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Green Is The New Black

Big Tech could be a site for resistance, if we let it

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big tech green is the new black

Social media censorship is being met with fiercer protests and demands. Elon Musk took over Twitter in the name of “democracy and free speech.” More and more platform workers are unionising internationally against poor working conditions and for improved wages and agency. Simultaneously, users are turning against digital capitalist companies like Google, Amazon, and Facebook. Yes, the big tech is in shambles. But is there a way to make tech work for resistance and change?

Before diving into big tech, it’s worth contextualising our current digital space. Let’s begin by seeing how alternatives of fiat currency (money managed by central banks) fare.

The Bitcoin problem

Bitcoin is a digital currency that operates free of any central control or the oversight of banks or governments. Instead, it relies on peer-to-peer software and cryptography. A public ledger records all bitcoin transactions and copies are held on servers around the world. Anyone with a spare computer can set up one of these servers, known as a node. Consensus on who owns which coins is reached cryptographically across these nodes rather than relying on a central source of trust like a bank.

Now, the technical problem that Bitcoin solves is to simulate a physical coin electronically, without relying on centralized administration managing fiat currency. So, the argument goes that cryptocurrencies, including Bitcoin, transcend all politics. In fact, they’re deemed innately decentralised and democratising.

While there have been many efforts to oppose fiat money throughout history, the anti-fiat sentiment of cryptocurrencies is loud and widespread. Money, whether crypto or fiat, is always political but it is the politics of monetary depoliticisation that deserves more attention because politics never actually goes away; instead, much of what passes as the depoliticisation of money can be better understood as the “de-democratisation” of money.

Unpacking Crypto’s “democratising” power

How can power be related to crypto? Political theorist and writer Stefan Eich noted during an interview with The Crypto Syllabus, “Alongside crypto, much of FinTech and decentralized finance today has adopted the slogan of “democratizing money” or “democratizing finance.” Not only is that an empty meaning of democracy, but it’s one that conflicts directly with what political theorists actually consider essential to democracy: namely, forms of collective decision-making based on the egalitarian principle of “one person, one vote.” The masses have seen the oligopolistic power of miners. Although Bitcoin was intended to be a decentralised digital currency, in practice, mining power is quite concentrated. We also know of its associated energy consumption.

But alright, even if we ignore the political argument for a moment, it’s worth noting here that contrary to early pronouncements by Bitcoin creators and supporters, most existing cryptocurrencies, and certainly Bitcoin, have largely failed as “currency”. Their prices are incredibly volatile and unpredictable, definitely not something you want as your currency. The values of major cryptocurrencies have been unstable for months but last month, the crash hit rock bottom.

Before & Now: The 2022 Crypto Crash

History repeats itself. This recent piece by Ben Tarnoff for The Guardian provides a good background into patterns across time, the early years of what has now become big tech, and stories that parallel the present. Firstly, the building of new structures, networks, and ecosystems, often with a claim to a kind of emancipatory or decentralising potential. And secondly, the massive influx of hype and money lending to a boom (influx of venture capitalists flooding money into the space, and more) then a burst—the dot com-bubble then, crypto crash now.

When crypto crashed last month, Paris Marx wrote a moving and agitating piece about how tech solutions that were framed as a social good ended up blinding people and ruining lives, and the lack of accountability from those who promised societal transformation:

“Others [users on social media] posted about the tens and even hundreds of thousands of dollars they’d lost, and how it would mean they wouldn’t be able to buy a house — or could lose their homes altogether. Eventually, moderators restricted new posts and pinned international suicide hotlines to the top of the page as people with huge losses said they saw it as their only way out. After a year of exuberance, the crypto winter is here, and it’s not clear there will ever be a spring.”

In the face of all these claims of democratisation, the world is left more exploited and poor. Where are all the crypto supporters now? And how do we begin to trust their methods again?

Web3 vs Platform Capitalism

Web3 is reinventing the web: it’s meant to combine the best of both worlds: the open and decentralized architecture of Web 1 with the functionality of Web 2.0. Investor and Web3 advocate Chris Dixon claims that, in the blockchain-based Web3, “ownership and control is decentralized” and digital tokens will give everyone “the ability to own a piece of the internet.”

But is Web3 truly as anti-capitalist as it is depicted? Ultimately, it’s offering another technical fix for a political problem: who owns the internet. Web3’s plan is to build on the blockchain — publicly accessible distributed ledgers maintained by participants that support crypto networks such as Bitcoin and Ethereum. The number one selling point of Web3 is that it will decentralise the web away from platform capitalism. But let’s return to the political question: who owns the internet?

Ownership economy

Web3 is pitched as a return to aspects of Web1.p, but like Web 2.0 it continues to extend the logic of monetizing digital interactions even further into our daily lives. In his book Platform Socialism: How to Reclaim Our Digital Future From Big Tech, James Muldoon sketches an ecosystem of alternative ownership models in which diverse communities from the local to the global can own and operate digital tools. “Web3 is unlikely to meaningfully redistribute value because it doesn’t challenge the fundamental drive to commodification that now dominates the web,” he notes, “There is nothing necessarily progressive about decentralization; it depends entirely on the political character of the organization and the context in which it operates.”

Let’s take this ownership economy and decentralising with a grain of salt. Even if set into motion by well-meaning investors and innovators, it’s unclear how any of this would result in a different distribution of resources or fundamentally alter power relations in the digital economy. Why wouldn’t a similar group of early investors and developers end up monopolising most of the tokens?

We’ve seen something similar happen with cryptocurrencies where inequality has started to permeate – this paper studies the wealth distribution in cryptocurrencies and draws parallels between the crypto economies and real-world economies. Their analysis reports that, despite the heavy emphasis on decentralization in cryptocurrencies, the wealth distribution remains in line with the real-world economies, with the exception of Dash Cryptocurrency. They also report that 3 of the observed cryptocurrencies (Dogecoin, ZCash, and Ethereum Classic) violate the honest majority assumption with less than 100 participants controlling over 51% of the wealth in the ecosystem, potentially indicating a security threat. (TLDR: this suggests that the free-market may be inadequate in countering wealth inequality within a crypto-economic context: Algorithmically driven free-market implementation of these cryptocurrencies may eventually lead to wealth inequality similar to those observed in real-world economies.)

If left unchecked, could more token-based model threaten to commodify our online lives even further?

Global Digital Commons 

The internet, like public goods, belongs to the people (“the commons”) and their community. On the flip side, we see Elon Musk, the world’s richest man, who doesn’t know the first thing about democracy, buying Twitter for “free speech”. Free speech for whom?

So what does the alternative look like? Paris Marx, host of Tech Won’t Save Us, goes back to the early days of Web1.0: “Since those moments, the Internet has undergone a further process of consolidation and commercialization, which allows capitalists to exert more power and extract greater returns from what we do online.”

“Within certain tech circles, there’s a desire to believe that solving structural problems simply requires the right technological solution, even though we have decades of evidence that capitalism can co-opt even the most well-meaning innovations to serve its ends. But serious proposals for an alternative platform infrastructure need to contend with the social, political, and economic factors that have brought us to this moment, and that will need to be addressed to enable a more just and democratic alternative.”

A case study for imagining alternatives: Great Inflation and The Arusha Declaration

The Great Inflation was the defining period of the second half of the twentieth century. Lasting from 1965 to 1982, it led economists to rethink the policies of central banks and affected the Global South harder than the Global North.

In 1944, prior to the Great Inflation, The Bretton Woods Agreement had established a system through which a fixed currency exchange rate could be created using gold as the universal standard. The agreement involved representatives from 44 nations and brought about the creation of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank.

That didn’t work. And many newly decolonised countries from the Global South had another idea. While the neoliberal economist Friedrich Hayek was proposing a complete privatisation to prevent future financial collapse, countries in the Global South proposed addressing the limitations of the Bretton Woods Agreement by democratizing money on a global scale.

The Arusha Initiative – named after the Tanzanian city of Arusha where the second gathering took place in 1980 – put forward a set of radical proposals for a new Bretton Woods conference, but now on the floor of the UN General Assembly, where all the recently decolonized countries that didn’t even exist in 1944 during the Bretton Woods Conference would actually have a seat at the table. Contrary to Hayek’s proposal for domestic de-democratization, in the Arusha Initiative we find a proposal for a global democratic vision of money:

“We have chosen the wrong weapon for our struggle, because we chose money as our weapon. We are trying to overcome our economic weakness by using the weapons of the economically strong – weapons which in fact we do not possess. By our thoughts, words and actions it appears as if we have come to the conclusion that without money we cannot bring about the revolution we are aiming at. It is as if we have said, “Money is the basis of development. Without money, there can be no development”

The essential and true nature of development is this: “The development of a country is brought about by people, not by money. Money, and the wealth it represents, is the result and not the basis of development.”

 

 

Reclaiming platforms for workers and users

Speaking of decentralisation without context is unhelpful; it’s a buzz word used throughout the crypto and web3 space but what does it actually refer to? As activists and organisers, we probably can’t look at big tech as the silver bullet. That said, the tech firms that govern our day-to-day lives are increasingly looking like a fruitful site for resistance, one that perhaps may provide a catalyst for broader long-term change.

There is an out: reclaiming the commons.

How do we expand on what could be potential solutions? The internet platforms we all use could be publicly owned and democratically controlled. To really break from exploitative logic, we need a form of tech that would support the development of digital tools not as private commodities but as public goods, free and available for all to use. Instead of entirely rejecting present structures, we need to radically reimagine safer alternatives and allow them to flourish in the right sociopolitical contexts.

FEATURED IMAGE: via Pexels | IMAGE DESCRIPTION: A person is holding two golden Bitcoins in front of both their eyes, with a slight smile. 

 

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