Essays on Technology and Culture

Technology Is Not Democratic

Many people, author included, consider democracy to be one of the, if not the greatest goods in human history. Granting everyone the chance to cast their vote and have some level of control in deciding the way their society is run is often a good thing. It’s not a leap to see how anyone’s pet cause can be hitched to the idea and ideal of democracy as a means of promotion. Those who advocate lassiéz-faire capitalism claim it will bring democracy to countries under dictatorships, while those who advocate an increased Western presence in the Middle East will claim that they are bringing democracy to the oppressed. Technologists, or at least a certain subset of technologists, like to proclaim the idea that mass-adoption of technology will increase democracy by the very nature of technology, which is itself democratic.

The problem is that technology is not a democracy. Even open source. Especially open source. This is not a polemic against open source as either philosophy or technology. [1] Open source has brought us many, awesome things, including the fundamental technologies this website is built upon. Open source proponents just tend to be the most vocal among the group that insists that things like Internet access, ubiquitous computing, and learning to code will make the world more free and democratic. Any time someone promotes anything as a cure-all, even if it’s something you’re generally in favor of, it should set off several red flags.

Bill Gates said of Google’s Loon project to bring the Internet to third-world countries using baloons: “When you’re dying of malaria, I suppose you’ll look up and see that balloon, and I’m not sure how it’ll help you. When a kid gets diarrhoea, no, there’s no website that relieves that.” He’s right. Access to information is way up at the top of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. There’s more important things we can do—using technology, too—to improve the lives of people around the world. Just hooking them up to a network is solving the wrong problem. It’s hard to write a web app on your $100 laptop with a crank charger, when you can’t get food or are being forced out of your home by people with guns. Let’s use the tools we have to solve these problems first. Of course, doing that is much, much harder than building Internet connected balloons, which is why most technological “solutions” to the real problems consist of merely “raising awareness”. Turning all Twitter avatars green really helped in Iran, huh?

Furthermore, we’ve seen in the last month or two just how much of a double-edged sword technology really is. The exact same tools we use to connect us, share knowledge, and watch cat videos can be easily used to create a contemporary version of Orwell’s Telescreen, only more dangerous. [2] We can’t see them, but they can see us, and everything we do. This isn’t freedom—it’s borderline fascism. But it’s also the nature of the beast we’ve created, tying connectivity to corporations who are motivated not by the public good, but by benefiting stockholders, and by allowing a government security apparatus to work unchecked because we’re afraid of what the alternative might be. The open source wonks will claim that it’s our own fault for trusting closed software and hardware, but trusting a group of well-intentioned programmers is just as dangerous. No matter what happens, the majority of people will not be writing code. They’ll be using technology as an appliance and won’t care who wrote the software or who audited the code for security backdoors.

Democracy is about an equal voice, and while technology can give more people a voice, it doesn’t make those voices equal in any sense. The users of technology are going to remain subservient to the people who actually make it, whether they’re using Linux or MacOS. Technology literacy only goes so far, because as we’ve seen and I’ve said, the majority of people don’t care that much about how things work—only that they do. No matter what, someone’s going to be on the outside of the sphere of technological elites because they have either chosen to opt out, or never chose to opt in. Democracy doesn’t work when a majority of people don’t even get involved. We see it in the current political environment of the United States, and we see it in the current technological environment. One of these is more likely to change than the other.

  1. Least of all is that I don’t want to open the floodgates of e-mails calling me a closed-source using fascist.  ↩

  2. Which makes the idea that a Samsung Smart TV with built-in camera can be hacked into a spying device both frightening and frustrating. You can’t tell me that nobody at Samsung didn’t think that could happen. You can tell me that nobody listened.  ↩