A democratic, sovereign Europe requires democratic, sovereign technology. We must move beyond Surveillance Capitalism to create a decentralised, interoperable, free and open, sustainable Internet of People to guarantee individual sovereignty and a healthy commons for EU citizens.
The neoliberal Silicon Valley model of mainstream digital technology is founded on the interplay between traditional capitalism and surveillance. We call this model Surveillance Capitalism. In this model, huge amounts of venture capital are used to fund startups that share a very specific business model: the surveillance-based monetisation and exploitation of the general public.
Under Surveillance Capitalism, accrued capital funds systems that, in turn, result in the accrual of information (data) and insight within the same narrow set of hands. This, subsequently, leads to an even greater accrual of capital within those same hands in a feedback loop that accelerates exponentially driven by the exponential rate of change of technology.
While most venture-capital funded startups fail and yet others are swallowed up by existing, larger players, the few that succeed become the platform monopolies that own and control the digital infrastructure of modern life. They become the Googles and the Facebooks and the Palantirs of the world.
Surveillance Capitalism has left us with a world of systemic inequality where eight men, four of whom are the founders of four of the largest of these technology companies – Microsoft, Facebook, Amazon, and Oracle – have between them as much wealth as half of the world’s population combined (3.5 billion people). Needless to say, systemic inequality isn’t sustainable. Nor is this feudalistic system compatible with human rights, human welfare, or democracy. Furthermore, the imperialistic ambitions of Silicon Valley are a threat not only to our individual sovereignty as human beings but also the sovereignties of the nations within Europe as well as that of the EU as a whole.
We call the business model of surveillance-based monetisation of the general public people farming. When a people farmer like Google or Facebook designs its products, it does so for two very different audiences – their users and their customers – and with two very different sets of goals.
The goal of a people farmer is to attract, addict, farm, exploit, and manipulate their users for the profit and political motives of both itself and its customers. The users usually receive the machinery that farms them for free (or at a subsidised price) whereas the customers are the entities – usually corporate – that actually pay the people farmer for its services. In this model, the general public is reduced to the role of livestock. If this is truly the Fourth Industrial Revolution, then human beings are today what trees were in the first and second industrial revolutions: raw materials to be exploited.
We must stress, again, that any system that treats human beings as natural resources to be mined and farmed is incompatible with human rights, human welfare, and democracy. As the United States and much of the rest of the world has accepted this status quo as fate accompli, it is up to us, starting in Europe, to resist, contain, and create an ethical alternative to this toxic Silicon Valley model of human exploitation. Instead of an Internet of Things, we must create an Internet of People: decentralised, interoperable, free and open, sustainable technological infrastructure that affords the citizens of Europe (and beyond) individual sovereignty and a healthy digital commons.
We cannot democratise Europe without democratic technological infrastructure. In the words of Audre Lorde, ‘the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house’. It is precisely due to this inextricable relationship between the topology of society and the topology of technology in the digital age that this progressive technology policy is the 7th pillar of the DiEM25 European New Deal as well as a cross-cutting concern across the other six piers.