As technology becomes a force shaping our societies, what is the role of a government here? As Dan Schiller, John Naughton and David Runciman point out in this quite interesting discussion held at the University of Cambridge this September, government was not always the regulator restricting technical developments. On the contrary.
Everyone who knows a bit about the history of this thing, which we still call the internet, is aware of the important role governments once played when networks were still in their infancy, from the Arpanet to the French Cyclades packet switching network to Britains NPL data communication network. Back then governments were inventive, while telecommunication companies like AT&T wanted to restrict developments. Networks like the beautiful one below, which shows a map of the Arpanet in August 1972, were funded and planned with the help of public institutions, not businesses. Why do we seem to mistrust public funding so fundamentally, all of a sudden? And is it based on something real, or nothing but the contemporary ideology we live in?
An important question to aks, the more as the internet is about to enter not just our homes, but also all the things that live with us; from cars to street lamps and traffic lights to vacuum cleaners or our tooth brushes. Other than back then, however, this development is not driven by a public force who is devoted to the public good but by companies. Now some might say that this is not a problem because these companies are controlled by a market making a classic liberal argument. However, as Google, Apple, or Facebook show, there is a monopolist tendency among tech companies. Interestingly, this is often not found distrubing. As John Naughton points out in their discussion, we often have the impression that a monopolist is nothing threatening, but someone who should be rewarded and admired: those businessmen have done well. Economical profit, however, does not automatically mean that societies benefit. It just means someone is getting rich.
Unfortunately this situation is even more complicated as we have learned with the global surveillance disclosures in 2013. While governments claim that it is best to leave innovation to the market, they also force this market to install facilities for mass surveillance and eavesdropping operations on its own population. The tendency is clear: while individuals are being hailed as business heroes or consumers, the political body – the population, the crowd, the mass – is not to be trusted. But is not still true what Hannah Arendt wrote in “The Promise of Politics”: “human plurality is … more than the sum total of reasonable beings, who, because of some decisive defect, are forced to live together and form a political body”?
As more and more things around us are being networked, this is something one needs to be aware of: we live in highly ideological times. To face this ideology, ethical claims, which one can see on the rise everywhere – “should do the right thing” (Alphabet) or “Don’t do evil” (Google) – are not enough. Looking into our recent history, this important discussion of three experts begs to differ with our time, and is well worth listening to. As is Dan Schiller’s talk on Digital Capitalism: Stagnation and Contention?