Mayor José Antonio Rodríguez Salas has spent years turning his small Spanish town into one of the most active users of Twitter anywhere in the world.
For Jun’s 3,500 residents, more than half of whom have Twitter accounts, their main way to communicate with local government officials is now the social network. Need to see the local doctor? Send a quick Twitter message to book an appointment. See something suspicious? Let Jun’s policeman know with a tweet.
For José María de la Torre Sarmiento, an architect who stopped by Jun’s town hall after work to verify his Twitter account, the chance to quickly send tweets remained preferable to submitting government forms that took weeks to process.
“I work from home and use internet services all the time,” he said during the five-minute verification. “Why can’t I do the same thing when I use public services?”
Apple users usually expect for their devices to perform basic system management and maintenance, monitoring background processes so that a rogue task doesn’t drag down the currently active app, for example.
But when Apple confirmed users’ suspicions that a recent update was aggressively slowing older devices, the story quickly gained national attention, culminating in the company cutting the price of battery replacement service and apologizing for the misunderstanding in an open letter to customers. Though Apple never goes as far as to admit wrongdoing in the letter, their direct appeals to customers’ “trust” and “faith” serve as an implicit acknowledgement that the company disregarded a boundary somewhere.
Given how social media and messaging services have, as Jenny Davis says, “extended beyond apps and platforms, taking on the status of infrastructures and institutions,” Apple’s moves to smooth device performance and subtly automate connectivity make some sense. “They have become central to society’s basic functions, such as employment, public safety, and government services,” Data & Society scholars argued in response to Carpenter v. United States.
The ubiquity of networked phones not only facilitates access but furnishes society’s layers of contingency – the many convenient, useful and at times crucial services we enjoy and rely on every day. When our societal infrastructure shifts, as it inevitably does, we feel it and often anticipate its impact.
Indeed, as part of the “cyborgian bargain,” we both expect and are specially equipped to continually renegotiate our status within ever shifting socio-technical systems. For the trust we exercise conditionally with and through society’s mediating infrastructures and institutions, we do not expect an equitable exchange so much as we demand reciprocation, however tenuous and incomplete, commensurate with our wants and desires.
The sort of user we are becoming now might be better described as interstitial, a status emerging from our agency in relation to and actions afforded by socio-technologies. Instead of the ancillary user that platforms imagine molding and fixing in place, the interstitial user contends that our interests and desires necessarily defy simple categorization and we will use what options we have at our disposal to pursue our aims in spite of designers’ wishes.
The most important thing that’s lacking is actually any kind of private space where you are not being monitored by the corporations whose tools you’re using to have whatever conversation you’re having.
So, every time you have a conversation in a digital environment, all of it, there’s a third party who’s got that information — always a corporation. And then all of that exchange is also being monitored by the government.
If the fundamental premise is that this activity of non-profits happens outside of those realms, it literally doesn’t exist in digital space, because we’re playing in their house, if you will. We may well need and would all benefit from an environment that provides some protections for us in those spaces as they exist.
When we talk about digital civil society we always say, ‘Look, we need to invent this, because we don’t have it.’ The best way to protect somebody else’s digital data in that environment is to not collect it. If you don’t have it, then it’s not at risk.
Non-profits have been excited to use things like free online documents and spreadsheets that are stored in the cloud and shared across organizations, and this comes at no direct financial cost to them. If you upload to those systems the names of everyone participating in your programs, with their address their email and their phone number, you’ve just given it away to other parties.
But, if you collect that information and don’t store it online, for one, or you encrypt it, for two, or you store it on your own servers and not in other people’s houses, as I like to think about it, then you are providing the same degree of integrity to that data that you again provide to the money that you rely on to do your business in the first place. You’re treating it with integrity toward your mission.
And if your mission, for example, is helping vulnerable people in your community, don’t do it in such a way that you essentially make them more vulnerable.
Microsoft executives renewed calls for a Digital Geneva Convention and for tech companies to act as “medics in cyberspace,” much like the Red Cross on a battlefield. The enterprise can help fill the gaps in international law relating to cyberattacks, according to Microsoft’s Brad Smith and Carol Ann Browne.
Facebook’s Newsfeed and Google’s search results are the two most central sources of digital information for the world. For each of them, all decisions about what information is given priority and visibility are made by one commercial company whose primary goal is ad revenue and profit. There is no consultation with the public, no regulatory oversight, and no recourse for errors or distortions.
The least neutral places on the internet are the Newsfeed and Google search. There are no such mechanisms that might deter, regulate, or formally disclose distortions that arise from the Newsfeed and Google search. No credible proposals are being discussed anywhere that would address the absolute control these still-growing net colossi have over the public dialogue.
Digital Media and Global Affairs expert Dr. Taylor Owen argues the reality of the internet is now largely one of control, by four platform companies — Google, Facebook, Amazon and Apple — worth a combined $2.7 trillion — and their impact on democracy is deeply troubling. In an open letter, Owen writes:
Our common grounding and ability to act as a collective are being undermined. We must take ownership of our digital lives. It means thinking very differently about the bargain that platforms are offering us. The answer isn’t to disengage, as these tools are embedded in our society, but instead to think critically about this bargain. But acting as individuals is insufficient. Platform companies are among the largest and most profitable in the world. They shape the internet, are the world’s market place, and are even planning and developing our cities. Their scale and power demands a collective response. This will mean altering our model of governance.
Our nervous system has not only been “outered” as McLuhan warned us, but it has been evolving into its next stage of development. Social networks, Twitters, geospatial mashups and blogs are the rehearsal halls for the distributed human intelligence predicted by such sages as Teilhard de Chardin and Sri Aurobindo. In this new networked domain: all persons and objects have a voice; all things can be found, and all that was hidden will be seen; all are connected, at multiple levels of coded reality; and what is real depends on how we interpret or manipulate these codes.
In a quest to find a solution that works for everyone, we too often invest in ideas that don’t work particularly well for anyone. In 2018, my aspirational prediction is that journalism shifts its focus on innovation toward investing in processes, rather than platforms and products. Too many good ideas are discarded because they don’t fit the dominant model of “scalable” and “replicable,” which is too narrow in scope.
When nation-states default on their national sovereignty, cities have to step up. They can’t wait. And they don’t need to ask for permission. They can exert their own sovereignty. They understand that the local and the global have really, truly come together, that we live in a global, local world, and we need to adjust our politics accordingly. At this moment of extraordinary international uncertainty when our multilateral institutions are paralyzed and our nation-states are in retreat, cities and their leaders are our new 21st century visionaries.
As managing editor of WINGS, I interviewed more than 50 leaders in philanthropy, tech and social investment. Marnie Webb, CEO of San Francisco-based Caravan Studios, is at the forefront of the Tech4Good movement, using apps to transform cities into communities for people. Published by Philanthropy In Focus in 2013.