Lukas Rosenstock

Lukas Rosenstock

While trying to clean out my saved content in Pocket, I came across an article by Evgeny Morozov published in the SZ (Süddeutsche Zeitung) in German with the title “Für eine radikale demokratische Transformation” (UPDATE: “The left needs to get radical on big tech – moderate solutions won’t cut it” in The Guardian seems to be the English version - thank you Sebastian Lasse!).

In the article, Morozov writes about the “techlash” as a growing feeling that a few dominant corporations have too much control over the Internet. And, as he says, there are basically three types of opposition to the status quo, which I found an interesting classification.

The first type of criticism is economism. It’s mainly focused around the idea that corporations profit off personal data and free labor from the consumers. These should be compensated, for example, through a “data dividend”.

The second type of criticism is technocracy. It identifies monopolies as the main issue and calls for antitrust regulations to break them down and establish more competition in the market.

Morozov says that both of these schools of thought are too limited because they only look at the economy. He identifies a third group who is trying to go beyond the status quo and rethink the purpose of technology in the world and look at data as more than just an economic resource. Essentially, this group is trying to envision a utopia with different rules and new players, including non-commercial ones, and more democratic control. So far, however, this group lacks unity and visibility.

I follow a few initiatives that are part of this third group, such as the IndieWeb movement or Mastodon/ActivityPub, as an alternative approach to social networks. The platform cooperatives movement and some Blockchain-based projects also belong there. And so do tiny indie makers, such as this blog’s host micro.blog. The field is incredibly diverse, but that makes it very difficult to navigate and understand. And, in my opinion, they can’t speak with one voice. The only thing that unites them is the idea that there’s something better than the status quo, but the details vary. Therefore, if we want to limit the power of the technology giants, it might be easier to implement the more straightforward suggestions from the other two groups first. Next, the initiatives in the third group can compete or cooperate on a more level playing field.

There’s also a fourth approach that I sympathize with, for obvious reasons. USV VC Albert Wenger postulates the “right to an API key”. The idea is that companies must make their data troves available in a machine-readable format. In this way, individuals can be empowered to leverage that data in a way that benefits them instead of being limited to the algorithms offered to them.