The internet vehicles that facilitate our online and offline interactions have contributed to an unequal and dystopian reality. The mass aggregation and processing of data, often by a few companies, has created extreme power imbalances fueled by predatory profit models. As the connectedness and consciousness of humanity is extended onto the internet, and the merging of the online and offline intensifies, ever increasing complexities and unforeseen circumstances emerge.
It’s a reality marked by the emergence of unicorns – magical companies that can’t be controlled. An age where social engineering is facilitated by the engineering of data. The unicorn model of grow big, fast and break things risks to break society and the values we should care about. When things break, it is the most disadvantaged that are likely left to carry the pieces. Ultimately society bears the cost.
Society bears the cost when the prevailing culture has brought an internet were all and everything goes. This is an internet environment that carries individualistic and capitalistic ideals and, in the Global South, furthers western hegemony through extractive power models. It is an internet where might is right and the data exploitation of the marginalized is justified.
The concept of justice has become the ultimate freedom to do as one pleases – the hallmark of a very individualized society. Self achievement and assertion, and minimal duty to the environment and to others, has been hailed as the seal of a progressive society and a prosperous economy. Yet these promised effects of improved societies, and the potential benefits of the internet, through trusting large internet companies to mediate our online and offline experiences, have yet to be realized in much of the world.
The internet is broken in the developed world, and in the developing world its nature is predatory and its capture by foreign capital and interests seeks to maintain a colonial relatiosnship. The ethics that lead to an overly individualistic and highly competitive society in some cases are adopted by the oppressed and the colonial relationship is born again through the oppressed oppressing the oppressed.
To speak of the benefits of the internet under immense power imbalances between the South and North, where the hardware and software of the internet is controlled by foreign entities and designed to extract oceans of data, is like praising the benefits of colonialism under immense exploitation. It’s hard to imagine an equal society where exploitation, whether labeled as promoting peace, progress, or prosperity, is justified.
Where there is great power imbalance there is bound to be oppression, colonialism, even among developing nations. This relationship is demonstrated in the relationship that the Eastern world has on less powerful developing nations, especially those in Sub-Saharan-Africa, where hardware is used to extract data and invade the privacy of the citizens of the least developed countries in the developing world.
The internet, shaped by self-serving principles, has progressed in the way it was bound to progress and further rewards the empowered at the expense of the disenfranchised. The tech disruptions in the current culture of the internet, a culture that mirrors the individualistic nature of power in the offline world, will continue to shift power away from the disenfranchised to those who are already power.
A better internet advances the well-being of society through the dismantling of the power structures that create inequality. Internet technology companies, if they should continue being tasked to democratize societies and equalize power, must ensure the hardware and software they provide first and foremost empowers and reflects the interests of the communities they serve. The power accumulated through the concentration of data and capital must be redistributed and responsibly used. As internet technology continues to be an important part of humanity’s lived experience, humanity as a whole must be empowered to dictate their desired experience. Power must be redistributed in consideration of each human being and our commonly shared values.
The prevailing individualistic culture often veiled in the tech world as “disruption”, “aid” in the greater society, and more openly as capitalism, needs to be checked and replaced by a culture built on interdependency – the culture of self similarity.
Self similarity is the idea that humanity is essentially one, similar and connected. Humans as individuals and as collectives share the common goal of meaningful existence and prosperity; This is a goal that can be best achieved through cooperation. Like fractal shapes where the part mirrors the whole, the collective must reflect the interests of the individual and the individual must mirror the interests of society. Society must be structured for the well-being of the individual and the individual must work for the well_being of society. Both the part and the whole are beholden to each other and succeeds as the other succeeds. This is a relationship that balances power, aligns communal interests with individual interests and appropriately directs and redirects power for the fulfillment of shared goals – a communal and cooperative ethics.
The complexities and conflicts that affect human life cannot always be understood and grasped at once. No one culture or person possesses all the knowledge to deal with uncertainty and the unknown. Cooperation minimizes the risks to humanity and our shared environment and allows a collective intelligence to emerge as a tool of civilization and prosperity. In Zulu it is said indlela ibuzwa kwabaphambili: the directions to a destination are asked from those who are ahead. A traveler may ask the next traveler, who then asks the next traveler, and so on, recursively, until the path is made known to the original inquirer – cooperation as an intelligence. Complexity can be dealt with in parts just as technical problems can be elegantly dealt with through recursion. Recursion highlights the interdependency between all the parts where the interests of the one are achieved by the group effort and the group benefits from the full and meaningful participation of each individual.
The internet should be a platform and place where the good of the individual is maximized by the collective and the well-being of the collective is advanced by the individual. The platforms we use must protect users and empower them to succeed in a sustainable way and to act for the advancement of the community and humanity’s shared goals. The concentration of power requires a strict adherence to the ethics of communalism and cooperation such that power is only held in service and on behalf of others. An improved internet is one that emphatically asserts the fractal philosophy, ubuntu, that one’s humanity is inextricably linked to the development of the humanity of others.
The internet needs a bottom-up approach where the accumulation and concentration of power is used to advance social good rather than individual interests at the expense of the community. The internet vehicles we rely on, if they should be useful, need to reflect our shared values. Instead of breaking things and disruption for the sake of disruption, society must demand a culture of fixing things and creating more equal and fair societies. Artificial Intelligence cannot necessarily make society better by virtue of being “intelligent”, cooperation must be regarded as the highest form of intelligence and as the defining act of civilization and human development.