New media, online activism and digital development depend on information and communication technologies (ICTs) that are interconnected with power dynamics and structural inequalities in society. ”Technology mirrors realities in society” (O’Donnell and Sweetman, 2018, p.227), and is used in power struggles to exacerbate or enhance these realities.
The ”digital divide” is in fact several ”power divides”, which are highly present between and within the Global North and South. The responsibility for these power structures lies not with the ICTs, but with society and its people. ICTs are merely digital ropes, pulled both by forces who want to confirm existing power structures and forces who want to change them. After initially analyzing this digital tug of war over power through the perspectives of contemporary digital developments, this post proposes possible sustainable ways to restructure existing power dynamics.
The digitized colonial divide
The colonial divide is still alive and well today within modernizing globalization and development (Escobar, 2018, pp.59-67). Western neoliberal ICTs are disseminated throughout the Global South, and the decision-making is delegated to free market capitalism. Elizabeth Chin calls Western technology boosters ”the new missionaries to the developing world”, because they view Africans as empty vessels to be filled, not to satisfy their needs, but to create new ones (2017, p.479).
The strong belief that ICTs foster socioeconomic development in the Global South has resulted in myriads of informatization strategies in international development. However, the roles and impacts of ICTs are always different, and if societal, cultural and ethical aspects are not taken into account, the strategies are likely to make the marginalized even more marginalized (Krone and Dannenberg, 2019). This is development history repeating itself. Since the 1960s, the modernization-diffusion paradigm has celebrated many new technologies as silver bullets to solve socio-economic problems (McAnany, 2012). Contemporary ICT and connectivity discourses contain not only similar celebrations, but also a similar silence regarding complex international power structures and unequal interconnections (Ouma, Stenmanns & Verne, 2019).
Informatization strategies aim to close gaps regarding internet connectivity, computer skills, and access to computers, phones and software. However, closing a gap does not restructure power relations (Noble, 2018, pp.160-161). It may even amplify existing inequalities, since the privileged tend to benefit most from ICTs. Some people will improve their ICT status, but still be further behind in comparison, having moved backward, relatively (Deichmann and Mishra, 2019).
Every digitizing initiative has its dark side. Digital labor enables people to escape limited opportunities locally, while becoming involved in uneven power relations globally (Graham, Hjort & Lehdonvirta, 2019). Many African gig workers experience freedom and flexibility without improving their working conditions and livelihoods. Since their individual freedom is prioritized over collective and occupational freedom, they rather experience precarity and vulnerability (Anwar and Graham, 2020). Digital labor platforms lack protections of workers’ rights and are biased in hiring and wage outcomes, based on race, gender and nationality (Galperin and Greppi, 2019).
Although connected to the same network, all workers from around the world cannot change their positions in economic power structures. They are not totally integrated in global economies, but merely ”thintegrated” (Graham, 2019, p.8). Drawing on Gayatri Spivak’s claim that poor, black females get it in three ways (1988, p.294), this makes female gig workers even ”thinnertegrated”. In order to be included and benefit from ICTs, they must become neoliberal subjects, and conform to the commodification of their cultural heritage, and relate to others in terms of maximizing profit (McCarrick and Kleine, 2019). Furthermore, when achieving entrepreneurial success, media and the development industry thrive on telling her story. Such stories, however, distract from the real structural challenges these women face. The responsibility for unequal access to ICTs and other inequalities lies not with the individual, but the structural barriers that hold her back. Since these structural inequalities only can be challenged collectively, celebrating such heroic individualism is harmful (McCarrick and Kleine, 2019).
A fundamental issue regarding informatization strategies in global development is that they provide technical solutions to socio-economic problems (Ouma et al., 2019), and prioritize Western commercial solutions over indigenous political ones. They seek to close a digital divide that is perhaps only a digitized version of the colonial divide of power, and to close such a gap demands much more than internet connectivity.
Social change impeded by naturalizing algorithms
In order to overcome inequality and unsustainability in both the Global North and South, people and institutions must restructure existing power dynamics. Such social change is, however, impeded by a biased technology that naturalizes existing inequalities. The internet is not free and democratic, its power is in the hands of a few large Silicon Valley firms such as Google, Apple, Facebook, and Microsoft (Halpin, 2019). These platform capitalists are the new superpowers in the world and their monopolistic mission to own, copy and destroy competing platforms has destructive effects on democracy. They do facilitate social cooperation and contact, but also reinforce hegemonic narratives, exploit their users and create divides (Noble, 2018, p.163).
Divides are created through the use of algorithms that personalize and display most popular searches in order to optimize website experiences, while also naturalizing, confirming and reinforcing existing power structures, narratives, stereotypes and injustices. Algorithms reflect inconsistencies, limitations, biases, and political and emotional desires, and are simply opinions that humans have embedded in code, which tend to punish the poor and reward the rich (O’Neil, 2016). Through displaying the behavior of the majority as the most important and most true, the minorities are erased and can never influence the way they are represented (Noble, 2018, p.16). Many digitized services affect the most vulnerable, and never seek solutions that center minorities (Birhane, 2019).
Through personalized filter bubbles, algorithms obstruct people to come in contact with different points of view (Pariser, 2011). This is devastating to society, since listening to one another’s different stories is crucial to overcome separateness and discover common ground (Jackson, 2013, p.114). Platform capitalists, however, confirm filter bubbles and encourage polarization, since their users prefer to be exposed to views they agree with and enjoy to watch spectacles of online arguments between two people from separate filter bubbles (Tüfekçi, 2017, p.271). People have become products, exploited to attract more users and advertisers. This form of digital colonization, or even digital slavery, is even further illustrated by the platform capitalists when they mine people for data, resembling the ”colonizer attitude that declares humans as raw material free for the taking” (Birhane, 2019).
Algorithms also predict risk in insurance, mobile banking, health care, education services and crime. Since the prediction comes from a screen instead of humans, it is viewed as an objective decision-making process. However, such decision-making relies on historic data about what happened in the past, thus encoding history into the present and future (Jackson, 2019), sedimenting inequality and hierarchy as something permanent and fixed, which impedes social change. Drawing on Michel Foucault’s ”regime of truth” (1980, p.131), algorithms can be viewed as the guardians of our reigning regime of truth, since they naturalize historical power structures and support everything currently accepted as true in today’s society.
Instead of burdening individuals, algorithms should be used to hold institutions and organizations accountable (Jackson, 2019), and rather displaying the unequal power structures behind the historical data used for predicting risk today.
To regulate or not to regulate
Equality can never be reached without regulating finance and the network-data complex (Gurumurthy, 2019). The free market’s unregulated filter bubbles, online harassment and dissemination of misinformation and disinformation undermine the public confidence in political systems, increase the risks of conflict and instability, and make it hard to sort true facts from fiction (Pariser, 2011; Tüfekçi, 2017).
Jan Nederveen Pieterse’s discussion on the balance between state, market and society, can also be used as an argument to regulate ICTs. He writes that liberal market economies focus too much on the market, and that coordinated market economies, with their equal focus on state, market and society, are preferred (2018, pp.152-153). Richard Vokes also stresses a form of regulation, that the freedom to use ICTs to express one’s own thoughts must be balanced with the freedom from being exposed to other people’s derogatory opinions (2018, p.171). Safiya Noble argues that unregulated search engines could pose a serious threat to democracy, and suggests that governments create public service search engines, support non-profit search engines and protect the rights to fair representation online (2018).
Before reforming and regulating, though, one must question whether ICTs themselves are the actual problem and assess the possible effects. Reforming WhatsApp to reduce its destructive potential, for example, “would also undermine its emancipatory power” (Cheeseman, Fisher, Hassan & Hitchen, 2020, p.157). The dilemma of reforming or regulating any type of technology is that the good and bad aspects are interconnected. Since the problem is not the actual technology, the solution cannot be to reform it. It is in fact a social problem that needs social solutions. Elisabeth Chin points out that social inequalities and power structures are as present in technology as they are anywhere else, and that technology never has solved social problems all on its own: ”We are stuck with the same old problems with fancier technology to address them” (2017, p.486).
Though social change is not achieved with technology alone, it may be achieved by people with technology. Humans create all technology and must start to take responsibility for it. Society has not become polarized because of technology, but rather because how humans created, distributed and used it. Thus, reform not technology, but society. Reforming society, however, can hardly be done without technology, since technology live in and change every aspect of the social life. ”We design tools, and these tools design us back” (Escobar, 2018, p.110).
Redesign the human being
The global crisis of climate, food and poverty is the result of the Western civilizational model, with its capitalist, neoliberal, patriarchal, modern, individual, globalized, universal, model of life. It maintains destructive binary opposites, which exploit differences and ”legitimize devastation of the natural world” (Kothari, Salleh, Escobar, Demaria & Acosta, 2019, p.xxii). Escobar argues to replace this failing model with a pluriverse, where several world systems co-exist (2019). Such world systems, based on social justice and well-being, are presently emerging around the world. Ecofeminism prioritizes equality, sustainability, complexity, cooperation and the diversity of all life forms (Terreblanche, 2019), clearly echoing older models, such as buen vivir in South America (Chuji, Rengifo & Gudynas, 2019), ubuntu in Southern Africa (Le Grange, 2019) and swaraj in India (Kothari, 2019).
Another example is the ecovillage, whose activism is based on the power of social networks and ICTs. Ecovillage activists hybridize closer to nature lifestyles with modern technology, connecting like-minded strangers in distant places and broadcasting the benefits of their living to people around the world (Chaves, 2019). New media help people to challenge power and hegemonic narratives (Matsilele and Mutsvairo, 2022, p.188), and to overcome pluralistic ignorance, realizing that they are not lonely, but perhaps even in majority (Tüfekçi, 2017, pp.25-27). However, new media may simultaneously complicate social dynamics and fuel fragilities. While disseminating one’s message globally, counter-forces of disinformation and harassment may also go viral, for example when the same social media once used to initiate the Arab Spring later contributed to destroy it (Tüfekçi, 2017, pp.266-269).
Melvin Kranzberg’s words are echoing throughout this post: ”Technology is neither good nor bad; nor is it neutral” (1986). ICTs are simply digital tools which can amplify intent (Graham, 2019, p.14). In Nigeria, for example, these tools are both strengthening and challenging democracy, contributing to not only more politically engaged women and young people, but also to political turmoil (Cheeseman et al., 2020, pp.147-156). In order to achieve more of the decent and democratic effects of these digital tools, several structures, technologies and institutions must be redesigned, starting with the education of future technology designers, consequently also society designers. They must be equipped with the right skills to deal with the social context of their designs (Lovén, 2021).
According to Escobar, though, this is not enough. Since humans create all technology and all power structures, he stresses the need for everyone to redesign their ways of thinking and being, to learn how to redesign themselves (2018, pp.118-119). His argument relates to pre-figurative activism, where social change starts with one’s own concrete practices in daily local life, displaying how a sustainable and more democratic world starts here and now (Pleyers, 2019). Drawing on the general alter-globalization belief that ordinary citizens can impact local, national, and global politics, they can use ICTs to redesign themselves, for example by cracking their filter bubbles, or creating new filter bubbles of diversity. This relates to Tobias Denskus’ power of micro-decolonization, which he calls the routines of reading blogs, embracing new knowledge and liking and sharing the voices outside the mainstream. According to him, every such act contributes to internalizing diversity, which helps to increase diversity more naturally, opening doors to even more diverse information in the future (2019).
White Western men are the primary contributors to the public knowledge on the web. Many marginalized groups are merely consumers that have to rely on these hegemonic ways of thinking (Karam and Mutsvairo, 2022, pp.2-3). Since the internet is used in most parts of the world, there should be an equal contribution of content owners and content producers from these parts of the world. Instead of a universal web, there is perhaps need for a pluriweb where several world wide webs coexist?
The responsibility to create such a change, to start to respect and display alternative ways of thinking, lies not with the marginalized, but with the people with power. They need to redesign themselves, and involve and prioritize vulnerable groups of society in all aspects of the designing, developing, and implementing of any new ICTs.
Then, the ball of social change is set in motion and society and technology are able to alternate in an interconnected drive towards a more sustainable, pluriversal world—a world where the restructuring forces win the digital tug of war over power.
Reflections on the blogging weeks
Connecting interesting academic course literature to highly topical news articles or blog posts, made the blogging weeks quite stimulating. Narrowing down extensive reading into shorter blog posts was enjoyable, but even greater joy came from the interactions with other people. These great online discussions resulted in useful insights that helped in the analyzes of this final post.
A strategy to foster interaction was to use engaging content, attractive photos, inviting headlines and clear introductions. Also, in an attempt to adapt Paulo Freire’s libertarian pedagogy to the blogging context, the knowledge was not deposited in the readers, but co-created with them (1968/2017). Through asking questions and never ”closing” the texts, the aim was to evoke a feeling within the readers that they were needed in order to finish the texts. Furthermore, when readers commented on the posts, they were immediately asked to elaborate and engage in further discussions.
Attempts to tell stories differently, resulted in a podcast and a couple of memes. Though it was harder and more time consuming than expected to create them with a decent standard, the experience and satisfaction of having implemented them made the challenging of the personal comfort zone worthwhile. Overall, the blogging exercise intensified a desire to be a part of an online community as a facilitator for discussions, to contribute to a common learning experience for everyone. The privilege of being a curator of an online community, though, comes with great responsibility. Creating an interesting, critical, respectful and inclusive platform with numerous returning participants requires considerable research, interactions on social media and content production. Yet, it is perhaps the pre-figurative activist approach needed in order to make one small contribution to a greater social change.
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