P. Jarre — founder of Sloweb, eMemory and eLegacy — Torino, Italy
The world wide web — the network — was conceived as a tool for spreading knowledge and information and, indirectly, for democracy and equality; especially the opportunities were appreciated, the risks were not glimpsed. After forty years of use of computers — first for work, then also for leisure and for “communication” — I actually appreciate substantial risks. A superlative book just released by Jathan Sadowski, Too Smart — How Digital Capitalism is Extracting Data, Controlling Our Lives, and Taking Over the World (2020) encourages me to share this provocative summary:
- The ICT industry is unleashed, free and wild. Its ideology comes from the West of North America, where the land and water belong to those who first get it, even at the expense of those who live further downstream. WWW stands maybe for World Wild West? Or World Wild Wolves (Fedro)?
- With the exception of the European Union, Canada and some US states, state organizations do not / do not think they are doing / nothing to counter the monopoly of the ICT industry.
- In all parts of the world — as never before — patterns of behaviour have spread about how we access knowledge and in how we consume land, time, love, everything. The same for everybody and conforming to the system. With no visible hopes for a change.
I would add even further: our cultural impoverishment is such that we only use two volumes from our library: the Koran (Wikipedia) and the Bible (Google). All other books are taking the dust, are not / cannot be consulted.
With the raising of this new extracting industry (J. Sadowski, ibidem) we can observe that equality has reduced — not because, maybe, but for sure in parallel — with the diffusion of digital technologies. Consumerism has increased; the time for reflection has been suppressed. The market drivers have overtaken the initial vision for the web so much that Tim Berners Lee felt the need, at the end of 2018, to draw up with others and disseminate a “Contract for the web” https://contractfortheweb.org/) that clarifies what are rights and duties of states, industry, users. In 2017 I founded with some friends a non-profit association (Sloweb — www.sloweb.org) whose mission overlaps to a good extent with that “contract”.
A triad to be rebalanced
Tim Berners Lee “Contract” made me thinking to the STATE / CITIZENS / INDUSTRY triad and the role of each. Being an engineer, I cannot avoid drawing the triad CITIZEN STATUS INDUSTRY as if it were a three-component phase diagram, ternary: in the center there is a balance between the state, citizens and industry. Today, looking at the ICT industry and its relations with citizens / users and the State, we can say that the mix is NOT in balance, users do what the industry tells them to do (and in doing so they get used to obeying) and the State is simply watching. So, we are roughly as shown in the picture: States and Citizens are simply overwhelmed. Let’s dare to draw a summary about how civil rights were swept: we lost the right to privacy; to quality information and democratic confrontation; to conscious choices, to 8 hours of work and guaranteed wages, to the separation of work from personal life;
What was gained in the (second half of) 20th century was lost in the first 20 years of 2000. The digitalization of our society has accelerated this process of depletion in every single field. What worries me most is the overall state of acquiescence, with which this overpowering is accepted in the West and the East, leaving the EU with major responsibilities to progress the civil rights digital agenda.
Saying that “digital hurts” or even just dare to discuss it looks “bad”. You are immediately accused of Luddism, of being retrograde, of not understanding the good and the good of the web. For years the web “experts” have almost pitied me, because I dared to question their totemic claims. Initially I thought it was just a matter of local provincialism, but I was relieved to find out in Too Smart that this naïf blanket of ignorance is pandemic, is actually well spread across the globe: “among the tech evangelists and boosterism of Silicon Valley, anybody who is sceptical or critical of technology is instantly deemed a Luddite”…. and “If capitalism gets to celebrate creative destruction for its own ends, then why can’t we reclaim it for different ends?”.
And also this acquiescence, this compliant global lobotomization, is due (or accompanied … but is it so different?) to the ideology — practiced since the early years of age — that the web appears “flexible”, on the web there is always a way to get by, to go around the obstacle, to avoid having to protest, there is always a solution within the same system. Damn: out and against the system there is nothing? Is it not the time to push back, and demand answers to vital questions around the ethics of all this, the model of the future that all this “offers” us?
What to do — a better balance is possible?
A couple of years ago an enquiring mind among my friends, Nicola Zamperini, published a “Digital disobedience manual”. He used the definition of “Techno Corporation” precisely anticipating the concept of “digital capitalism”, and
inviting everyone to a personal rebellion: never give your true data to a system, fill the system with fake false information … I am grateful to him because he introduced me to Istituzione Teresiana, a long-standing organization of laic Catholic militants with whom I appreciated the reality of educators lecturing, reflecting and even praying for the State, Church, Politics guidance in web ethics.
With Sloweb we fight for a more conscious people’s use of the web, and a more responsible industry’s use of technologies for a better balance.
Indeed, we focussed so far more on people and their behaviours. We supported the fight against a consumeristic use of digital data, whose features are (P. Jarre, F. Bottino, 2018):
- The social coercion inducing the use / abuse of digital devices. You must own a smart phone, and be ashamed of not knowing the latest news concerning internet or the web use.
- Compulsive and mandatory sharing. As we see some data, we do not stop to think about its quality. We do not select. We share and our only thought is “with whom?”. And we “produce”.
- The digital invasion of our time. Every single “free” second is now used to “catch up”. And we “produce” more. A lot of junky fat, continuously.
The consequences of these individual behaviours on our whole society are pretty serious:
- We delegate our memory function and decisions to digital devices; hence we do not exercise any memory any more. Can a civilization which does not remember survive? And — by the way — why humans continually try to delegate their harder decisions to others: priests, shamans, now digital devices and AI engines?
- We have lost intimacy and privacy, even the concept of “privacy rights”. This leads to the impossibility / extreme difficulty of any collective / individual rebellion — see below.
- The Art to pause and to reflect on the impact of our actions as a result of our “e-habit” has disappeared resulting in a lost ability to manage new risks and cope with unexpected situations.
The opposite to a consumeristic use of digital data might be defined in our view as an ecological use of digital data (P. Jarre, 2019), its cycle reminds us the “circular economy” usual cycles.
What to do — collective control
Well, if someone asks me: can we have a fair net? I reply: for sure, let’s fight for it! And I am relieved to read more and more about a global movement standing up.
A collective control can, and MUST, be required, but we cannot expect the companies that profit from the abuse of the web to be the promoter of a change. We must demand the public institutions to take charge of it, from the European Parliament to the neighbourhood council. We must have a clear vision for different roles for institutions, citizens, industry — see the above picture.
How to do it? By asking for digital education (not digital literacy) in schools. By forcing parents and teachers to set a good example, families and communities to practice digital detox (A. Carciofi, 2020); by teaching to reflect, to be in a relationship, to listen to the others.
In short, the old battle for a better civilization today passes through the clash and fight against the improper use of the web. We can’t pretend it’s not like that. No true politicians can avoid putting digital ethics initiatives at the centre of their action.
To win this battle it is NOT necessary to know the technology in detail: few of us know the Otto cycle, and would this hold us back in fighting against traffic pollution? No. Too many today are hiding behind “technical” ignorance; even many parents say “I don’t understand anything, I rely on my son, he knows what to do”.
I reply and ask them: “would you do the same in front of sexual education and HIV risk? How would this attitude sound to you?” Risks are not so dissimilar, and it’s not by chance that today digital hygiene, digital prevention, responsive use of digital media are words that start to buzz.
J. Sadowski suggests several lines of action, including (in Italics his words):
- Democratizing innovation. We need to democratize innovation by giving more people more power to influence how, why and for what purpose new technology is created. To me, this sounds familiar like the theories about environmental and social impact for new roads, railways and infrastructures in general. 40 years after.
- Put humans at the centre of design. Use public funding to support social useful production. In my business activities — @ eMemory.it and eLegacy.app — we try to find the ways to generate tools to exploit personal data which are users centred instead of being company centred, using profilation for the user’s benefit and not for someone else’s benefit. With the Covid 19 crisis, indeed, the need for a public participation / control of the digital infrastructures became even more apparent (note: Sadowski mentions the studies from Mariana Mazzucato, not by chance).
- Governing data with oversight and ownership: antitrust policy, capital control mechanisms that exist today applied to the data capital market, audits. Again, all this sounds very familiar for who among us devoted decades of their profession to the Corporate Social Responsibility and the processes for better public control of environmental / social impacting infrastructures. Collectivization of big data, operating the data banks like a public utility.
What to do — the role of companies
On the basis of 40 years of technical and management experience and lessons learnt around Corporate Social Responsibility I would add that also companies — not only, and not mainly, the ICT companies — have a specific social responsibility in the way they use and make use of digital technologies.
Five years ago, a search on the web about “corporate digital responsibility”, did not show me much. Today you find instead many articles and books, albeit recent. For example, the abstract form L. Lobschat and F. Eggers article just published in the Journal of Business Research states:
We propose that digital technologies and related data become increasingly prevalent and that, consequently, ethical concerns arise. Looking at four principal stakeholders, we propose corporate digital responsibility (CDR) as a novel concept. Specifically, we define CDR as the set of shared values and norms guiding an organization’s operations with respect to the four main processes related to digital technology and data. These processes are:
- the creation of technology and data capture
- operation and decision making
- inspection and impact assessment
- refinement of technology and data.
On this basis, we expand our discussion of CDR by highlighting how to managerially effectuate CDR compliant behavior based on an organizational culture perspective…
It seems to me that we are witnessing only the first (somewhat yet unclear) attempts to raise questions and tackle issues about the role companies should play. The recent Covid 19 crisis has accelerated most questions concerning new rights for the smart working, and previously well-established rights lost because of it, and has blatantly showed how vital all the digital infrastructures and the public infrastructures are. Hence, how urgently we need to revert the liberalistic approaches to true liberalism, and to fight now and not one day later the consumeristic approaches in all areas, including big data (which are in most cases personal data; interesting that avoiding defining them personal data we are induced to accept that the owners of big data are all but the citizens).
What to do? Connect the dots, to start
There are many signs of intolerance if not rebellion yet around the world. I wish to find centres of research interested in exploring what is the ground floor discussion around ethics of the web. In my city we promoted in 2019 a first edition of the Digital Ethics Forum, with a limited but well qualified participation, and brave entrepreneurs trying to give an answer to tough questions like the ones in the box below. In October 2020 Sloweb will host an online / onlife second edition, trying to go beyond the anamnesis into examples of therapy. My reading of J. Sadowski and listening to Masters like emeritus professor Mario Rasetti — master of my master Norberto Patrignani, teaching computer ethics since the 90’s — tell me that more dots exist, and not only in terms of philosophical discussions, but also in terms of socio-economic analysis. I look forward to connecting the dots, and to the time for overall, socio political therapies, which include suggestions for personal behaviours as elements for the change but see these as consequence of an overall vision for the tole for States, Industries, Citizens, and no longer as our isolated voluntary action, easily defeated by the Wide West Wind.
Digital Ethics Forum — 2019 my questions:
1. Is it ethical to produce games that addict users, and accumulate profits in the hands of a few with the money of many? And they push us to consume more and more electricity and produce heat? Why is there not written on the packaging FAILING TO HEALTH, and there is no photo of a pale HIKIKOMORI devastated by anxiety?
2. Is it ethical that data and information are in the possession and more and more of a few monopolies? How can we forget that Standard Oil in 1911 was broken into 34 (read thirty-four) pieces? When I was growing up, the rich ones had 5 cars. Now they have companies with a capitalization comparable to the GDP of 5 large countries.
3. Is it ethical that the ICT industry does not have a self-regulation code and is bossing around the world? Banks, the oil industry, the mining industry have had self-regulation codes for 20 years, because precisely someone fought, even paid with their lives, to achieve this. And Mr. Web is so good that we can’t even think of “fighting it”? What is happening to us?
P. Jarre — founder of Sloweb, eMemory and eLegacy — Torino, Italy
- A. Carciofi — Digital Detox — Hoepli — 2017
- L. Lobschat and F. Eggers — Corporate Digital Responsibility. Journal of Business Research · January 2020
- P. Jarre, F. Bottino, Sloweb — Piccola guida all’uso responsabile del web — Golem Ed. 2018
- P. Jarre — The ecological use of digital data — E3S Web Conf. Volume 119, 2019
- N. Zamperini — Manuale di Disobbedienza Digitale — Macrolibrarsi.it Feb. 2018
- J. Sadowski — Too Smart: How Digital Capitalism Is Extracting Data, Controlling Our Lives, and Taking over the World — MIT Press Apr. 2020