THE BLOG

At #PDF15, Hope and Fear About an Increasingly Connected World

06/05/2015 04:57 pm ET | Updated Jun 05, 2016

More than a decade after the first time the Personal Democracy Forum was convened, its colorful community of digital activists, campaigners, advocates and civic technologists is still capturing and coding the zeitgeist, hoping to create the change they wish to see in the world. In the face of continued apathy, anger, injustice, inequality and discrimination, there was also more pragmatism on stage this year than in years past.

The question of whether traditional power structures -- as represented by nations, presidents and institutions -- have come to an end in the age of networks remains "no." E-government has not yet become "we government." The political force of the network of networks is still emerging, although the adoption of strong open Internet rules by the Federal Communications Commission is an important example of how powerful online activism has grown.

The world has seen more technological change in a shorter period than at any time in history, and yet the democracy's around the world has been stagnant for the past decade. Trust in government and participation in voting and civic life are at historic lows, at least in the United States.

Research on "interested bystanders" to the political process from Google's Politics team offered actionable suggestions for how to pull more people into civic life, but whether they're acted upon by governments, nonprofits and civic start-ups remains an open question.

There are now better standards for civic engagement, if people choose to use them.

The pragmatism I saw on display is balanced with stubborn hope and determination that technology-fueled progress remains possible, due to new layers of nuance about whom change benefits.

Some speakers brought dazzling visuals to support their points, like Dave Troy, showing how communities in places or around politicians are connected -- or not -- using peoplemaps.org.

Others brought no slides at all, depending on the strength of their rhetoric to convey their vision for how technology should be used to connect the public, for the public interest. Harold Feld, the vice president of public policy at Public Knowledge, delivered an impassioned talk asking what a "public utility" means in the 21st century.

Other speakers shared hope that people use networks to create and build, not to shame, tear down and destroy lives and careers. Jim Gilliam, the founder of campaign software startup NationBuilder, famously said in 2011 that the Internet was his religion. This year, Gilliam urged everyone at Personal Democracy Forum -- and everyone online -- to use the power of our collective attention to build people up, not to destroy lives or careers through shaming.

Others speakers shared stories of how organizing in new ways can give connected workers new voices in workplaces and protection in a world where on-demand services and temporary employment is increasingly common.

Embracing empathy, purpose-driven design and algorithmic transparency

Our immersion and constant connectivity are posing other opportunities and challenges to how we live and work. At PDF 2015, Deanna Zandt made a thoughtful pitch at the conference for embracing empathy, and its role in reflecting humanity's messiness back at us online. Americans are now spending more than eight hours every day consuming media. The American public is not alone around the world in this behavior. As we stare down at our glowing screens, though, people are still looking for intimacy and human connections beyond public social media platforms, where what we share on Instagram doesn't reflect the entirety of our lived experience. People are searching for safer spaces to share ephemeral media that can't instantly be seen by a billion people.

The value of our time and attention also loomed large at Personal Democracy Forum, embodied by an audience that overwhelmingly split its focus between smartphones and laptops as they listened to speakers. Many of the popular social media platforms and apps of today, whether public or private, are designed around grabbing and holding our attention. Tristan Harris encouraged us to embrace design for civic apps that are focused on a purpose beyond that goal.

Citing Neil Postman quoting Aldous Huxley, he urged us to focus on spending time and attention on what matters, not what's demanded.

In the future, the challenge for everyone staring at those screens is that the same "addiction algorithms" honed and perfected in casinos are being applied elsewhere, from shopping to online games. When Cathy O'Neil talked about those "algorithms as weapons of math destruction," she flagged the potential risks of applying mathematical model expressed in software to enforcing public policy. Data-driven policy, campaigns and commerce are going to need more "algorithmic transparency."

Staring into an uncertain connected future

The first day of the conference ended with difficult questions about how the next billion people will go online -- and what will happen when we connect billions of sensors and devices to the network of networks. Sunil Abraham, the executive director of the Center of Internet and Society in India, decried what Facebook's Internet.org offered to Indians, suggesting it should have been called "WalledGarden.org."

Despite Mark Zuckerberg's claims to the contrary, the practice of zero rating, or giving people free data for a selected set of services, looks fundamentally incompatible with net neutrality laws or regulations. If the world gets this wrong, the next Internet will end up working more like cable TV than the World Wide Web of last decade.

Science fiction author and activist Cory Doctorow closed the first day conference with his concerns about the growing "Internet of Things," referring to the growing number of sensors, devices, appliances, vehicles and industrial machines that are getting IP addresses. Doctorow warned that the business model of this new wave of connected devices is looking far more like that of inkjet printers and closed systems than the open Web, with digital rights management constraining use and even ownership. He shared a story of John Deere and copyright as an early example of this potential future in our present, warning that this model means that "you are a tenant farmer of your tractor." Doctorow said that the public needs to start thinking about subprime auto loans (to say nothing of, say, prosthetic limbs), when cars can be remotely deactivated if the owner misses a payment.

Whether we control our devices or the media recorded on them is not a minor point at a time when citizen-recorded and published videos bring new transparency and accountability against law enforcement abuses. In a powerful talk, Dante Barry shared his hope that the open Internet, the most powerful platform for collective action in mankind's short history, will be used to fight in the 21st century for the civil and human rights that previous generations fought and bled for in the last century.

Fundamental questions of labor standards and employment were more a part of the conversation about digital democracy than at any point previously. At a time when our national leaders and politicians are still not engaging directly with the future of jobs as artificial intelligence, automation and machine-learning disrupt employment, it was refreshing to see these issues directly addressed in a conference focused on technology and society.