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As we launch the RSA’s Tech and Society programme, Asheem Singh reflects on a corresponding programme of events at RSA House.

RSA House was abuzz this week as we hosted Roger McNamee, ex Facebook investor-turned-scourge of big tech to talk about his book ‘Zucked: Waking Up To The Facebook Catastrophe’ and also to launch the RSA’s Tech and Society programme.

The atmosphere was electric, the conversation charged and what emerged were a series of fascinating questions about the ongoing development of technology and its increasingly fraught intersection with our civil society, culture and politics. Here’s how it went.

‘Social media companies… abridge the rights of the peaceful in order to benefit the angry’

McNamee’s book is in the form of a j’accuse. He identifies three principal modes by which platform companies like Facebook or Google harm us:

 1. Power imbalances caused by superstar tech firms suck money away from labour towards capital (and their own shareholders’ pockets). These are exacerbated as platforms stream high-quality real time video and other media and colonise users’ conscious environment.  

 2. We have been disenfranchised from our data by a tech elite who have already created ‘data voodoo dolls’ for every one of us that model our behaviours, influence them for profit, and curb and cloud our reality.

 3. The main weapon – the principal assault – comes from disinformation: the ‘fight or flight’ media that most of us respond to, whether it be conspiracy theories or extremist content and that is the currency (not the bane as they claim) of social media platforms.

Add to that the relative lack of virtue of those in the seat of power who insist on making decisions in an undemocratic way – according to McNamee at least – and you have a toxic mix.

The polarisations we see across society, from the usurpation of democratic and constitutional politics to that of contemporary civil discourse, all have their roots in these all-powerful platforms and result from combinations of these toxic elements.

McNamee’s thesis – extreme though it at times seems – is colourful, well-written and with merit. He notes with admiration Shoshana Zuboff’s ‘Age of Surveillance Capitalism’ – Zuboff is the Marx to McNamee’s Engels – who is the intellectual bootstrap for his polemic.

His call to the RSA was not to accept blindly that he was correct but to consider, in the event that he was at least partly right, whether our wilful acquiescence to the ‘Big Tech Economy’ is the best thing for us, for our families or for our communities.

And this is a fine question. Indeed, testing this question is precisely what the RSA’s Tech and Society programme is all about. 

‘Platform pioneers… took to their task without a sense of modesty or irony’

The early platform technologists were utopians. Google wanted to ‘organise the world’s information.’ Facebook wanted to make the world ‘open and connected.’ I remember in 2011 seeing a graphic by a Facebook intern which showed a map of the world overlayed with who was connecting to whom on Facebook, a miasma of blue all over the world. This was a great thing, a noble social cause. So, where has it gone wrong? And how can we work together to fix it?

That’s the subject of the RSA’s exciting new research. The RSA’s analysis – perhaps not in its volume or velocity – certainly mirrors in its contours that of McNamee. For us, there are three main shortfalls of contemporary tech around data rights, disinformation and market concentration.

‘It’s absurd to think you can ‘own’ your data. Because ownership implies the right to sell. It’s like insisting you ‘own’ your kidneys. Just because they are yours it doesn’t mean you should be allowed to sell them…. Because when you’re allowed to sell data about you, it isn’t just you that’s affected.’

Data is the first angle. And yesterday’s programme launch also brought us an exciting new RSA campaign and report on data rights: About Data About Us. What was really interesting to see was the extent to which the findings from the report – which tracked the ideas of the general public around data ownership and rights – tallied with McNamee’s own insider views on data.

As McNamee said, ‘the best questions I often get are from ordinary folks.’ So it seems to be and our message, to involve more of us in decisions about data about us, has real resonance.

The campaign has a hashtag: #WeAreNotRobots. The campaign video shows in shadow puppet form what some of the respondents to our research actually said – and represents a cri de coeur to give us more rights to data about us.

‘Disinformation – fight or flight – it’s what platforms feed on. It’s not about content moderation, taking down this or that content in a reactive way. It’s the whole model.’

The disinformation problem is one of the greatest of our time – we know that fake news on average travels six times faster than real news. McNamee laments how disinformation swayed the US election, perhaps swayed various UK votes and has directly contributed to atrocities, including the massacre of the Rohingya in Myanmar.

New frontiers of fake are opening all the time, from deep fakes to algorithmic reshaping and incentivised machine learning of our newsfeeds. The balance of power has shifted to platforms. Every Facebook user has their own set of ‘alternative facts’ on their own algorithmically enhanced filter bubble: this in essence is the Facebook newsfeed.

Alongside regulation, therefore, we need to get technology companies to come to the table and work within a shared moral architecture. There has always been a bit of an attitude that companies innovate and regulators regulate and ne’er the twain shall meet. We need to change that. 

The RSA has its own unique suite of methods that we apply to social change and we want to bring them to the table. We try to ‘think like a system, act like an entrepreneur.’ So our project will analyse disinformation systems in all their forms all over the world in a series of global practice studies and engagement with emergent movements for change. We will create a dashboard of user insight and polling to understand popular sentiment around disinformation.

And we believe that technology companies have an interest in being part of this solution. We will use design thinking to bring together tech, government and society in a series of RSA design workshops that prototype entrepreneurial solutions. We recently did a fantastic set of design sprints with the retail sector on how automation is changing the sector and we built prototypes that are being implemented as we speak. We want to bring that energy to this sphere.

‘I don’t think people who work in tech are bad. I think their values are different to ours.’

The RSA at its heart, is an organisation that convenes. We believe that the story of the best things that happen in the world is the story humanism and reason overcoming greed and despair. Our fellowship is the living embodiment of that spirit; our heritage is our warrant, and our house is our means to make it happen. This is the philosophy we unerringly bring to the grand challenges of our age.

And so we are working, not only to reform disinformation and data disenfranchisement, but also to reform the way that the market for tech adaptation and transfer works and how reform of those markets happens.

We are working with institutions to democratise technological transfer and take up. The RSA’s Forum for Ethical AI, which we convened with DeepMind technologies, is nearing its reporting phase, with a fascinating set of experiments ready to be given to the world to improve the way that radical technology enters the institutional space.

We are also working with partners in NHSX to understand how AI and other radical technologies are changing their workspaces and clinical decisions.

Watch this space for more on these items very soon.

‘What I want to see is a version of every website where the filtering can be taken away. And it’s up to people then to flip between which version they want: do they want to be in or out of the bubble?’

Shared problems, shared ideas, shared regulation and shared solutions: this is where we believe we can make a difference. We were so grateful for Roger McNamee’s fantastic talk, his insightful interview on the RSA’s Polarised podcast (coming soon) and for his kind words about our programme.

Our view is perhaps less polemical than his. But it is in the spirit of challenge that change for the better comes about. And that, when all’s said and done, is what the RSA’s Tech and Society programme is all about.


 If you want to learn more about the RSA’s Tech and Society programme or our disinformation project, please visit the webpage or contact asheem.singh@rsa.org.uk.

Follow @RobinAsheem on Twitter

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