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The Case For A Digital Commonwealth

by Keerat

By Supriyo Chaudhuri, Trustee – Bridge India

 

Through our scientific and technological genius, we have made of this world a neighbourhood and yet we have not had the commitment to make of it a brotherhood. But somehow, and in some ways, we have got to do this..We are tied together in the single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality.

– Dr Martin Luther King, March 31, 1968

 

It is time to make Digital work for people. It’s time to think about a Digital Commonwealth.

Commonwealth used to be a community for common good. It was so in Renaissance and then for the founders of the American colonies, facing off the wilderness with the strength of working together.
Today the term lost some of that meaning, and got associated with the imperial legacy. It’s time to reclaim it back.

Digital commonwealth is about enabling communities to create digital possibilities. Today’s narrative, that the sociopathic technologists and anthrophobic investors would control the tools and the rest of the humanity would be ‘users’ – passive recipients in a consumer relationship – is both wrong and frightening.

Instead, digital commonwealth is about reclaiming those possibilities and putting enabling technologies and empowered humans together for transformative outcomes. To make the world a better place, to progress in thought and action and to make human lives – everyone’s – better and more fulfilling.

 

 

Digital technologies today are at a tipping point. For long tools of information processing, enablers of efficient work, now they are all-pervasive and deeply consequential. The combination of omnipresence and autonomy has taken the scope of digital beyond limits of our individual imaginations and effective personal control. Its scope is no longer limited to empowering human actions; it is increasingly defining and directing them.

Alarmism that accompany any technological tipping point is all too common. Would the machines take over human jobs? Would they, with their hidden bias and uncontrolled powers of learning and deciding, subvert human societies? And, would humanity lose control over its own creation?

There is an air of inevitability in these questions. There are technological boundaries yet to be crossed, and legal and moral questions are there to be answered: But the trajectory is clear and we will arrive at a point when digital technologies mimic or surpass human capabilities sooner or later. But there is a question unasked in all these. It’s about how technologies are developed, for whose benefit, and how they are deployed.

That Skynet moment (in Transformers) arrived not because the machines became self-aware, but because it was designed to destroy the human civilisation. Between all the battles to change the past to control the future, no one bothered to revisit the original sin. The digital capabilities are similar: Even when questioning them, we accept too readily that they are meant to serve the powers-that-be, to be designed to impose power.

But another approach is equally feasible. That is that of digital commonwealth. Where communities are aware of the digital possibilities and can shape the conversation about digital. When more people, and not just select few, can take advantage of digital. When opportunities can be open, rather than confined to the residents of select suburbia.

 

 

This is not just a moral imperative – this is an economic one. Right now, digital is creating have-s and have-nots, stoking resentment and breaking societies. The legislative efforts to limit the harm also limit the possibilities of progress. Bringing more people into the digital conversation would democratise the benefits, broad-base the participation and create sustainable progress.

History may provide some guidance how to prepare for this. The most useful parallel is industrial revolution: The initial advent of mechanised factories pauperised workers, causing misery and resentment, sparking off waves of steel-and-blood revolutions across Europe.

But eventually, education innovation – compulsory schooling, high schools to train advanced workers, higher education to train professionals – in the later years of the nineteenth century, drove worker productivity and a thriving middle class got created.

The working class movements drove the change – better safety, humane hours, workers’ voice – but education eventually sustained the industrial civilisation by overcoming the bleaker visions of complete breakdown. Something similar needs to happen with digital if the wider society has to benefit from digital.

But it won’t be just a repetition and old methods will not work. This ‘second machine age’ creates new sorts of complexity and challenges hitherto unforeseen. The schooling has to change, the high school needs to rejigged and bureaucratic universities – an industrial age creation – need to be set aside.

What’s essential is to establish a two-way relationship between technology and education. That’s what happened in the later stages of industrial revolution, as workers moved up the learning curve. At this point that the shop-floor skills complemented expert knowledge and new possibilities emerged.

 

 

No one has written the biographies of those empowered workers who came up with little innovations and brilliant insights, enabling massive leaps in productivity. We valorised the great inventors and clever industrialists, but forgot the master workers who made it work and the educators who opened the possibilities.

When a technology is new or novel, specially gifted have a role to play. But there always comes a point, as with the industrial technologies in mid-nineteenth century or with the digital now, when keeping the doors closed is counter-productive. Full realisation of a technology’s potential comes from wider use, which in turn reduces the costs and enable even wider use: Artificially keeping the doors closed and limited to the brainy not only limit opportunities but destroy social value.

Too much of our education today take digital for granted – to be gifted to us by the gods of silicon valley – and within the hallowed sphere of valuations and commercial start-ups. They are the ones expected to dent the universe and change the world. But now – as it was then – such change come only when the multitude joins the endeavour and change lives for themselves.

This is why we should now start speaking about the digital commonwealth.

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