Fast tech, slow citizens

As we hurtle through an age of immense digital development, there are too many possibilities to lose a grip on our privacy, self-determination and democratic dignity.

Matthew Linares
30 October 2015

Demotix/Jonathan Nicholson. All rights reserved.

Demotix/Jonathan Nicholson. All rights reserved.Picture yourself in a bustling arena, rows of furniture and fittings painted royal blue. All of your friends and a smattering of strangers chatter around. You enjoy intimate discourse, political debate and frivolous musings. The room is multiply microphoned, a group of professionals taking copious notes, analysing almost everything you say, and certainly more than you’re aware of.

A projectionist guides your attention to gaudy visuals and announcements which serve some unclear purpose. Towards the periphery sits a gaggle of shady spectators, overseeing what's taking place and deciding where it fits on a spectrum from proper to threatening. You cannot be sure who hears what nor why.

Networks expand, rights unbalance

We are hurtling through an age of immense digital development and concomitant social redefinition. Online networks and other data-hungry zones strongly regulate the human experience. As these services let us share more of our lives, with increasing resolution, as network nodes proliferate and the internet of things brings sensors and inputs everywhere, the attack surface grows. There are more possibilities to lose a grip on our privacy, self-determination and democratic dignity. The public realm is being remade by companies through profitable design motives.

A massive weight of work is done by lobbyists-cum-legislators to hash out ever further reaching intellectual property and control regimes to extend the online rights of commercial actors. By comparison, the topography of online activity for the individual citizen expands without an effort to confer similarly detailed protections.

The notion of ‘Algorithmic Citizenship’ broadens our idea of the online self. James Bridle picks apart such concepts.

A recent EU ruling suggests US entities are not to be trusted with European citizen data due to the nation’s over-reaching surveillance. The intervention is all too rare and comes much too late.

Users play out life on the social web, every word and click captured, giving gratuitously intimate insight into their thoughts, habits and histories. Even folk who don’t log on can be profiled as others upload photos and reference them.

For those aware of the surveillance systems in place, the chilling effects are immense. Legitimate political commentators, knowing that their words are being watched, curb their communications, stymying critical debates. People rightly worry that their words, now digitised and mined, will be held in store and one day used against them.

We all run through toilsome Terms of Service without really knowing what it is we agree to. At that moment, we abrogate important rights and pledge to permit invasions of privacy that we can’t even imagine, technically elaborate as they are. The burden of understanding complex services and their implications is thrust upon the user, a responsibility we can’t live up to.


“‘I have read and agree to the Terms’ is the biggest lie on the web.” tosdr.org is run to help people deal with the morass of stipulations.

In this particular case, it would better respect the web user if they could require, in advance, what general usage terms they agree with (for example, ‘I’ll only use services which do not sell my writing’) perhaps saved as browser settings. Websites would be forced to check against those requirements when users sign up. Reversing the legal onus in this way would be a step to relieve the mounting burden of the digital citizen.

Guiding lost citizens

It’s almost a cliche to note that with ‘free’ online services, ‘you, the user, are the product’. Your data is collected, catalogued and sold to make you a more susceptible consumer. Yet I assume the majority of Facebook’s 1.5 billion users are not perfectly aware of this thinking and what it entails.

There’s a critical job here to educate people at all stages of life about the realities of the digital environment which subsumes ever more of our lives. We absorb the required skills thanks mainly to commercial expansion, learning products with company guides designed according to the profit imperative.

Whilst governments ought to lead in providing resources to navigate this terrain, they have shown themselves more interested in harvesting data stealthily, recasting the state-subject relationship, introducing risk and complexity, and compounding the abuse that we need to resolve.

The perennial temptation of authorities to craft citizen control and monitoring systems is rarely countered from within government. There seem to be scant boundaries governments are prepared to uphold whilst new depths of intrusion are regularly debuted with ample assistance from industry. In spite of this, we need those arms of the state that retain a public interest mission to elevate digital rights competencies and enable citizens.

Aside from traditional education, there is a need for retreats where people can immerse themselves in privacy-conscious experiences, learn new skills and habits, and reforge their own technical reality.


Credit: Matthew Linares, Some rights reserved.Picture yourself in a forest, amongst friends and a smattering of strangers, at a healthy remove from the metro-digital barrage. You have time, and a break from routine, to think through the meaning of digital life, fumbling with your online identity and asserting your boundaries.

New forms of peer-to-peer, collective learning are vital. Visit your local Hackspace if you want to see the energetic possibilities of people socialising together to further their own technical capacities.

Events like this month’s Free Culture Forum and others like it, in Hackspaces and people’s groups globally, show the power of gatherings where people come together to build knowledge and networks of their own.

“We created the Free Culture Forum as a response to the criminalisation of free culture and the need to normalise it, the increasing use of the Internet as a tool for social transformation to build a true democracy.” Free Culture Forum

Networks for the people

FCF, Xnet. Creative Commons.

FCF, Xnet. Creative Commons.Mass web publishing platforms, like Facebook and a few others, which enjoy network effects, have immense power to shape the passage of information, opinion and emotion. It’s a worrying trend which, like challenges to net neutrality, threatens the free flow of ideas and the web’s virtue of letting the best thinking rise, regardless of its source. 

The opaque code which runs most of these services, their success in corralling global populations and their near-monopoly positions in distributing and presenting information creates a point of weakness for democracy.

There is an appetite for the public arteries of information and exchange to be publicly-owned or publicly motivated (regulated). We should take this seriously, even though the business case is hard to make.

Possibilities emerge if we recognise the successes of open-source communities, which have core values of community, equality and transparency built in. Linux, the operating system which runs most of the world, and social network diaspora* showcase the effectiveness of this approach. They offer ongoing hope that immense productivity and innovation can operate on behalf of citizen-users first and foremost.

Yet we are falling behind in our capacity to legislate and make informed, consensual relations with our networked communication apparatus.

The aim must be to force politicians and industry to take seriously the responsibility to citizens, to education and to collective thinking around emerging concepts which shape us. Technically up-skilling people is not merely a matter of future-proofing the economy. It is a condition of informed, consensual democracy.

We must also innovate around our own methods of learning and creating, as citizens, informationally saturated yet intent on retaining a semblance of personal control.

Precedents for positive action exist but the hurdles are sprawling and viral. Democracy requires citizens and political actors who understand and control the tools that underpin their lives. That world presently eludes us, and slips further away with every line of code.

There is an acute and growing tension between the concern for safety and the protection of our freedoms. How do we handle this? Read more from the World Forum for Democracy partnership.

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email

Related articles


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData