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Beyond The Valley: How Innovators around the World are Overcoming Inequality and Creating the Technologies of Tomorrow

BEYOND THE VALLEY: How Innovators around the World are Overcoming Inequality and Creating the Technologies of Tomorrow

By Ramesh Srinivasan

EXCERPT FROM INTRODUCTION

Sergio, a friend of mine from Argentina, recently completed a trip around the world. I met him last year in southern Mexico, where I’ve been visiting regularly since 2016 to learn from indigenous communities who have been creating their own digital networks. My visits there were inspired by my two-decade-long fascination with the internet and digital technology’s rapid development: first as an engineer and, later, as an educator and researcher exploring how digital technologies impact the lives of diverse cultures and societies.

Sergio had not traveled extensively outside of his country before. When we met at a food vendor’s table on a street in Oaxaca, he was buzzing with the excitement of having visited five continents and holding various jobs (as a carpenter and farmer, for instance, and in the service industry, at hotels and restaurants) in just the past year. When I asked him about his range of experiences in parts of the world so different from where he grew up in working-class Buenos Aires, he made an offhand remark that stopped me in my tracks: “Regardless of where you go, people get pushed into the internet. That is what they want.”

After we parted ways, Sergio’s comment stayed with me. I was struck by the contrasting but intertwined images it contained: the first being of people thrust into some alternate universe that exists beyond our screens; the second being of people who relate to the internet as the place where we share common ground. Like many of us, Sergio had the perspective of a user, simultaneously awed yet also perplexed by the characteristic “pushiness” with which websites, mobile apps, virtual reality headsets, and myriad other digital devices have appeared and made their way into our lives.

… surveillance cameras, GPS tracking of people using smartphones, and the use of shared data to apprehend terrorists provide great value. But we may not also recognize that in the process we give up our individual rights to privacy, put the most vulnerable members of our society at risk, threaten the viability of small businesses, and contribute to greater economic inequality and political division.

I wrote this book as a way to explore how we, the billions of internet users, can respond to the sea change that transformed an open world of online possibility into something else altogether: a digital landscape of walled gardens and predetermined paths already programmed for us, for which we have little visibility or control. If we are going to turn over our lives to these devices and systems, shouldn’t we, at the minimum, have power over how they are designed and profited from? Shouldn’t technology be people-centered, not in use and addiction, but in creation and application?

As access to the internet and cell phones expands around the world, so too does the power and wealth of but a few technology companies located on the West Coast of the United States (Silicon Valley and California) and in China. These companies offer services that have, without question, created value for their billions of users, providing efficient and economical ways for us to find and disseminate information, telecommute to our jobs, socialize with one another, and buy and sell goods. Many of us love the cheap prices on Amazon and how quickly the products we purchase arrive at our doorstep. Others believe that things like surveillance cameras, GPS tracking of people using smartphones, and the use of shared data to apprehend terrorists provide great value. But we may not also recognize that in the process we give up our individual rights to privacy, put the most vulnerable members of our society at risk, threaten the viability of small businesses, and contribute to greater economic inequality and political division.

In Beyond the Valley I show examples of technologies from around the world that balance efficiency with values of equity, democracy, and diversity. I tell stories of global innovators that point the way toward a humane and balanced internet of tomorrow.

In domesticating the “wild west” of the internet, the big tech companies have provided a vibrant market of beneficial tools and services for users and amassed unimaginable wealth for their executives and stockholders. But in the process they have also supplanted the open, democratic internet with a vast network of privately owned architecture—imagine digital fences, highways, roads, bridges, and walls—whose sole purpose is to control people’s movement through digital space in ways that benefit their companies’ bottom lines. Clinging to this idea of an open internet obscures the reality: The digital world is structured by static, hefty, and inflexible digital architectures. And like invisible borders, they enforce specific paths.

We are increasingly aware, of course, that the phones and websites linking us to a wider world keep track of us, even when we are not using them, and that our personal data is vulnerable to covert collection and monetization. We have also experienced the amplification and rapid spread of propaganda, misinformation, and hate speech on the internet, too often with tragic results, all of which distracts us from facts, contexts, and multiple points of view. Meanwhile, journalists, activists, scholars, and more of the public are raising concerns that Chinese, Western, and white male interests dominate the content and systems that power the internet rather than those who reflect the full diversity of us online. Finally, against the backdrop of profound economic inequality across the world, we have seen how the expansion of the gig economy has made work, wages, and benefits less secure than ever before, even as digital automation threatens to eliminate much of the current job market.

I, like so many of us, derive incredible value from the services and products provided by Amazon, Google, Apple, Microsoft, and Facebook. But I also know that I have agreed to their terms of service without understanding exactly what I have given up in exchange for what I am getting: I am not being given the means to think through the downstream implications of my actions even for myself, much less for others in my networks. As an example, Amazon has made it so inexpensive and easy to buy almost anything, that almost all of us use the site regularly. The Chinese Alibaba is no different. But is it okay that both these companies have monopolistically overtaken an open marketplace? What about Amazon’s facial recognition technology being sold to military contractors, the police, and to support President Donald Trump’s actions with the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency? Are we okay with these sorts of transactions, similar examples of which we can find involving every powerful tech company?

How many of us know that the internet itself largely came to be thanks to public, taxpayer-funded research? So how come the spoils of our public investments, the trillions of dollars associated with Silicon Valley, have only lined the pockets of uber-rich investors and executives? Somehow we gave away all the money and power to the 1 percent, a secretive cadre of middlemen.

Don’t get me wrong, the value provided by the most powerful and ubiquitous technologies is unmistakable: Facebook, Google, Apple, Microsoft, and Amazon have created efficient, helpful, and beautiful services and objects most of us wouldn’t want to live without. And these Big 5 tech companies are not the only major players. Although I don’t discuss Chinese tech giants in detail in this book because I couldn’t gain sufficient access to information via first-hand interviews, they are equally pervasive in their presence and influence, particularly in Asia. In 2018, China took 9 of the top-20 slots ranking internet leaders of the world, with their businesses and products reflecting the kind of design and performance values championed by Silicon Valley. In the e-commerce sector, Alibaba is the No. 1 retailer in the world with profits and sales surpassing Amazon and eBay combined. It too, has worked toward expanding and synthesizing its services, from cloud computing to offering virtual reality shopping experiences for its users. On top of it all, China has just launched an Artificial Intelligence (AI) news anchor, according to state news agency Xinhua. The Guardian reported that Chinese viewers in November 2018 were greeted with a digital version of regular anchor Qiu Hao, who promised them, “Not only can I accompany you 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. I can be endlessly copied and present at different scenes to bring you the news.”

I wrote this book not to merely criticize or raise alarms, but to advocate for and illustrate a future where the connectivity and the online services we love

Ramesh Srinivasan
I tell stories of entrepreneurs creating technologies with a social mission, users pooling resources and ideas to support grassroots politicians and ethical causes, and communities coming together to own digital platforms. In all of these cases the idea is for people, not private tech companies, to design their own networks and services based on shared values and belief systems.

don’t come with the costs of surveillance, income disparity, false information, and extreme imbalances in how technologies are designed and deployed. The possibilities are vast, and we can learn a great deal from the whole range of strategies and efforts already underway. In order to put the power of technology to work for the common global good, we must identify what is dangerous about the current arrangement, and mobilize a vision for positive change.

The challenge doesn’t just face the big tech companies but any who presume that their so-called neutral systems always do good, even when their troubling effects may look more like social engineering. For example, consider the company Faception’s attempts to predict IQ, personality, and violent behaviors through the application of “deep” machine-learning techniques to facial features and bone structure. We’ve made such horrible mistakes before, for example treating black people’s faces and body types as supposed evidence of their inferiority. Are we about to justify continued racism thanks to “machine learning”?

In Beyond the Valley I show examples of technologies from around the world that balance efficiency with values of equity, democracy, and diversity. I tell stories of global innovators that point the way toward a humane and balanced internet of tomorrow. I explain the perils that occur when a narrow understanding of efficiency becomes our primary focus and ironically creates inefficiency. Efficiency on our consumer platforms can make all of our lives inefficient by disturbing our sense of security and privacy, interfering with our democracy, and furthering economic inequality. Efficient industries can create the inefficiency (and massive threat) of climate change. And similarly, the blind embrace of efficiency can result in tragic hidden costs to vulnerable humans—like when the reliance on AI-powered safety-​ features that could not be overridden in an emergency resulted in fatal plane crashes in 2018 and 2019.

To address these challenges I tell stories of entrepreneurs creating technologies with a social mission, users pooling resources and ideas to support grassroots politicians and ethical causes, and communities coming together to own digital platforms. In all of these cases the idea is for people, not private tech companies, to design their own networks and services based on shared values and belief systems. These small-scale, environmentally conscious, user-governed, and often decentralized efforts are examples of what some call “appropriate” or “people-centered” technology. I also share examples that are less widely established, but which are on the cutting edge of innovation, such as privacy-protecting systems, universal basic income, portable benefits, union organizing, digital cooperatives, worker councils, and more.

Part of pursuing this future is pursuing the internet we were promised, but haven’t yet received: an internet that acts as a ‘global village,’ bringing us all together; an internet that creates, or at least supports, equality; an internet that lifts all boats.

These are not all new ideas; they exist around us and it’s time to see what we can gain by paying attention to them. But we can also do more, starting with demanding that governments and big tech companies be more accountable and communicative with their users. We can also work with engineers who are not trained to analyze the social, political, or economic effects of the systems they create to develop a more reflective and inclusive design process. We have a range of positive directions in front of us, and they can drive the change needed for a connected world that is more just, more representative, and more diversely democratic.

Part of pursuing this future is pursuing the internet we were promised, but haven’t yet received: an internet that acts as a “global village,” bringing us all together; an internet that creates, or at least supports, equality; an internet that lifts all boats. The coming pages will look at the past and the future, around the world, and at our cultural, political, and economic lives to point toward a digital future that supports diversity, democracy, and the belief that our collective and individual welfares are interwoven.