Written by Francesca Giardina and Nikki Böhler —November 6, 202020
What utopian headlines do you envision for the future?
This is one of the questions we asked computer science students from ETH Zürich at our workshop “On the Way to Digital Utopia” at the VIScon conference on October 10 2020. In times of fake news, digital monopolies and black box algorithms, it’s increasingly difficult to imagine a positive future for a digital society. But we cannot stand up for something that we cannot imagine. And if we don’t, others will force their imagination on us. That’s exactly why we believe we need to practice our utopian muscles.
“Twitter changes algorithms to prevent mobs from killing each other for opposite opinions.” —utopian headline from a workshop participant
From dystopian thesis to utopian products
Just as in our workshop at the Winterkongress on February 22, we provided the workshop participants with 10 dystopian theses. We let the participants flip the scary nightmare inside out and propose a wild utopia and a concrete measure to get there. While the previous workshop ended there, we let ETH students push their ideas even farther. They illustrated the utopia with a suitable news headline and concrete products or services available in the utopia, to make their future scenario more tangible.
The students set to the task with creativity and earnesty, discussing technological and regulatory approaches and coming up with some stellar ideas. A few particularly noteworthy examples:
- UN Digital Wellbeing Act: is passed to combat social media algorithms maximised for addictive effect.
- News headline: “16 year old Lucy from Mars meets her pen pal on earth after half a decade chatting online”
- Giver Taker Index: is a new valuation system for companies to strengthen collaborative competition. It’s a program or system that evaluates how many digital resources (APIs, open-source code, open data etc) a company uses and how many it provides for others. Based on this evaluation, a score is generated which determines whether you are a taker, giver or neutral company. In a next step, giver companies could, for example, receive benefits from the state.
- Safe Space: is a room you can rent a room where there is no internet connection or devices allowed, to ensure that any kind of tracking or spying is impossible. This is a concept that Fortune 500 companies already have in place, that could be made accessible for the public.
My dystopia might be your utopia
One of the students-groups decided our dystopia about democracy being superfluous wasn’t a dystopia at all. Our scary future envisioned a government that can predict our opinions and political tendencies through demoscopic data collection. The government would then issue policy based on prevalent public opinion and debate would be obsolete. This would be utopia “If the data is right and they actually know what you think.” The further rounds revealed the dynamism of democratic opinion formation to the students. “What we think” is formed and constantly changed by what we read and hear — and what we talk about with whom. The students then came up with a social media for policy debate of sorts, “where people can post ideas and the community can collect opinions on that subject. And then classify them by pros and cons.”
Another group enthusiastically started coming up with a Tinder for matching job-seekers with employers to counter the dystopian vision on the labour market. In our scary scenario, the economy algorithm assigns every person a task, location and setting to serve the international economy best and we have no say in our careers at all. While the Tinder for job-seekers seems to maximise our choice, the students also came to question it’s governance. Would it offer equal opportunity, would it be vulnerable to manipulation, would we be honest about our skills and capacities? In the end, the students discarded the concept as un-utopian.
Let’s join forces for an utopian digital future
What made us especially hopeful was the fact that all participants agreed that the effect of digitalisation on our society as well as utopian scenario thinking should be addressed more strongly at their university. They are considering starting a community around these topics, in order to host regular get-together and exchanges. If you want to join or support this endeavor, reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org.