I wrote and presented the original long-form of this post for the European Network of Living Labs (ENOLL) in late summer 2013. The full transcript and indeed I think the full recording of the talk can be found here... https://4thenollsummerschool.wordpress.com/2013/09/04/keynote-speech-from-joan-mulvihill/
This is the abridged version that I shared at Congregation.ie Autumn of the same year. This idea that large tech companies had the power to control global group think and determine the outcome of elections was written years before anyone had heard of Cambridge Analytica. It might all sound old hat now but at the time I felt alone saying it and indeed it was at some professional risk given my role as CEO of the Irish Internet Association at that time.
In the long form paper you will hear me ask for a Protocol of Trust for tech companies. It was a full five years later before Tim Berners Lee called for a Magna Carta for tech companies in an interview with Elizabeth Bramson Boudreau, CEO and Publisher of MIT Techonlogy Review.
So these were my ideas and thoughts on Digital Colonialism.
Technology has the ability to disrupt the very essence of how we define ourselves as people, our identity and sense of place in the world. How relevant are national boundaries anymore? When you think about it they are just arbitrary lines in the sand that say that everyone within these lines are like this and bound by these rules and everyone within those lines are like that and bound by those rules. People are connecting and aligning across national boundaries and the concept of citizenship has less to do with where you are born and more to do with who you are connected with. Technology allows people of shared interests and ideologies to assemble and mobilise to effect change across the planet irrespective of those lines. The Arab Spring. That works out pretty nicely when we agree with the ideology of the mobilised and we disagree with the ideology of those they seek to overthrow. But what happens when it doesn’t work out so nicely? What happens when it’s the London Riots? Technology is indeed a wonderful thing but is digital democracy still just an aspirational slogan based on a misguided idealism?
Prior to working in the tech sector, I spent most of my career working on one kind of change management project or another and fundamentally people don’t like change. They especially don’t like change when it is thrust upon them - by people that they don’t know or trust. As an industry we have been generous to ourselves in the use of terminology like digital natives and digital immigrants. Their usage infers that that if you are not one or the other then we are leaving you behind in the comfort of your old surroundings with your old way of life. But is that really the case? Have we really built a utopian world of digital democracy just for those who want it? Or in truth have we not in fact been invading and colonising those who have not applied for their digital citizenship?
How different are we to the powerful colonising nations of the past? We have our own ‘language’, culture, belief systems, societal structures, physical infrastructure, we have even got our own viruses. And we are bringing all of these to bear on every citizen, business, country in the world saying that this is a better way to live.
Colonialism was motivated by a need for control of trade routes and economic gain. The colonising powers arrived bearing gifts of modernity and development for the poor natives and when the natives didn’t buy into it, they took what they wanted anyway and left the indigenous populations disenfranchised and isolated, living in cordoned off reservations without a voice much less a vote. Colonialism has never ended terribly well. And most countries have spent years regretting, apologising and making up for their colonialist past.
Of course we believe that the benefits we bring to these people are greater than the price they may pay for losing their old way of life. And for the most part, we’re probably right. But when we threaten culture, sense of identity, means of making a living, needs and desires for privacy and independence we cannot be surprised by resistance. Drugs and fast cars… It is no wonder that parents are concerned. Their children when forced to choose, said they would opt for a shorter life with access to the internet than a longer one without it. When did access to the internet become worth more than life?
Old world legislation and structures are struggling to keep up with a new world where rules are considered archaic and regulation is the kryptonite to creativity. We have an industry where some people believe that everyone should have access to everything and openness is our king. Anonymity and privacy is increasingly impossible to safeguard. Six degrees of separation is likely to be halved by the time we join all the data dots and in fact where anyone can connect with everyone then you could argue that there is no separation at all!
Remember when Dorothy landed in Oz. She went from sleepy sepia tones to a technicolour explosion. At the end of her journey was the all-seeing, all-knowing Oz. Ask him a question, anything at all and he will provide the answer – sound like anyone you know? It wasn’t until Toto yanked on the curtain that we realised it was just one crazy dude making it all up and telling Dorothy what he wanted her to hear. I’m not suggesting for a second that when you type a word into the little box in the middle of your search engine screen that someone is making it all up but when a few oligarchic entities have the power and ability to answer all the questions in the world or connect you with anyone in the world then you have to ask the question, to whom are they accountable?