Time to democratize our Digital Future

The recent stunning AI developments call for fast and vigorous action, free from the illusions of the turn of the 21st century, so that the benevolent potential of these technologies can start being harnessed for the collective good.

 

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Western-type liberal representative democracy was no longer considered under threat and it started being taken for granted. The theory was put forward that liberal democracy was a “natural state” to be nurtured, preserved, and spread by market power and globalization. This created a sense of euphoria characterized emblematically by Francis Fukuyama’s “end of history.”

While the related geopolitical developments have been addressed by historians and political scientists, it is often overlooked that, practically concurrently, the World Wide Web was born and began to blossom, further strengthening the euphoria of the 1990s as it appeared to pave the way for a digital golden age of democracy—a cultural renaissance that would reinvent democracy as a digital Athenian agora where goods as well as ideas would be freely exchanged. This in turn, it was believed, with substantial preliminary evidence (for example, the early hopes of the Arab Spring), would empower more direct and informed citizen participation in open democratic societies.

Alas, this vision of milk, honey, and digital democratic bliss turned out to be an illusion. The undeniable positive attributes of the Web came with an increasing number of negative ones. As democracy started backsliding worldwide, scepticism about the impact of the Internet started growing, leading eventually Tim Berners-Lee in 2019 to call for “global action to save the Web from political manipulation, fake news, privacy manipulation and other malign forces that threaten to plunge the world into a digital dystopia.” His dystopia has now been further exacerbated by the advent of generative AI and its facilitation of AI-powered disinformation, mob-driven social network behavior, democracy-threatening polarization, and threats to children’s mental health.

In fact, democracy and digital technology have lived “parallel lives” since the 1990s. The euphoria immediately after the collapse of the Soviet Union caused a weakening of the defense and promotion of democracy in what Timothy Snyder called a “unilateral moral disarmament.” A very similar and simultaneous sense of euphoria and unbridled techno-optimism prevented the anticipation of some of the negative impacts of digital technologies and the emergence of Big Tech, with its gigantic-scale monetization of personal data and the potential of its platforms to be used to disrupt and corrupt democratic processes. Market utopianism and techno-utopianism went hand in hand and reinforced each other.

How times change! At the beginning of the 21st century, “digital activists” were justifiably worried about potential government control of the digital public sphere but they failed to anticipate the threat of control by a very small number of very large companies. It is ironic that today they justifiably call for vigorous government intervention to rescue us from domination and control by Big Tech.

At the start of the Arab Spring, the role of social media was glorified, including with proposals like giving the Nobel Prize to Twitter. Fast forward to a recent U.S. Senate hearing during which Senator Lindsay Graham told Meta’s Mark Zuckerberg that he had “blood on his hands.”

The U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is now suing Big Tech companies in an effort to curtail their monopolistic power and accuses them of “surreptitiously re-writing their privacy policies to allow themselves to use consumer data for their AI product development.” In the EU a similar drive is underway through the Digital Market Act, the Digital Services Act, and the recently approved AI act. This sets the stage for a “tempered techno-optimism” approach that, perhaps ironically again, may be helped by the hype around generative AI developments in terms of expectations as well as of fears.

Civil society and political decision-makers are more ready than ever to support an approach of regulation and public investment to minimize the risks that digital technologies, and AI in particular, entail and at the same time to help harness the beneficent potential of these technologies for the collective good.

They also increasingly appreciate the threats that unprecedented concentration of economic and political power in the hands of a few super-large companies implies. Together, the “Magnificent Seven” (Apple, Amazon, Google, Meta, Microsoft, NVIDIA, and the group of companies owned by Elon Musk), currently have a valuation of about $13 trillion, rivalling the sum of the GDP of the four largest European economies (Germany, France, the United Kingdom, and Italy). Their economic power is coupled with the political power to manipulate, herd, and polarize to an extent that the public sphere that is essential for liberal democracy to function properly is severely corrupted.

That the concentration of economic and political power represents a danger to democracy was recognized in the United States in the 1890s as articulated by Senator John Sherman (of Sherman Antitrust Act fame), which led to vigorous antitrust legislation resulting in the breakup of Standard Oil and, much later, AT&T. This spirit was weakened in the 1970s and has not recovered since. The abovementioned efforts in the United States and the EU are an effort to revive this spirit after redesigning antitrust legal tools so that they are suited to the evolving digital ecosystem.

The sensitization and awareness that the recent AI developments have triggered can help us not to be collectively duped again into the same passive techno-optimism that allowed, for example, the unregulated and, in many ways, catastrophic development of social network platforms.

They can also accompany the regulatory framework that the EU has pioneered and must now be promoted for the broadest possible worldwide adoption, with adjustments, leveraging the “Brussels effect.” This must come with generous public investments that allow all companies as well as national and local governments globally to develop digital tools designed to assist people rather than to replace them.

These investments are absolutely needed to make available to all the three main prerequisites for innovative, human-centered AI research and development: computing power, multilingual and locally curated data, and human resources with the required expertise. Failing to provide investment to enable such a “democratization of AI futures” will mean not only surrendering to current technological domination but also leaving the power to determine future research directions exclusively in the hands of Big Tech. This will in turn mean the abandonment of any pretence of a democratic public sphere as the Big Tech companies will continue, to quote Tim Berners-Lee’s March 2024 open letter, “exploiting people’s time and data with the creation of deep profiles that allow for targeted advertising and ultimately control over the information people are fed”.

In the history of technological development, the owners of innovating companies (from the railroad, steel, and oil barons onward) always enjoyed a “grace period” during which they made their own rules and earned big profits as the fruits of their innovation. Then came a time when society realized that such a grace period lasting beyond a certain point leads to exploitation, the destruction of market competition, and eventually harms collective well-being. At that point, society decided to take action in the form of regulation accompanied by public investment.

The digital oligarchs have had their grace period for too long. The time to democratize our digital future is now.


 

George Metakides is professor emeritus of logic at the University of Patras, co-founder and honorary president of the Digital Enlightenment Forum, and advisor to several international organizations. He is a trustee of  WST and was a Digital Humanism Fellow at the IWM in 2023–2024.

This article originally appeared on the IWM website in Jun 2024

Noshir Contractor named new WST Exec Director

Northwestern Engineering’s Noshir Contractor has been named Executive Director of the Web Science Trust (WST), effective May 1, 2024.

Contractor is the Jane S. & William J. White Professor of Behavioral Sciences in the McCormick School of Engineering, the Northwestern School of Communication, and the Kellogg School of Management, and director of the Science of Networks in Communities (SONIC) Research Group. He is a leading researcher of network science, computational social science, and web science, explicitly examining how social and knowledge networks form in business, scientific communities, healthcare, and space travel.

Contractor has served for the past 13 years as a director and member of the WST Board of Trustees, a collection of leadingweb science researchers, technology thinkers, and social entrepreneurs who help shape and advance web science’s research and teaching agenda.

Contractor assumes his new role at a pivotal inflection point in the web science field. With the rapid emergence of generative AI, the Web stands to play an even greater role in shaping society.

“As someone who has dedicated their career to studying the Web and its profound impact on our world, I am honored and excited to take on the role of Executive Director of the Web Science Trust,” Contractor said. Over the past 15 years, we have witnessed how the Web has served as the foundation for the meteoric rise of social media, transforming the way we connect, communicate, and share information on a global scale. We are deeply indebted to Wendy Hall for her visionary leadership ofthe Web Science Trust as we engaged with these momentous developments. We now have an extraordinary opportunity to shape a future where the Web and AI can synergistically benefitan equitable and inclusive humanity.”

WST is a charity that promotes the understanding of the Webthrough education and research in web science. WSTcoordinates the Web Science Network (WSTNet) of leading web science laboratories worldwide. The group’s origins date back to its initial education-focused iteration, the Web Science Research Initiative (WSRI), established in 2006. Since then, the organization has strived to articulate a research agenda for the broader scientific community, coordinate the development of web science educational material and curricula, and engage in thought leadership for this emerging field. 

Contractor’s appointment was announced at the 16th annual ACM Web Science Conference held in Stuttgart, Germany, May 21, 2024.

“It’s time for someone new to bring fresh ideas and energy at a time when the Web Science Trust’s work is more important than ever,” said Dame Wendy Hall, Regius Professor of Computer Science at the University of Southampton, who has served as WST’s Executive Director since 2010. “Noshir is one of the world’s leading researchers in network and web science with a strong history of supporting and working with the Web Science Trust. I look forward to working with him as he takes the organization forward in this new era of AI as it becomes accessible to everyone through the medium of the Web.”

A former president and Fellow of the International Communication Association (ICA), Contractor’s other honors include being named a Fellow of the Association for Computing Machinery, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Academy of Management, and the Network Science Society. He also received the Fellows Book Award from ICA, and the Simmel Award — a lifetime achievement for major contributions to the study of social networks — from the International Network for Social Network Analysis.

SUMMARY: Contractor, an expert in web science, network science, and computational social science, will help lead the UK-based charity’s efforts to promote understanding, through education and research, of how the Web shapes society and how society, in turn, shapes the Web.

SG of the UN stark warning on AI

Secretary-General of the United Nations Antonio Guterres has posted a warning regarding “a dystopian AI future”  and points to the upcoming UN conference: Summit of the Future.