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We’ve Been Here Before - Technology is Not Necessarily the Servant of Democracy

It isn’t about whether history repeats itself. There are patterns. And you have to learn to recognize them in order to avoid making the same mistakes over and over again.

Technological invention, or innovation as people tend to say these days, is usually presented in the framework of progress. This sounds pretty harmless at first. Progress is usually presented as leading to increased human prosperity and wellbeing. Well, yes and no. The incredible mechanical breakthroughs of the early industrial revolution did eventually lead to great prosperity. However, between the late eighteenth century and the second half of the nineteenth century, the vast majority of the population affected by the industrial revolution saw their standards of living fall, and had to live through a century of instability and exploitation.

Industrialized slavery was driven by revolutions in machinery. The last round of automation has left many people dependent on unstable, underpaid service industry jobs.

So it isn’t surprising that the incredible optimism of the first stage of the internet is now slipping into pessimism, as we see this new form of progress producing monopolies, feeding the worst forms of nationalism, aiding in the rebirth of racism, and undermining not only elections, but the very idea of citizen-based democracy. Of course, it can be argued that in some places, largely outside of the established democracies, this innovation has been a great help to the rise of individual power. But even then, there are two sides to the story. The Rohingya massacre was to a large extent fed and driven online.

It’s worth thinking about all of that when we listen to the dulcet tones of Google, and the Sidewalk proposal. It doesn’t follow that a neighborhood built to the specifications of a new technological monopoly will necessarily strengthen the city, or the power of the citizens of the city. Perhaps it could, but that is far from self-evident in anything said so far. There is a great deal of talk about modern communications enabling individuals to communicate in new and exciting ways. But that is not at all the same thing as the incredibly hard work of citizens at the grassroots building communities. There is nothing pretty about that process. It is not efficient. It’s all about people learning both to live together and to produce policies which are not based on mere self-interest. In other words, the exact opposite of libertarianism. And Silicon Valley is driven by the libertarian culture - the precise opposite of democracy based on citizenship.

The Sidewalk project is presented as a theoretically modern, progressive idea. But people are already commenting on how similar it is to the old-fashioned anti-democratic model of the company town. The difference between democracy and a company town is that in a democracy, real power lies with the citizens through their personal engagement and their direct and indirect creation of public institutions and public services. In a company town the corporate owners keep getting in the way of the will of the citizenry. And they do have that terrifying power of being able to fire someone who speaks up against them. Or become an unpleasant landlord. There is another disturbing element. In the old-fashioned company town, you were the employee and the worker. In the Google model, you yourself are the product which will provide the company with profit. So yes, this is about a threat to privacy as one of the key elements of freedom of expression. It is first in private that we, as citizens, work out what we will say and do in public. But this commercial development is about a great deal more than potential risk to privacy and freedom of expression. It is about the most basic ideas of power, citizen responsibility, and society being built upon the legitimacy that emerges from the citizenry.

When you read about the planned confusion between the Sidewalk project/Google as employer, landlord, controller of transport, and recipient of tax revenue, you begin to wonder just how far this project will take us from the most basic assumptions of Toronto as a democracy based on its citizens. And let’s remember, this is the only large city in the world in which the majority of the population are born outside of the country. And it works. So we have invented astonishingly innovative ways to live together, which are all about progress - progress in human relationships - and not mere dependence on technology.

Our city is deeply flawed because of the power held by the provincial government, and a variety of other deep divisions in the city’s structures. But we have worked very hard to make Toronto function in spite of these. At this point, our biggest risk is that this project weakens our democracy, and in the process weakens the growing citizenship-based model of diversity and inclusion. Certain kinds of technocrats and promoters want to limit conversations to technological ideas of progress. For myself, the most important focus is first and foremost on who we are and how we can live together as citizens in this complex city.