The People’s Internet
Supporting the voice and values of billions of new technology users.
Though mobile phones have reached the hands of 6 billion people of a global population of 7 billion, and Internet access has reached nearly 4 billion, the new technology revolution is neither global nor cross-cultural. But as I argue in my just-released book, Whose Global Village?, we can re-think technology to support diverse cultures by working directly with these communities to design, develop and imagine new possibilities. The book tells stories of my collaborations with Native Americans in the United States, indigenous peoples in Mexico, activists in Egypt’s Tahrir Square, and rural communities in India to describe an Internet that is written in the image of many rather than few.
Global Village — An Unfulfilled Dream
The Internet was mythologized to bring the world together, yet the ways we are connected are defined by a limited number of elites rather than the diverse cultures and communities that now use digital technology. Hence, the dream of the ‘global village’ is left unrealized because those who designed new technology’s networks, infrastructures, and browser platforms originate from the wealthiest cities, nations, universities and corporations in our world.
Today, when we go online what we see and experience both isolates and connects us. We see social media posts and web pages produced by others but fail to recognize how the selection of these are curated by algorithms. We are also divided along linguistic and cultural lines, most notably from Chinese language websites and social media platforms, such as Wechat. On top of this, the Internet’s very infrastructures, the fiber optic cables that run underneath the world’s oceans, reinforce relationships of inequality, which can be seen for example in the relatively few connections in the image below between the continents of South America and Africa.
While we the Internet’s users may be distributed across the world, the power over who owns, profits and designs most of the systems we use remains concentrated amongst a few incredibly wealthy corporations that own, manage, and manipulate different networks by which users are connected. From mobile telephony to social media, it is those at the top of the economic pyramid that benefit from the data provided by users located across the world. With the notable exception of China, these corporations are located in Europe and North America, with various collaborators and subsidiaries across the world.
With over 1 billion users each, we mistakenly treat commercial platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, or Google today as if they are public spaces, ignoring that they must remain primarily accountable to their shareholders as for-profit companies. Engineers and designers within these companies, rather than their diverse users, are given great power in shaping how these tools are developed and the agendas they serve.
And now we are in a strange moment, where a wave of right-wing populist movements across the world have brought to power leaders who have benefitted from the ways in which search and social media platforms alike have placed their users in bubbles of fragmentation. The attacks on corporate, popular, and independent news media by new leaders such as Donald Trump speak to an attempt to do away with older broadcast media platforms in lieu of the ‘personalized’ social media and search platforms of today.
99% of the world’s population is thus excluded from decisions made around the future of the Internet and digital technology. Billions of people in this manner are treated as passive users. Their creativity and agency is restricted to adapting, appropriating, or hacking technologies that already exist. Despite promising movements in free software and open source, even many first-world technology users are expected to comply with platforms that gather and monetize data for their creators. If these users choose not to use these systems, they may face other inequalities because so many political, economic, and social operations have moved online.
My just-released book argues that we must think about what digital technologies, such as the Internet, mobile phones, or social media platforms, may mean when re-imagined from the perspective of diverse cultures and communities across the world. We can think of interfaces for systems that work with the metaphors and literacies of users, for example supporting communities whose languages are oral, rather than written.
For example, we can develop interfaces that promote oral communication, which is so important to many speakers of indigenous languages. The much higher adoption of mobile phones, which are now in the hands of 6 billion people, compared to text-based web technology speaks to the potential of these tools to empower languages that are less written than spoken. It is also a reminder of the powerful role of community radio across the world, as a cheap, oral, easily repairable technology that can be administered by its users.
We can think about design approaches that shape how information is circulated and shared in ways that are consistent with diverse cultures and communities that have begun to use Internet technologies. This could involve giving users some power over what information is shared with whom, what data goes into the ‘cloud’ and for providing communities with different types of accounts based on the standing an individual user has within the larger group.
We can give user communities power over how information they access or share is represented via databases. While we never ‘see’ these fundamental building blocks of technology, users must be made more aware of how their information is stored and retrieved. We must, therefore, open up to users more flexible and fluid models that give them power over how the information they share with one another or the larger digital world is represented and classified.
Finally, and very timely at this time, is the critical importance of opening up the ultimate black box of personalization and search algorithms that drive Google and Facebook. An algorithm is merely a sequence of actions performed on some body of information. We can develop algorithms that better resonate with the traditions and practices of diverse cultures and communities, and make them more transparent to diverse users so they have choice and power over the systems that serve them.
With the concerns some have around where the Internet has gone, and the understanding that the newest technologies of our time can better support democratic visions of social and economic justice, it is time to embark on a future where technologies serve a range of visions, values, and purposes that diverse communities hold and not just those of networked elites across the world.
By Dr. Ramesh Srinivasan, author of Whose Global Village?: Rethinking How Technology Shapes Our World. (February 2017). Reprinted with Permission from NYU Press. You can follow Ramesh on Twitter @rameshmedia.