Do digital communications media prevent real communication? Are ideas only shared on social media in echo-chambers, oblivious to those with different views? Are the business models of technology companies mining our communications for profit? Are states patrolling and controlling Internet freedoms? How on earth do we know what is going on in the vast seas and clouds of data generated by our daily use of social and other digital media? How is that changing us? How should we act in the digital space?
Yesterday, 14 September, I participated in the conference “Cultures of We” organised in Berlin by ifa (Institut für Auslandsbeziehung) the German institute for International Relations. The conference focused on identity and the idea of togetherness in the contemporary world.
There were 4 main themes: imaginations, culture, politics, and techniques. The last of these looked at the Internet and technology as an enabler and dis-enabler of communications. The questions are urgent. The Internet is a world that is creative and complex, dangerous and disturbing. We are all familiar with the rise of the bots and Orwellian scenarios where our computers are watching us, often on behalf of unaccountable corporations, attacking us in personal places where our data are, and where our institutions are under attack from shadowy foreign (and domestic) governments and agencies.
There is more, however. You don’t have to be an Internet Utopian to be aware that all the dimensions of imagination, culture, politics are highly present on the Internet, yet discussion is still preoccupied with discussions of risk, regulation, business and increasingly with the potential impact of AI and automation.
A useful session, with a powerful contribution from Evgeny Morozov (author of The Net Delusion, seen speaking) did, however offer an intriguing idea: what if there were a digital platform that was optimised to facilitate cultural relations? Is it realistic to think a digital space could be created, optimised for human to human communication, rather than profit or power? The answer seemed to be yes, this would be possible. Sadly, there was not time to explore whether there was an appetite for such a platform, even if the need for it seems more pressing than ever.