Digital Futures – Scenarios for fair and inclusive digital futures
Climate justice, diversity, inclusion of identities and generations – what does it take for our values to be reflected in the digital space of the future? This question was the focus of a fishbowl discussion at the end of the first day of the Digital Futures Gathering Berlin.
When the Internet was widely introduced around 30 years ago, it was associated with great hopes and promises. A globally networked information system seemed to open up new possibilities: more democracy, connecting with people all over the world, fairer access to information, education, opportunities and innovations. Today, the internet and digital devices are omnipresent. In today’s thoroughly commercialized Internet, however, little is left of the visions of that time. What could fairer digital futures look like?
Representatives of 40 digital civil society organizations from Europe and the world came together in Berlin on September 1st and 2nd to jointly design concepts and narratives for inclusive and just digital futures. In a time of multiple crises, it is often difficult to think about positive visions, Julia Kloiber, co-founder of the non-profit organization Superrr Lab , introduced the discussion. Because in times of crisis, people tend to paint the future bleakly. There is also a lot that is encouraging: there is a lot of creativity and solidarity. And there are activists who try new things.
Language as a prerequisite for digital participation
Nanjala Nyabola is one of these people. The Nairobi-based author and human rights activist is concerned with the question of how digital space can become more democratic. In 2018 she published the internationally acclaimed book Digital Democracy, Analogue Politics . Currently Nyabola is particularly concerned with the language on the Internet. Today’s Internet is dominated by English. About 60 percent of the content is in English, while the languages of the Global South are barely represented on the Internet, she said. The people living there would therefore have no home in the digital space and could not network. Participation, however, begins with language, which applies in the digital as well as in the analogue space. Together with scientists, Nanjala Nyabola has been working for around one and a half years to open up the digital space for the people of Kenya in their own language. As part of this project, for example, a dictionary for technical issues and a handbook for digital rights have been published in Kiswahili, she said.
Business models turn people into objects
Katarzyna Szymielewicz is concerned with a crucial paradigm shift in the digital world. The co-founder and chair of the Panoptykon Foundationidentified commercialization as the fundamental problem of digital space. The foundation works to protect fundamental rights and freedoms in the face of rapidly changing technologies and fights against increasing digital surveillance. However, due to the logic of the business models, it is not easy to break out of the cycle of manipulative algorithms, says Szymielewicz. The question of a just digital future is therefore not just about a legal framework or better education, but touches on the fundamental paradigms of capitalism. What is needed is a “New Deal” for data that does not make people the object of advertising messages, but that serves people’s interests. The prerequisite for this is an unbundling of the major platforms. This does not only mean breaking up the big tech companies, but also requires unbundling of data, hosting and algorithms. This creates space for alternatives and ethical solutions.
Do we need more regulation?
Also Jan Philipp Albrecht, Board member of the Heinrich Böll Foundation eV, saw commercialization as one of the main obstacles to a democratic and inclusive Internet. It referred to the origins of the internet: initially, there were hardly any rules in the digital space because it was set up privately. Enforcement of rules is also extremely complex, since a large number of states with different forms of government and laws are affected, he said. dr Maren Jasper-Winter, board member of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom, saw it differently: The EU has strong antitrust and data protection laws. From her point of view, there is no lack of legal frameworks, at least in the EU, but there is a lack of implementation, says Jasper-Winter. There are clear rules for the prosecution of violence and hate speech on the Internet, that have to be enforced. You believe in a digital place that offers space for a pluralism of companies, opinions and people. Digitization can contribute to a better, more democratic and more prosperous world. Jasper-Winter called for better education and greater digital skills among the population.
Power and responsibility in the digital space
It is the task of the state and politics to protect people from manipulation and “digital junk”, countered Katarzyna Szymielewicz. This responsibility cannot be passed on to individuals, she said. She saw the danger of a split in society into a competent “digital superclass” and a “digital underclass”. Power and responsibility therefore belonged together. The tech companies should not be relieved of their responsibility. Values must be protected on the basis of rules and rights, affirmed Jan Philipp and called for a new public debate on this. The opportunities offered by digitization cannot be fully exploited, also because the legal framework and the enforcement of rights are inadequate.
Nanjala Nyabola also considered better regulation of the digital space to be necessary. All platforms now come from either the USA or China. She argued that while the US puts economic interests ahead of people’s interests, China is organized in a strictly top-down manner and uses the technological possibilities to secure power and oppress. This is fatal, because most people in the world can neither choose content nor digital platforms and are therefore flooded with unfiltered disinformation. But viral untruths are used specifically to fuel conflicts, she said.
Can education protect us from fake news?
dr Maren Jasper-Winter pointed out the tension between disinformation and freedom of expression: The state cannot protect citizens comprehensively without encroaching on freedom of expression at the same time. The key is therefore higher digital skills and education. People would have to be qualified to judge the quality of sources themselves and to research information competently. It is also important to her that women get more involved in the digital world, for example as programmers. Women are still underrepresented in STEM professions.
A scientist who is currently doing his doctorate at the Weizenbaum Institute took a seat in the open space in the fishbowlwrites. He addressed the question of power and responsibility and fundamentally agreed with both positions: Education is of course an important key, but it must be clarified how education is defined and structured. Education must enable people to play an active role. This means the ability to create something, to destroy something, but also to be held accountable for it. Education, as a way of providing the ability to change systems, could be part of an answer to some of our problems, he said. He attested to the “toxic power structure” of big tech companies that cannot be broken with data security and data protection alone. The key to this is data ownership.
What strategies are needed?
Jan Philipp Albrecht emphasized that ownership and empowerment must be promoted both individually and organizationally. He saw three levels of action: On the individual level, it is first about empowering individuals. Education and information play an important role here. On the second, the organizational level, it is about the provision and development of services, but also about the regulatory framework and the enforcement of rules. But there is a third level in between that is not new and has been somewhat forgotten. This concept was developed during industrialization as the last major transformation of society in the form of trade unions. Unions could connect people with the same interests and exert their influence. This concept can also be used for the current transformation and be an important source of change anchored in civil society. dr Maren Jasper-Winter saw the exchange as essential to changing the rules and making them more transparent. It depends on each individual to get involved. She was optimistic because the digital future offers great opportunities for a pluralism of ideas and concepts. She also has an optimistic attitude, emphasized Nanjala Nyabola, because she assumes that the future will be changeable. But for that to succeed, you have to clearly state the things that need to change, she said. Katarzyna Szymielewicz concluded by appealing to the audience to use their voice and invest where change is driven, to vote for the parties who represent their point of view and who are the most progressive – even if the fight against toxic algorithms is not yet won. She called on the audience: “Be avant-garde to make the digital space better.”