Dawn of the techlash

Rachel Botsman at the Guardian: “…Once seen as saviours of democracy, those titans are now just as likely to be viewed as threats to truth or, at the very least, impassive billionaires falling down on the job of monitoring their own backyards.

It wasn’t always this way. Remember the early catchy slogans that emerged from those ping-pong-tabled tech temples in Silicon Valley? “A place for friends”“Don’t be evil” or “You can make money without being evil” (rather poignant, given what was to come). Users were enchanted by the sudden, handheld power of a smartphone to voice anything, access anything; grassroots activist movements revelled in these new tools for spreading their cause. The idealism of social media – democracy, friction-free communication, one-button socialising proved infectious.

So how did that unbridled enthusiasm for all things digital morph into a critical erosion of trust in technology, particularly in politics? Was 2017 the year of reckoning, when technology suddenly crossed to the dark side or had it been heading that way for some time? It might be useful to recall how social media first discovered its political muscle….

Technology is only the means. We also need to ask why our political ideologies have become so polarised, and take a hard look at our own behaviour, as well as that of the politicians themselves and the partisan media outlets who use these platforms, with their vast reach, to sow the seeds of distrust. Why are we so easily duped? Are we unwilling or unable to discern what’s true and what isn’t or to look for the boundaries between opinion, fact and misinformation? But what part are our own prejudices playing?

Luciano Floridi, of the Digital Ethics Lab at Oxford University, points out that technology alone can’t save us from ourselves. “The potential of technology to be a powerful positive force for democracy is huge and is still there. The problems arise when we ignore how technology can accentuate or highlight less attractive sides of human nature,” he says. “Prejudice. Jealousy. Intolerance of different views. Our tendency to play zero sum games. We against them. Saying technology is a threat to democracy is like saying food is bad for you because it causes obesity.”

It’s not enough to blame the messenger. Social media merely amplifies human intent – both good and bad. We need to be honest about our own, age-old appetite for ugly gossip and spreading half-baked information, about our own blindspots.

Is there a solution to it all? Plenty of smart people are working on technical fixes, if for no other reason than the tech companies know it’s in their own best interests to stem the haemorrhaging of trust. Whether they’ll go far enough remains to be seen.

We sometimes forget how uncharted this new digital world remains – it’s a work in progress. We forget that social media, for all its flaws, still brings people together, gives a voice to the voiceless, opens vast wells of information, exposes wrongdoing, sparks activism, allows us to meet up with unexpected strangers. The list goes on. It’s inevitable that there will be falls along the way, deviousness we didn’t foresee. Perhaps the present danger is that in our rush to condemn the corruption of digital technologies, we will unfairly condemn the technologies themselves….(More).