In 2019 we are predicted to cross an unprecedented threshold. According to the International Telecommunication Union, for the first time in human history, there will be more people with internet access than without it. The majority of these digital newcomers will log on from developing countries into a virtual world affording them unimaginable ability to communicate, to learn new skills, realise commercial ventures, and plug into the globalised world. But a Faustian bargain will be struck with the planet’s newest netizens.
Our unregulated digital world
In the vast and unregulated digital space, tech giants have spent years honing their ability to hijack billions of minds for data extraction, attention manipulation and behavioural profiling to feed their lucrative business models. Not only is the digital world unregulated, but it is also morally agnostic, giving rise to a wide range of political and social ills: fake news, internet addiction, social polarisation, invasions of privacy and more. As more people come online, a greater percentage of the world’s citizens and governments become vulnerable to this lawlessness of what I term ‘the onlife’.
As we enter the endgame of climate action, it is here that the fight for sustainability will be won or lost. Are the tools to creating a sustainable world hidden in the code and data of the onlife? Or will this new landscape of ‘surveillance capitalism’, as termed by Harvard professor Shoshana Zuboff, set us on a collision course for overconsumption, post-truth confusion and a breakdown of global cooperation?
A massive redistribution of power has occurred over the last 20 years in favour of tech giants. The vast amounts of behavioural data they have been able to scrape from us without meaningful consent have been transformed into vast wealth and control of the world’s information. These tools of mass control have been stitched into the fabrics of our onlives, but the dashboard is in the hands of the market economy, in the service of those who pay to play.
“The battle for the planet will be won or lost in the uncharted depths of the onlife — a new and evolving operating context where the rules, holders of power and mechanisms of change are different.”
Big tech employs thousands of engineers dedicated to exploiting our psychological vulnerabilities for profit. Former Google ethicist and founder of the Centre for Humane Technology, Tristan Harris, describes digital connection as like having a supercomputer pointed at your brain to execute the task of whichever tech giant controls it. Using a magician’s hat full of psychological tricks we are primed, tempted, poked, nudged and coerced into spending more time online, handing over more information about ourselves.
This vast asymmetry of information enables unprecedented control of our behaviour to the highest bidder. Whether that’s to sell us a new set of headphones, to assess our viability for health insurance or to influence our political decisions, we can be targeted and tuned with laser precision.
The consequences on climate action
Let’s look at this through the lens of climate action. We have abruptly awoken to the reality that in order for humanity to flourish and be sustained this century and beyond we need to decarbonise the global economy pretty much immediately. Climate action commensurate with the herculean challenge we face will require global cooperation on an unprecedented scale, and for a lot of citizens, governments and businesses to concentrate their power on the same goal in a short space of time. At a time when the world must align under the imperative of collective action, we find ourselves hopelessly distracted, polarised, isolated, disempowered and confused.
What is more, our perception of common reality has been distorted and torn. Misinformation seriously threatens our ability to take effective action on climate change. Take for example the climate denialist video Facebook pushed to five million viewers, with algorithms feeding users ever more sensational content regardless of its accuracy. Changing minds takes hours, whereas entrenching current views takes only seconds of confirmation–be that a headline or 30 seconds of a video.
The battle for the planet will be won or lost in the uncharted depths of the onlife — a new and evolving operating context where the rules, holders of power and mechanisms of change are different. As more of the world logs on, we have to recognise that unplugging ourselves will not solve the problem. We’re now part of a social fabric which is mediated and manipulated through the onlife. Working in this new context requires several core elements to create a future where the digital world shores up climate action.
“With their enormous asymmetry of knowledge and power, big tech must take up the mantle as stewards of sustainability, create solutions, mitigate crises and employ their immense convening power to inspire collective action.”
The digital future we want
Firstly, we should not blindly subscribe to the rhetoric of inevitability espoused by tech leaders that we’re on a one-way conveyor to total digital integration on their terms, and that our data and privacy is the price to pay.We need a new narrative for our digital future, one based on consensual participation rather than extraction, one that takes into account multiple perspectives, and one that recognises the potential for the holders of power in the onlife to avert the climate crisis.
Secondly, we need to address the moral vacuum persistent across the onlife. We’re not talking about upholding legal boundaries like child pornography or terrorism, but a moral line in the sand regarding misinformation; a value-based judgement as to how much free speech the public should be exposed to. If you are to take down climate denialist videos, you first have to subscribe to an objective reality that climate change is happening — a fundamental and obvious truth, but a moral leap for a tech giant.
Many would ask: who is Facebook, Apple, Huawei or Google to say what is good for society or the planet? However, the pervasiveness of the onlife demands a moral standpoint to be taken. If not, it becomes as good as not acting at all. Active inaction. A gross abdication of responsibility. With their enormous asymmetry of knowledge and power, big tech must take up the mantle as stewards of sustainability, create solutions, mitigate crises and employ their immense convening power to inspire collective action. The digital tools which fast-tracked Silicon Valley to power are just those: tools. Tools depend on the intention of their use. Right now that’s about mining us for behavioural data material so that the customers of giants like Google and Facebook can target us with better ads to sell us their products. This isn’t the only option. There are always multiple possible futures open to us. We need to imagine a different future that reframes this superhuman consciousness as a superhuman ability to tackle humanity’s greatest challenge to date.
Check out Forum for the Future’s Future of Sustainability 2019 report in which the ‘onlife’ is explored in depth as one of seven trends that, from the perspective of early 2019, look likely to play a major role in shaping the 2020s.
George Harding-Rolls is a campaigner and communications strategist with a focus on digital ethics, climate change and food sustainability. He works as an adviser to the Changing Markets Foundation, having previously held roles at international sustainability NGO, Forum for the Future, and Beijing based CSR platform, Charitarian.
This article was published in The Beam #9 — Voices from the Global South. Subscribe to The Beam Magazine to read more.
This piece is also available on our Medium page.