Despite its difficulties, the future of digital does have a logic shaping its base. For the most part, it is a blend of two conflicting aspects. The first is data extractivism, which is mainly pushed forward by how big tech depends on new sources of data. The second is distributism, which is pushed by those who are against the ascendance of big tech.
Big Tech and Facebook
The most recent example of the former aspect can be found in the Wall Street Journal, which had uncovered Facebook’s efforts to persuade banks into sharing their customers’ data. This includes bank balances and card transactions, though Facebook says it’s not “actively” seeking such data.
With this move, Facebook wants to guarantee that its services are used purely for trivial tasks such as getting in touch with the bank’s support desk or making payments. The more time we spend accessing data on the site, the more data the site collects. This means that all roads on Facebook lead to data extractivism.
Those who support data distribution have no merging ideology. However, they all agree on going against the status quo, where technology platforms serve as self-claimed upholders of worldwide data. By handing over more data to state institutions that already rely on consistent monitoring means trust cannot be restored.
The right-wing connotation of this movement already had a head start due to many industries assuming that surrendering their data to big tech would in time chip away at their margins. The proposed solution, pushed by the World Economic Forum in Davos and other neoliberal aficionados, is to outspread the private property standard to personal data. This would dramatically raise the costs of data extractivism.
A recent GenerationLibre report on the pros of treating data as private property imagines a data haven of decentralised markets and self-enforcing contracts. A policy agenda such as this is largely informed by the right-wing analysis of the modern condition, often portrayed as “digital feudalism”. This analysis comes from the clear observation that some firms are tapping valuable resources (data) for which they pay very little, if not nothing.
However, is this is feudalism, then we are still yet to see capitalism. It is quite difficult to discover a business practice more in line with the philosophy of the capitalist enterprise than getting away with free things.
In a similar sense, the thought of big tech being nothing more than a group of passive rentiers who thrive on the data of their users is just as doubtful. It is hard to square their excessive research and development spends with their apparent rentier-like status. Big tech is essentially capitalism. If you speak of the onset of “digital feudalism”, you are pining for capitalism that never existed.
There is also a rising left-wing undercurrent to this movement. The thought of a new look at data ownership and the possibility of a national data trust has become popular with the labour party. In the German business paper Handelsblatt, Andrea Nahles disputed that technology firms must be forced to share their data with society for the sake of not impeding social progress. She demonstrated a comparison between big tech and big pharma, which can’t enjoy unlimited exclusive rights over its intellectual property.
Though it seems reasonable, the left-wing distributist agenda must overcome one big article in order to be credible: the falling trust of citizens in the state as a medium for pushing their interests. Only the city is where the thought of employing meaningful democratic control over a life is still viable.
What is Needed
You cannot restore trust by giving data to state institutions that already thrive on excessive surveillance. There’s also the temptation that this data will be used for state-approved social engineering. You will only fuel the extreme right-wing “deep state” conspiracy theories if you hand over even more data.
Therefore, the distributist left shouldn’t hesitate the proposal of ambitious political reforms to go with their new data ownership regime. These must be open to the knowledge that the most meaningful scale at which an extreme change in democratic political culture can happen today is not the nation-state, but rather the city.
The city is a sign of outward-looking cosmopolitanism, a vigorous answer to the mimicked and narrow-mindedness of the nation-state. It is now the only place where the thought of employing meaningful democratic control over a life, is still viable.
The city also figures notably in how digital technologies affect our lives. The city is also a big target of big tech and is no accident. If firms succeed in the control of its infrastructure, there won’t be many other causes of concern.
The true challenge for the data distributist left is to figure out how to share power, not just data. It should mobilise the nation-state to look to cities in the heralds of a new, extreme democracy. One that is eager to deploy socialisedand artificial intelligence in the interests of citizens. Without such an emphasis on radical empowerment, the data distribution of the left will only benefit the far right.
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