City City Bang Bang, Columns

Managing the Digital Disruption?

Some Democrats in the US are demanding that Twitter ban Donald Trump from the platform. His recent threat of civil war in case he is impeached and removed from office is cited as the latest reason for doing so. Whatever the merits or otherwise of this demand, what is interesting is how the world has changed. Usually, demands are made of the government to regulate a private player but here a private sector company is being petitioned by members of a powerful political party to regulate of all the people, the President of the country. How did this kind of power shift take place so quickly and why is it so difficult for so many to make sense of it? 

In the natural scheme of things, technology moves fast, while society changes slowly. But technology has a way of radically reordering society with its disruptions, the social consequences it unleashes might not be intentional but they are sweeping nonetheless. Technology comes in through a functional door, by offering us new capabilities, but proceeds to transform many aspects of how to we live our lives. The resultant gap that gets created between technology’s tendency to disrupt and society’s ability to absorb the changes it brings about creates an enormous amount of social dislocation. Traditional concepts and mental models look hopelessly inadequate to deal with this shift. 

Otherwise, think of how long it would have taken for society to transition from one where the right to express an opinion, was restricted to very few to one where not only everyone has an opportunity to say what they like to whomsoever they wish in whatever tone and manner they fancy. Today, the powerful are routinely abused in the harshest possible terms in full public view. This is an extraordinary change, and it has taken place in less than a decade. For this change to have happened purely through a process of organic social evolution might have taken decades, and may never have come about at all. 

The dramatic consequences are all around us. While so much of the change is positive, the darker effects are reasons for grave worry. The increasing polarisation of the world, the rise of various communities propelled by hate, the proliferation of fake news, growing intolerance on all kinds across the ideological spectrum- these are all the direct and indirect results of our technological capabilities.

Should the problem be tackled at the distribution end? This might not please votaries of free markets and of the freedom of expression, and understandably so. Surely the technology companies have the right to further their business without excessive controls that other businesses are not subject to. Also, while they have been slow to do so, they are making some efforts to regulate the vast social space that they have created.

Arguably this may not be enough. The starting point for any search for solutions should not be that these platforms are necessarily evil empires bent on world domination, but that it doesn’t matter even if they aren’t. They simply do not know the power that they wield, again not because of ignorance, but because it is virtually impossible to anticipate the full cascading social consequences of their actions, nor would the presence of good intentions be enough. Without intending to, they have changed the course of cultural evolution, and have substantially altered the conditions that help order social relations and provide a semblance of equilibrium.

In the absence of such societal processes, the only meaningful option might be to regulate the technology itself. Such enormous power should not be wielded by accident, which is what is the case today. And to make some changes, for instance, to disallow abusive language and hate speech on social media platforms is not difficult. Broadcast sites have always drawn some outer boundaries that cannot be breached. This might hurt the platforms commercially, but eventually, as creators of new communities, the idea of exhibiting a modicum of social responsibility is hardly an unreasonable one. 

Of course, the problem is such a view is that the state would have to step in to formulate these kinds of regulations and that is fraught with its own set of consequences. The temptation of any ruling government to use regulation to skew things to its advantage is a big one and poses difficult questions when it comes to the thorny area of guaranteeing freedom of speech. Also, today for many governments, this kind of social media ecosystem enables their brand of politics.

We have handed over the future direction of the world to a small group of people who have neither the ability nor the mandate to play such a role. However, any attempt to control them would require the intervention of the state, and this is in some ways, even more dangerous, particularly given the rise of demagoguery across the world. This is the great stand-off of our times. We can see how the path that we are on, could lead to disaster, but doing something about it could be even worse.

Some would argue that this is a needlessly alarmist view and that technology has always disrupted society for a period of time before getting absorbed. The spinning jenny, the steam engine, the printing press, the automobile and the oral contraceptive pill are only some of the technologies that caused significant upheavals in the way we led our lives. They too caused great unrest in their time, but eventually became part of our progress narrative. It is possible that what we are seeing now is a period of transition between two eras and that some sort of equilibrium will be restored eventually. However, while there was a time when the idea of progress was regarded as an inherently positive idea, today we are far too aware of its costs to take such a presumptively optimistic view. So, we sit and watch while we continue to hurtle towards our future with eyes closed and fingers crossed.