Credit: Judith Weik

Senior Research Associate Dr Hunter Vaughan reflects on common threads in working groups at our Technology & Democracy Conference

The Technology and Democracy Conference debated and sought out alternative futures for technology and society. Questions flew from which technologies were most impacting the world to the meaning of democracy – it was a heady brew spilling into a spectrum of tides from pragmatic optimism to nihilistic abandon.

For me, the sessions on ‘Technology Data Infrastructures’, ‘Democratic Participation in Decisions About Tech’, and ‘Tech and Climate Goals’ led to particularly rich discussions, with intertwining threads running through them that captured the underlying keys to the conference’s Pandora’s Box of inquiry.

A guiding theme of these working groups was Big Tech’s orchestration of a neocolonial order – not as an anomaly originating in the twenty-first century, but as a layered extension of late-neoliberal design that is itself built on centuries of empire, capitalism, and extraction. 

Within a system of such aggressive inequality, how is access to, and the order of power arranged? And how might it be challenged? What do we mean when we talk about technology in this context? Both digital and physical, ever present and yet somehow beyond reach: today’s technological domain presents a paradox of ephemerality and materiality. 

A significant marker of the new global-tech power structure is its reliance on invisibility – invisibility of digital infrastructure, invisibility of decision making, and invisibility of the excluded. As noted by one attendee: “Once you see it, it’s all you see.” However, visibility is not necessarily agency nor experience – it is not access or proximity, both of which are fundamental to power. So bringing the invisible to the fore, on its own, would not necessarily reorganise the structural power underpinning the digital society.

Our relationship to today’s technology power system is intimate, experiential, and captured through practice. An example offered in one session was that of humanitarian work in crisis zones (i.e. natural disaster or war) where scaled demands lead to iterative technologies of operation, technologies of governance, and the governance of technology. New tech gets developed, tested, and deployed in the same breath. 

Exploring such microcosms leads me to ask: How might we govern tech differently? And if we are to pose a challenge to the current order of power, what is the directionality and order of engagement for this action? Are interventions best staged pre- or post-decision, and who is responsible for initiating this? Is incremental change possible, or is radical change needed? One practical action, agreed at the conclusion of the ‘Tech and Climate Goals’ session, considered the position and directionality of academic research: What levers do scholars hold to promote truly decolonial shifts in power in our digitised planet?

Perhaps as with any constructive multilateral conversation, the Technology and Democracy Conference generated more questions than answers. What remains essential is that democracy must be deliberate, civic voice must be facilitated and amplified, and strategies of quantification ought to be aimed not only at an objective understanding of the world but at identifying what we cannot quantify, and working in collaboration with local subjectivities and narratives.

Read our summary of the Technology and Democracy Conference.