fundamental to civil society. They are today's "speakers' corners."
  3. How they are regulated, who owns them, how we access them, what control we the people have over them is therefore existentially important to civil society. 
  4. Nonprofits and foundations exist as part of civil society. 
  5. Policies and social norms, and yes, even the rhetoric of democratizing, about these digital places is therefore critical to the existence of civil society. 
Nonprofit and philanthropic discussions that continue to focus on the gadgetry or the latest social media woop-di-do are missing the point. It's not (yet) quite as bad as whistling past the graveyard, but as the sector focuses on the good and shiny it misses what really matters. The rhetoric of technology as a democratizing force is incomplete. Worse, it is distracting (and being used deliberately as such). I quoted Nathan Schneider on this a week or so ago - here it is again:
"There is a habit in tech culture of saying that the latest app is “democratizing” whatever it happens to do. This is lovely, but best not to confuse it with actual democracy. Democracy is about participation with control, freedom with accountability, privacy with transparency. Tech companies tend to pick and choose from that list rather inventively."
Democracy is not just about access. It's about power, transparency, and equality. This is one reason why issues of visibility and feedback are so important (see the latest issue of Alliance magazine on this : second reason for this post).

Tax policy was a key 20th century issue for philanthropy and nonprofits. Digital policies on access, expression, association, consent, security, and privacy are THE defining issues for the 21st century. 

1 comment:

Jan Masaoka said...

Thank you Lucy. You are right. And it infuriates me as well that technology is portrayed as an only-positive, democratizing force.

Once place where this mentality is actively causing harm is at the California Teleconnect Fund (CTF) of the California Public Utilities Commission (PUC). CTF has been subsidizing nonprofit and government phone and internet bills at the rate of $89 million per year. But the CTF staff has now proposed changes that include a) elimination of voice -- including VOIP -- as eligible and b) making only nonprofits with annual budgets of less than $5 million eligible.

Their reasoning is that "no one uses voice anymore" despite our pointing, for example, to our members who operate crisis lines where the callers (such as homeless young people, vulnerable women, elderly) are likely to rely 100% on voice communication.

We're fighting this issue along with many of our 9,400 nonprofit members. But the point here is simply that misunderstandings are not harmless.