“Time and Space died yesterday. We are already living in the absolute, since we have already created eternal, omnipresent speed”.
(Tommaso Marinetti, the Futurist Manifesto, 1909)
In the richest parts of the world, connectivity is no longer a task enabler, but a feature of reality which amplifies the experience of the “here and now” to the extent of almost erasing it. In the run to 5G, in the increasing presence of portable devices, being connected to and through the Internet has been pursued as a simulacrum of humankind fulfilment: the original promise was that connectivity would spread knowledge and equality, develop the economy, make the world better. And sure it did, under several respects. But never as before 2017 brought a collective awareness around the fact that the societal attributes and impact of connectivity matter and are not inherently benign.
The closer, the more divided
In a recent article about fake news Danah Boyd defines connectivity at all costs as a mistake of the tech sector. If private companies realised the importance of the selling pitch “connecting people across distance”, they thought it would have happened naturally just by making it possible. But people don’t actively connect to those who are different just because technology allows them to. They mostly prefer harmless likeminded feedback. This applies not only to knowledge and information bubbles, but overall to economy and society. The Internet ended up reinforcing clusters of information, wealth and identity – no matter the purpose and social group they serve. It did so because as fascist futurists blinded by technocracy, we focused only speed and performance and not the actual destination of technology, neither its interaction with us as human beings. Weaker public power and social fragmentation have built an easy win for efficiency. Technology served the purpose of neoliberalism extremely well. Today is evident that connectivity is not only a mean to information circulation for the middleman’s mass, but first and foremost an instrument for accumulating information-enabled wealth in the hands of the few. The face of Facebook is to connect individuals, its heart is to farm people’s data for advertising. Flows of information and data became signifiers for identity, personality and social behaviour, thus objectifying them. Imperfect and unquantifiable humankind features have been flattened in quantum of information travelling across nodes and linear routes.
Life as a stock exchange
Unsurprisingly, domains strictly intertwined with transactions thrived thanks to connectivity: e-commerce flourished, banking and finance moved massively online. It was less evident to anticipate to which incredible extent relationships have been reduced to transactions. Indeed, another important “flattening” consequence of hyper connectivity and information predominance is the relevance assumed by transactions in our everyday perception, behaviour and values. They are no longer the underlying capitalist force: they are the way we think. It started softly from a distortion of the sharing economy and peer to peer paradigms operated by the Silicon Valley model predominance (from Couchsurfing to Airbnb, from the fees-free early Blablacar to the current version), where people are given the illusion of earning some money while the companies behind are making the real money (without investing in infrastructures and staff). But the ultimate transaction-ism evangelist is blockchain. Built on extremely valuable social postulates – distributing power, transparency and accountability, intermediaries elimination – distributed ledger technologies and their most popular outputs – cryptocurrencies – have firstly flourished in the realm they were supposed to fight, the one of finance. Instead of building an alternative to speculation they have just built a parallel system where value oscillates in bubbles like in classic stock exchange.
Cryptocurrencies are hence how blockchain disruptive potential has been reintegrated in the old financial speculative system. But the most interesting aspect of this technology is that it can build a trustable system to deal with contracts, rights, intellectual property, peer reviewing… you name it. Everything that is extremely – and costly – procedural can and should probably be disrupted by blockchain. So far so good. Nonetheless, as it stubbornly happens in our global technocracy, enormous effort is put in patching a novel tech solution to every possible context without a proper analysis of it. What if we are making everything procedural? Take trust. Intermediaries exist to reinforce trust when there are too many degrees of separation. Trust is the underlying condition for society, and the reason why intermediaries as the State exists. Putting trust into an algorithm is as risky as putting it into an institution or an individual. Algorithms are always coded by somebody, and if machine learning gives them an increasing degree of “autonomous thought”, they can’t understand the quality of an operation. As Brian Bergstein states, if for an algorithm performing a task at the most efficiency implies erasing humanity from the planet, it will simply do it. The story of Stanislav Petrov is still the best example of how trusting blindly the machines can be dangerous for the whole human kind. Distributed ledgers are a great solution for optimising what is already procedural or to supply a lack of procedures leading to better respect of rights or resources optimisation. But they can’t be solution to every problem. Also because they have raised a lot of curiosity, but understanding how they work is complicated (everyday a new article on the web promises to explain blockchain plainly): every knowledge that can’t be explained simply is an instrument of power.
Productivity, meditation, journaling, archiving, training apps and devices. How many of them do you have? We are outsourcing intelligence, memory, self-awareness and will-power. We deify material interconnected objects, while our self-perception goes towards a complete disembodiment. The more we are connected to information technology, the more we disconnect from ourselves and our community. Trust, reciprocity, relationships, rights are what makes society. All this is separated from us in a cartesian dualism between a dominant world of information and an everyday life deprived of meaning and reference points that we can grasp materially and understand without holding a PhD. Disintermediation makes us global users instead of global citizens. Embodied experience needs to be reasserted as central: a smart city can’t be a city of sensors and surveillance, where neighbours interact only through private apps making their data travelling to the other side of the world and back.
Things don’t happen by chance
There must be a way forward that is not letting technology dictate whether humanity will be superfluous. It all depends from the purpose that technology speed and efficiency serve. And from how it is framed.
As Robin Mansell points out, the black box is not the algorithm, but the system of power around it. Data are not neutral, they are informed by a question beforehand and an interpretation afterwards.
The European Commission wants the Next Generation Internet to be more “human”. But corporations are human, made by humans, although they do not behave like. Same for institutions. Any power concentration is a human artefact. What if it was an Internet for humanity? Which means: serving collective purpose, facilitating meaningful relationships, strengthening society. We are defined by our everyday practices, that shape our way to think of and grasp the world: preserving room for them requires acceding information about the network as well as gaps and inconsistencies in the infrastructure itself. Restoring a sense of ownership of one own life and relationships. Going back to be an enabler that leaves grey areas for creativity and imagination, instead of seconding data-extractive business models.