Technologies of Freedom?

People who study these matters say there’s an almost universal pattern to thinking and feeling, perhaps even to behaviour, unique to particular periods of historical time.  Some call it the Zeitgeist, a German word meaning the ‘spirit of the times’.

Those living in these moments can’t always recognise the Zeitgeist or make sense of what it’s trying to say.  They simply detect and respond to a change in the climate or atmosphere, an altered flavour or tone to life that seems to draw a line between everything that went before, wielding the power to shape whatever is to come.

For years I’ve felt this shifting of the seasons in the ebb and flow of life, in world events as they continue to unfold.

New Models Need New Movements

In 2010, I wrote a guest column, Children of Independence, for the Sunday November 28 edition of Barbados’ Nation Newspaper.  There, on the eve of the island’s 44th anniversary as a sovereign nation-state, I noted that the systems built by earlier generations to manage national and world affairs are in freefall as digital technologies erode traditional hierarchies, systems and structures of control.

I explained that the age of “always-on social media is transforming the way we live, learn, and effect change in an increasingly complex global environment.”  I sensed a passing of the old guard and the birth of something new.  New models, I argued, require new modalities, which, in turn, trigger new movements, new ways of mobilising around shared political, social, cultural, spiritual, and economic interests.

I suggested that as products of the digital age, the children of Caribbean independence – those not born under colonial rule but born free citizens in sovereign, self-governing states – we embody a new movement, a new way of thinking and acting within a changing world order. We are, I wrote, “the bridges between the Old World and the new, east and west, black and white, the past and what has become a very uncertain future.”

Nine years after those words were published, I remain uncertain of the direction this emerging order will take us, the Zeitgeist to which it, ultimately, will choose to bow.

There are, I believe, two dominant worldviews seeking supremacy in this age of invasive technological innovation that is the evolving Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR).

Two Dominant Worldviews

To simplify a complex equation, I’ll call them the forces of freedom versus the powers that seek to limit and control, understanding that both freedom and control have their natural breaking points.  At either extreme lie chaos and disorder if societies fail to determine the balance they require for sustained and sustainable development.

The forces of freedom, properly balanced, are fluid, tolerant and responsive, community-based and collaborative.  They transcend time, place and circumstance, gender, race, class and even political philosophies and cultures.  They seek to empower and to positively transform.  They deploy what late social scientist Ithiel de Sola Pool calls the ‘technologies of freedom’ – digital information and communications technologies – in ways that ensure people’s personal and collective rights are respected, upheld, and championed.

On the other hand, the forces that seek to limit and control are dictatorial, intolerant and largely self-serving.  They understand best the techniques of repression designed to preserve the status quo, extending their prosperity and expanding their self-interest to the detriment of new thinking, new models and new movements.  Bullying, fear and greed are among their primary modes of operation.

Sadly but perhaps not strangely, though of the old order, the forces of intolerance that seek to limit and control are thriving in our digital age.  The problem is that in the wrong hands, under the right conditions, the ‘technologies of freedom’ can easily become the technologies of tyrannical control.

It’s impossible to deploy and manage these technologies effectively by ignoring or dismissing the very principles and values that make them so universally appealing: openness, honesty, transparency, tolerance, trust, security, sharing, collaboration, accessibility, fairness, and justice.

We can’t properly enable what we don’t embody and, therefore, do not understand.  It’s like putting new wine into old wineskins … a very messy outcome.

It doesn’t matter to what beneficial ends those in power claim they’ll be used, new digital frameworks that harness big data, sensors, interconnectivity, biometrics, machine learning and, ultimately, artificial intelligence pose genuine dangers to freedom and democracy if they’re deployed in unconscious ways by uninformed people using outmoded institutional structures not fit for such a purpose.

Perils of Inequality

But as I watch regions, countries, cities, corporations, and institutions of every stripe rapidly roll out digital solutions, supposedly to make people’s lives easier and more productive, many are doing so by increments not linked to any coherent overarching vision or set of guiding principles.

In my view, they do so entirely at their peril.

Frighteningly, however, given the increasing levels of interconnectedness in the world today, they probably also do so at our own.

They certainly don’t appear to be greatly concerned with values like openness, honesty, transparency, tolerance, trust, security, sharing, collaboration, accessibility, fairness, or justice for all.

The results will likely reinforce and magnify the same social and economic dangers and divides that currently exist in the world and that are getting more pronounced with the passing of each moment.

The people who already have wealth, power and a sense of entitlement will continue to amass more of the same with the help of these so-called ‘technologies of freedom’.

My website shines a light on the complexities of digital transformation.  It’s where I explain what I believe, who I am, what I do, and why I do it.

Those already on the periphery of social, economic, and political influence by virtue of the vagaries and vicissitudes of life or the sorts of questionable choices many humans make at one point or another are likely to become more marginalised and even permanently criminalised.  The ‘technologies of freedom’ are nothing if not unforgiving.  The Internet remembers even when people forget.

This website is my attempt to shine a light on the complexities of digital transformation.  Here’s where I explain what I believe, who I am, what I do, and why I do it.

In the coming weeks, in these Reflections, I’ll delve deeper into the themes highlighted on the site.  Next week’s post, Into the Looking Glass, explains more about why I’ve decided to share my thoughts through this medium at this time.

I welcome your constructive observations, feedback, insights and support in helping the ‘technologies of freedom’ become what I believe they were intended to be:  the enablers of a more open, transparent, empowering, secure world where justice and opportunities abound, and where equality becomes a lived and present reality for people of any persuasion.

More to explore

Learning How to Learn

They say it’s not what you know but who you know that counts. Neither idea could be further from the truth …

Why Values Matter

What we do is important but how we do it matters more. A start-up once engaged me to get its form, functions

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