My friend recently posted a message on social media that her 6-year-old son started taking python classes this summer and could already make programs to make a robot flip. As someone that started coding pretty late and never had the chance to get formal training for it, I was amazed at the early access to technologies and the rich education resources our future generation would have, although, personally, I’d rather my kids spend their childhood happily running in the forest and playing in the Little League. To my friend, though, it’s not a happy or hobby thing like sending her son to learn piano at four. This is about preparing him for a competitive future; apparently her friends are all following the same manual, out of fear that without a head start their kids will not be able to survive the machine-powered world when they grow up. I’ll bet these anxious parents likely got inspired by some tacky e-school advertisement, but at the same time their fear was not completely baseless. Computer science is being marketed as a basic skill for the future. Even today, putting Excel and Powerpoint skills on your resume is like saying you can read and write. Granted, we entered the Information Age decades ago, but it was until the past ten years did we really start to sense and witness the challenges that information technologies pose to social order, value systems and our basic understanding of how society and different segments thereof work. We got to see the rise of the technology behemoths, revolutionizing industries one after another, from taxis to healthcare. It does not seem to slow down either; as a matter of fact, it only keeps on accelerating. My friend’s fear might therefore be somewhat warranted, but I (maybe because I don’t have a child) fear for something else. In Mindset I, I did briefly bring up technologies as a culprit to worsen inequality. What I was referring to was mainly the unequal access to education resources and opportunities for people in underprivileged communities, the so-called “Digital Divide.” It’s part of the typical evil cycle of inequality: the have-nots do not have access to technology education and therefore they cannot compete fairly in a world that runs on computers. The ultimate result? The have-nots will have even less, especially if we take into consideration that the age of mass automation is inevitably coming and going to replace many workers in the workforce. The have-nots and the have-not-too-muches will be the first ones to suffer.
However, the inequality I want to focus on here is not about the depressing Digital Divide, although it is also related and I do have a strong personal interest in this matter as well. It is the drastic imbalance of power between the public (users) and the corporations (service providers) I want to direct our attention to. In some ways, I could argue that this is a threat that is even more imminent and impactful than the Digital Divide.
When we are celebrating the advancement of technologies, what are we celebrating actually? I remember the day Alpha Go won the match people were exhilarated. There was tons of press proclaiming that a new age had arrived and that this computing power (algorithm too but mainly computing power) was a milestone for humanity. To me, AI is still just a marketing term as of this second and the next; when its next big leap is going to happen probably depends on how we are doing in the field of quantum computing more than anything else. However, I am not here to throw shade at Alpha Go (well, I have to add that I’m not a big fan of matches like this — Go is a beautiful ancient game that’s more than calculation, but Alpha Go cavalierly reduced it to just that). Instead, I’m concerned about the fact that the corporate giants, able to acquire the expensive equipments, and employ the top talent and a huge staff working around the clock, can develop the most advanced technologies for themselves (if you cannot locate my concern in that statement, read it again). People, on the other hand, pay to use the technologies that the corporations are willing to make available to the public. That is to say, people are always going to be on the receiving end as consumers in this exchange and restricted to a controlled environment the corporations devise.
Prima facie, it might seem like a fair barter in the free market. But, is it really? It’s a barter, but is it really fair? Let’s first compare information technology to other industries and see if we can have some insight. If you buy a rice cooker, you pay and get the physical appliance. You are the owner of that little thing and you get to do whatever you want with it, making rice or dissembling it just for fun — it’s nobody’s business. If you buy a car, you can drive it or gift it to a total stranger. You might get speeding tickets when driving it or even crash it unfortunately. But again — it’s nobody’s business because that’s your car. If you buy a ticket to ride a rollercoaster, you get to spend three minutes having fun or regretting your decision to get on the ride in the first place; you pay for the experience of those three minutes, nothing more and nothing less. Information technologies (in order to make my points clearer I am going to narrow down the discussion to information technologies so that we do not get confused by the product, like a smart phone, which “contains” technologies and technologies themselves) are a different case. It’s not a one-off experience, nor is it a physical product. The exchanges often go beyond what is visible and explicit (e.g., giving away personal data), as well, posing a challenging question: how do we know if’s a fair trade if consumers do not have a full picture of or cannot easily comprehend what they are paying and what are they paying for. According to many licensing agreements, we usually own the content we create and the rights to use the services (company “assets”). Still, it’s never that simple. Just to give an everyday example, when we use gmail, who own our emails? Google says we own the intellectual property rights, but does that mean we own the emails? If we indeed own our emails, how come the government can request the hosting companies to turn them over? According to Google:
Your content remains yours, which means that you retain any intellectual property rights that you have in your content.
Within the same document, it gives Google permissions to:
Host, reproduce, distribute, communicate, and use your content
Once we start exploring the ownership/property rights question, it’s like opening the Pandora’s box. Technologies have outpaced the progresses made in fields like law, ethics and moral philosophy, and we are living with the painful incongruity and confusion.
However, ownership is only a representation of the underlying problem, which is, in my opinion, that the internet corporations are becoming too big and want to do too much. It’s not about the staff size but their scope of services, their “scalability,” the mesmerizing word that VC guys all look for in your investor pitch, their organization structure and their power over users. Jeff Bezos famously said that Amazon got so massive that sometimes it operated like a small government. It was an honest statement and sometimes it even looks like this is the only way a company is going to survive in this overly competitive industry.
It is especially the case with e-commerce platform sites. Think about it — when we go to a flower shop to buy flowers, we are giving the shop owner the choice of flowers and cash or credit card information as payment method. In comparison, when we go online to buy flowers on a platform site, we are giving away:
- where we live
- the recipient information if the flowers need delivery
- contact information
- payment method
- shopping history
- very likely nowadays, browsing and mouse clicking history
- soon to be banned but for now also third party cookies information
- telling Internet advertisers that I buy flowers
Of course, Internet makes it convenient to acquire goods and services, but it comes with the tradeoff that puts consumers in a more vulnerable and exposed position. When the corporations want to do more and are able to because of the advantages gifted by technologies, they must have consumers do less; the consumers will then have no better options but use their services to fulfill goals. The aforementioned ownership and privacy issues are among the earlier consequences of this conservation of power (yes, borrowing it from physics) and an augmented version of supply and demand.
What shall we do then to change this status quo and rebalance the relationship between disadvantaged consumers and corporations on steroids? The reality is that no for-profit organization will willingly relinquish power. Again, power begets profits and more power, both of which so damn addictive that human history is full of known and unknown people killing each other for either. The past decade has seen some of the most epic battles between governments and tech giants, from EU, to Asia, to Washington, over this scope of power and control. We managed to pass a number of bills to protect consumers, especially on data privacy. Like Adam Smith had prescribed, it’s the government’s job to regulate and defend the public interest.
Do we trust the government to do what’s best for us? The answer varies from one person to another. I personally don’t feel too confident. Besides political factors, only ignored here to not dilute my argument, the general lack of technological knowledge makes me worry if our statesmen are capable of analyzing the situation or understanding what’s at stake at all. Mark Zuckerberg’s senate hearing had me giggle more than a few times and I honestly had to respect him for keeping a straight face the whole session. Then the question should become — can the government do what’s best for the public interest?
I am not qualified to answer that, nor am I interested. On the contrary, I propose that we find a ground floor solution by and for ourselves while hoping that some day the corporations could learn to value a moral business model and more public servants get familiarized with technology. If you happen to have read Mentality I, I am not here to rant about ideologies and discredit the free market, although it definitely enabled that (and the Digital Divide as well). I’ll save that for the discussion on sustainability and the absurdity of our current global supply chain system.
It’s actually still about the conservation of power. If people can do more, then we are giving less power away. I’ll explain.
My mom started growing her own vegetables a few years back. It started as a hobby, but gradually she found peace and joy in gardening; it has become part of her life. She mainly grows tomatoes and cucumbers, and hardly shops them anymore from the market. Now imagine one of those days, a deadly virus infects the tomatoes produced by a large agricultural company that owns 35% of the market. Thanks to her self-reliance, my mom does not have too much to worry about, compared to me, a Diamond member of Uber Eats.
Likewise, if we can grow a garden of technologies that belong to ourselves, will it be able to break and reset the power dynamics between us and the corporations? Probably, but, again, it’s extremely difficult because obviously technologies are not vegetables; they are intangible goods and services. Even if they are made plantable, the skills it requires to grow them are more than what average citizens can master, who are already busy with their own job. However, we can still get some inspiration from the analogy: in order to be empowered, we have to do more ourselves, in an indigenous way. Independence is power. When we cannot supply to meet our own demands, the second best is to have these done for us. Instead of growing a garden, we’ll buy one and put it in our backyard. Instead of coding every program we need by ourselves, we’ll have them made for us. Please note the differences between having technologies made for us and consuming services from corporations as users. What I am proposing here is to shift to a human-centric development and design perspective, from the traditional business models (e.g., platform, SaaS, etc.) that are product-oriented and profit-driven. Being human-centric is more than applying some fancy interactive UI/UX on the front end; it is to accept and recognize that sales and revenues are not the priority (they definitely are still important) — how much goodness technologies are doing for people and the world is. It is also not a what or a how, but a why.
Why do you want to make this program/feature?
Do you want to empower people?
Or impress investors?
To end this article, I am going to introduce another interesting Frenchman into the conversation. Like Rousseau, who I believe had influenced him deeply, Charles Fourier had some pretty radical ideas back in the 19th century and detested civilization too. A true pioneer in fighting inequality, he championed women’s rights and defended gay rights, both deemed radical at the time. To him, the liberation of human beings should always come first. He was later labeled as a Utopian Socialist by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engles, but today he probably would also fit nicely with the left-libertarian crowd. The reason I am mentioning him is that his ideas and proposals, such as Phalanstere and system of Harmony, would echo with the human-centric spirit of our model, for the shared passion for individuality as well as cooperativeness, although, like Rousseau, Fourier would most likely condemn the whole technology industry as the poster child of civilization and we wouldn’t get to have this conversation at all.
In Mindset III & IV, I’ll further elaborate on this human-centric model, with a special focus on e-commerce. Can we come up with an alternative e-commerce framework that “empowers” people/consumers and co-exists with other existing models? Can it still be profitable and competitive?
It’s worth a try.