Tech, Trust & Society: “We Must Become a Global Community”
One planet, eight billion people, and all of us hoping for a prosperous, peaceful future: To make this equation work we need innovation to put a focus on the common good, rather than the individual wealth of a minority, Ramesh Srinivasan says.
A professor of Information Studies at UCLA, Srinivasan is also founding Director of the university’s Center For Global Digital Cultures and author of the widely celebrated book Beyond the Valley: How Innovators around the World are Overcoming Inequality and Creating the Technologies of Tomorrow.
Ahead of DLD Munich 2023, we spoke with Ramesh Srinivasan about the dominance of tech platforms, his vision for a better Internet and how technology can create value for the entire planet.
What do you make of Elon Musk’s performance as the owner of Twitter?
We live in a world where eight people have equivalent wealth to 3.9 billion – half the world’s population. It is troubling that a single person, let alone the world’s wealthiest man, could own a platform that has such profound influence on the global public discourse. Elon Musk seems to have little interest in solving the most important problems with Twitter, namely its absence of journalistic and civic-based content moderation. If anything, his desire seems to be to scale back actual content moderation.
Some people see Silicon Valley in decline – along with its billionaire founder culture. Do you agree?
I don’t think of myself so much as a critic of tech platforms as much as someone who wants to imagine a new future. Currently, a lot of Silicon Valley wealth and power is related to speculative investment. We’ve seen companies like Uber be worth hundreds of billions, yet not make profit. We also see that corporate valuation is no longer clearly tied to profitability, let alone competitive markets or alternative visions of a tech economy that also support collective interests.
It seems like Silicon Valley and, more generally, tech innovation would be well served to pivot away from social media and more toward thinking about: What are the jobs of the future going to look like? How about education? What about our global dialogues on such critical issues as climate change or pandemics? What does a democracy look like that companies can be invested in supporting? What about the incredible environmental issues that are at play? Like electronic waste, like carbon emissions from crypto mining?
Can we innovate in those spaces and be rewarded for it? We can imagine and move toward a new future in this spirit.
What’s the alternative to big tech platforms?
Most of these platforms benefit from network effects, meaning that it’s hard not to be using those because everyone else is on them. Facebook, for example, has almost 3 billion active users if you include Instagram and WhatsApp. The fact that everybody is already there means that these platforms can provide great benefit to their users and it’s not so palatable to go to another platform where very few others are.
I don’t think the free software alternatives will be able to scale like that, unfortunately, though we are seeing a temporary spike in Mastodon users. The question is: do they need to? I’ve written a great deal about community radio, Internet service providers and mobile service providers that work on a local level, therefore employing lots of people, expanding digital literacy. We can see examples of this in Europe but also in Africa, Latin America and the United States.
Is this enough to change the dynamic?
I think we need to recognize that the major dominant tech platforms are here to stay; at least in the short and medium term. What needs to happen is that we reintroduce a competitive market, partly through subsidization and regulation, that can allow us to move back toward a competitive market-based economy, rather than what some argue is a techno-feudalist economy.
Can you name founders outside of Silicon Valley that have made a positive impact and deserve more attention than headline-grabbing tech billionaires?
The founder of Patagonia decided to essentially devote all of his company’s earnings to mitigating the existential threats of climate change. I think that’s truly remarkable.
At the end of the day, we all have to see ourselves as in it together. Rather than escape off to space or run off to post-apocalyptic nuclear bunkers, we have to see that a pandemic in one nation will spread to others; or that emissions from one nation can come back to hurt everyone including the emitter themselves. Being worth a great deal based on the personal data of others only will maintain value if the others actually have some net worth. This is the major theme of all of my work, whether it’s related to Covid or economic issues or climate issues.
We have to trust in one another. We need new economic models that don’t see ourselves at odds with one another. We have to affirm life, rather than give in to cynicism that sees ourselves as only being able to live if we blindly surrender to various sorts of opaque, corporate, almost anti-human machines.
Is this more than wishful thinking?
We see tons of examples showing that this is possible. I’ve been spending the past few months in Africa, South Asia and Latin America, where people see themselves as in it together. But not only them, human beings, but actually see themselves as part of a global commons, see themselves as really connected to trees, plants and animals, and that see themselves as part of life. That’s a truth of nature and it’s actually a truth of the sciences and social sciences; we just need to recognize such and get back to something fundamental and universal.
Please describe your ideal Internet in the world beyond now.
My ideal Internet would be one where local entrepreneurs, local communities all around the world could innovate based on who they are and where they are.
At DLD23, I’ll give examples of people using electronic waste to incubate grassroots economies all over East Africa, for example. This means taking electronic waste and creating remarkable, high functioning 3D printers that are better than ones in the United States and Europe, that can outperform them and are much cheaper, too. That’s one of dozens of examples we can see around the world if we just look, listen and learn from our incredible planet and species.
This is in the spirit of doing more with less. But the important thing is: we must become a global community because so many of our challenges are global in scope, from migration to economic issues, to the pandemic to climate issues.
We can’t continue to operate in a zero-sum way. So what we need are networks that are created by and for people in different parts of the world that might still be interoperable to larger scaled out network effects type systems like Facebook, Instagram, Tik Tok, and so on.
That means we need to think about diversity in its truest sense because we are also featuring a man-made major loss of environmental biodiversity. That directly parallels losses in cultural and linguistic diversity.
How do you see technology evolving?
Technology is no longer only about faster chips and more powerful smartphones. It’s a mediating force in life, and what the future of life is going to look like.
It comes down to these major questions around people in different parts of the world truly having their voices matter. Us all being able to listen to one another, rather than putting people in binary categories: “vax, anti-vax, black, white, male, female…”
Those identities are important, but we shouldn’t be seeing them as discrete binaries, as polarizing with one another. And one critical thing we can do right now is rein in and regulate these algorithms so they are publicly audited, and create jobs in the process. We can make sure that these algorithmic systems do not perversely place us into false opposition; deluding us to think that we are all at war with one another – when in reality, we’re nothing but complex human beings, inhabiting a shared planet, living lives that are interconnected and have a greater opportunity to innovate for the future, to do it together.