A new global initiative is working to secure a rebalance of power in the tech ecosystem, pushing back against the unmitigated power of “big tech” and imagining a world in which technology is built and designed by the people for the people.
The term “big tech” refers to the tech giants that dominate the industry and the public information space: Amazon, Apple, Alphabet, Facebook, and Microsoft. Because of the speed at which these companies, and their power, have developed, our governing and regulatory systems have not been able to keep up. While tech in itself has the power to connect, empower and inform, no technology is neutral, and without accountability systems in place, the tech owned and operated by these giants has increasingly been seen to have a negative impact on the environment, on society, and even on democracy itself – as we’ve seen in countless ways over the past few years.
Future Says_ is a new initiative – funded by the Australian Minderoo Foundation – that is leveraging the power of collective action and collaboration to design and develop new tools and techniques that communities can use to restore the balance of power and right some of these wrongs. The initiative is focusing its efforts on three key areas. The first is “tackling lawlessness” – the idea that many things happening in the technology ecosystem today are legal not because they should be, but simply because we haven’t written the rules. The second is “empowering workers” – reducing the amount of dangerous, precarious, and invisible work that sustains so much of the tech supply chain. And the third is “reimagining tech” – the idea that by imagining a tech of the future allows us stop accepting that what we have now is the only way it can be.
One part of the initiative is the “Playmakers”, a team of academics, entrepreneurs and researchers – who include some of big tech’s harshest critics – and who are using public engagement strategies and publications to provide communities with tools and techniques to shift power away from monopolising digital platforms. The “Tech Impact Network” forms the other part of the initiative, a global network of research and innovation centres in five prestigious universities: the University of Cambridge, the University of Western Australia, the University of California, Los Angeles, New York University, and the University of Oxford. These hubs will function as five nodes in a virtual, global, impact-oriented network – established to “incubate” different projects including those looking at law reform, artificial intelligence ethics and Indigenous approaches to data ethics, collective privacy and data governance.
Technology without accountability has led to injustice. One example, as explained by one of the Future Says_ playmakers Khadijah Abdurahman, is how the predictive analytics system of New York City’s Welfare Services is “black box,” meaning that its internal workings and algorithms are unknown, in other words, not transparent. The impacts of this are felt on vulnerable families in the city, who are more often targeted by and harmed by the policies. This system directly impacted Khadijah’s family, and now she’s pushing back. She argues for rethinking and co-creating human services systems with activists, technologists, data policy experts, and legal scholars at the table.
Other playmakers are investigating the transparency of social media feeds. They argue that the Google search tool, for example, is not an unbiased source of knowledge. In fact, because of Google’s business model, it is actually an advertising platform. Because of its profit-orientation, the highest bidders can buy their way to the top of the feed, supplying viewers with propaganda and ads.
Sarah T. Roberts, who co-directs the Tech Impact Network’s UCLA research centre, is also raising awareness on “content moderation,” which is a low-income job to screen lewd content from social media platforms in order to keep the user feeds pristine. She says that the tech industry hides their content moderation workforce because they don’t want users to know about these processes. These kinds of workplaces are sites of power imbalance, zones that are devoid of traditional protections and processes.
While experts and activists have long made their opinions heard about the dangers of the monopolisation of digital platforms by giant tech companies, hopefully this initiative will offer those voices the chance to be supported, amplified and connected within a strong network, that ultimately is successful in pushing for quick and effective reform.