Digital democracy and technological sovereignty

Panel discussion: what place does technology have in the decline of neoliberalism, and the rise of populism? As social dependency on the Silicon Valley increases, how should we fight for our technological sovereignty? (108 minutes)

Evgeny Morozov Richard Barbrook Francesca Bria
13 December 2016

This video was recorded live at the conference "Unboxing: Algorithms, Data and Democracy" organised by Rosa-Luxemburg-Foundation on December 3 in Berlin. A paper by Berliner Gazette – Big Data in Our Hands? – served as a starting point for discussions. 

Lecture: Evgeny Morozov (02:54)

03:08: Let me start with a few hopefully punchy statements, that might set the stage for discussion tonight, and hopefully try to create at least some background to understanding why an idea like technological sovereignty is actually worth fighting for — and what it actually is.

So, I'll start with one of the words in the title of our event, which is neoliberalism. I think there is a discussion now after Brexit, certainly after the victory of Trump in the US elections, about the future of neoliberalism. Now, a lot of people seem to be convinced that neoliberalism is over, that we must talk about something called 'post-neoliberalism', or we must start talking about something completely different.


I don't think we are at a stage where we can talk about 'zombie' neoliberalism because I think it still actually functions. But the reason why it's so hard for us to detect its inner functions, if you will, but also understand why it has proved so resilient in the face of many challenges it has encountered, is because we are partly looking in the wrong places... We have to be looking particularly at the intersection between technology – especially digital technology — and cities, in order to understand how neoliberalism has adapted to many of the challenges it has encountered in its wake. 

If you create a somewhat vulgar version of what I've just said: if you really want to understand how neoliberalism works today, you'd better start paying attention not just to Wall Street, but also to Silicon Valley. 

If you really want to understand how neoliberalism works today, you'd better start paying attention not just to Wall Street, but also to Silicon Valley

You have to understand that neoliberals by and large no longer preoccupy themselves with just thinking about central banks — although that still constitutes a large part of what they do. But if you look at actual economists, rather than just policy-makers and intellectuals, and if you look at what they do, a lot of it is very data-intensive. With things like market design, experimental economics. I mean this is really the cutting edge of neoliberal practice. 

A lot of that is very congruent to what is happening in Silicon Valley for the sole reason that Silicon Valley is what produces the data. Data is so useful in designing various markets, designing various platforms that then are conducive to markets and the marketisation of everyday life and so forth... We really have to understand how Silicon Valley actually fits within the neoliberal transformation of the world, which I would argue is still continuing.

15:43 The most powerful populism that's still around now, and that's probably gaining power — and I don't think that power is going to diminish with the election of Trump — is that revolving around technology. Here, it's not about what I used to call solutionism: the idea that you can delegate the responsibility for problem-solving to these private actors who will help us manage refugees, solve climate change, fight obesity — you can hardly find a problem now that does not have an app to go with it.

But I think there is actually a much a deeper problem revolving around technological populism — technopopulism — and it's the idea that somehow we can fight our way out of crisis if only we build the right coalitions within various sectors in Silicon Valley and outside… We will see that Google comes to the British National Health Service, offers its AI service called Deep Mind and says that: 'if only you let us access four million patients and their health data, we'll be able to make a prediction about kidney disease and notify those patients in advance, which will then save you the money you don't have anyway to finance the health service.' 

If you go from sector to sector you see that there are such promises and expectations being made, all evolving around free stuff that apparently can fall on us from Silicon Valley. This idea of 'free stuff' — we have to understand here that the problem is much deeper than just saying that stuff is free and you are the product. That's not the main problem... We all know by now why it is done for free; it's done for free because they are basically extracting data. The term I use for this is data extractivism. There is a giant data extractivist industry that comes up with all sorts of tricks and free goods in order to extract as much data as possible.

There is a giant data extractivist industry that comes up with all sorts of tricks and free goods in order to extract as much data as possible

22:57: What are the ways of creating alternative structures, instruments, legal regimes, that will not create this massive social dependency on just four or five Silicon Valley firms? I think the only way to do that would be by treating data as a factor of production, and as something that probably has to be owned by us citizens. And it has to be done in a way where, if a local neighbourhood wants to build something around data and AI, they have to access it where there will not be a commercial relationship with a service provider who sets the terms.

Francesca Bria (31:00) 

32:51: The problem is our governments, starting from our European governments, they are actually making what Evgeny describes possible... I am Italian. What is our prime minister doing now? He has appointed this year a 'Chief Digital Commissioner' for Italy, who is not only in charge of apps and creative cultural policy, but is also in charge of industrial policy. He is basically a vice-president of Amazon in secondment... And he is now laying out big infrastructure projects with AI and new technologies; it's Amazon basically doing it, in my country.

If we're seeing some sort of technological sovereignty, it's not coming from Europe at this point, but definitely it is coming from BRICS countries

The reason why Uber and Airbnb and all these corporations can be platforms is because they are building on top of the large-scale infrastructure that's already been built by the security state and run by the US. It's very clear that for instance here in Europe, we are not doing that in a democratic way. We are not rolling out this civic, democratic infrastructure for the future that will run hospitals, preserve some kind of welfare state and education. We're not doing it any more.

Our own companies and start-ups go to Silicon Valley, they ask for money from venture capitalists – their only hope is to be bought by these big companies... If we're seeing some sort of technological sovereignty, it's not coming from Europe at this point, but definitely it is coming from BRICS countries. They're building their own technology industry; they're building their own software, hardware, cloud system; they have their own regulation and data localisation regimes — meaning it applies some kind of jurisdiction that is decided by citizens.

Richard Barbrook (39:27) 

42:18: I think we are actually at the endgame of neoliberalism. The confusion is that it's not the endgame of capitalism. See, capitalism has gone through various stages and, certainly in the postwar era, we've had this long decline in the rate of profit; every decade the rate of profit falls. 

Neoliberalism doesn't work in a really fundamental way. And one of the key ways you can see it is that it hasn't raised the rate of profit in recent years. So you have this enormous surplus of capital washing round the world economy, desperately looking for somewhere to invest, but there isn't anything to invest in.

The Uber model of capitalism might be bankruptcy

You have a couple of monopolists who make very high rates of profit — because they're monopolies — and then the rest of the digital companies all go up in a puff of smoke. The Financial Times reckons that Uber is one of those ones. We don't know, but the Uber model of capitalism might be bankruptcy.

So the question then is, what's the replacement? And that I think is what's more interesting. We can go back: in the United States there was slavery and capitalism; certainly in England there was a long period of liberalism and capitalism; then we had Fordism as capitalism; and now we've gone through this period of neoliberal capitalism… What are we having next? There's a really good book I can recommend by Radhika Desai called Geopolitical Economy — a few years ago she was predicting that the world economy would break up into regional blocs. 

And certainly if you go to America the rationality behind Trump is not populism, it's protectionism. It's the Pat Buchanan programme. No free trade, no foreign wars, no immigration. And it makes sense, and it also makes sense for China, for South Asia, for Latin America. And that's where the Europeans have to get their act together.

It's the Pat Buchanan programme. No free trade, no foreign wars, no immigration. And it makes sense

I come from a country which has just voted for Brexit: two thirds think England is not neoliberal enough and one third think it's too neoliberal. What that means for us, and how we think about a continent-wide alternative to subordination to the American hegemon, and how we come out the other end, I don't know... even a European social democracy: how does that work using these technologies? Making that full potential, that's what we have to think about here.

46:28: Evgeny Morozon
55:19: Francesca Bria 
1:02:20: Richard Barbrook
1:03:55: Debate opens up to questions from the audience 

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