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Jakob Augstein
Regarding our “digital pets”

How can we defend ourselves against the overstepping of boundaries and disenfranchisement occurring in the name of digitisation? This was asked on a symposium in honour of FAZ editor Frank Schirrmacher, who died in 2014.

By Holger Moos

 Reclaim Autonomy - Selbstermächtigung in der digitalen Weltordnung © Suhrcamp Verlag The collection Reclaim Autonomy – Selbstermächtigung in der digitalen Weltordnung (Reclaim Autonomy – Self-empowerment in the Digital World Order), edited after the symposium by Jakob Augstein, features some big names – for example sociologist Saskia Sassen and internet critic Evgeny Morozov. In the first article Yvonne Hofstetter, one of the 75 initiators of the Charter of Digital Fundamental Rights of the European Union, describes the negative effects of social media, which (she claims) causes political deterioration by reducing communication to viral artificiality and generating states of arousal and internet hype. Facebook and Twitter are nothing more than “advertising platforms that we refer to as social media”. They patronise the public and only show users things they are expecting according to the algorithm calculations, and which confirm their opinions. The glimmer of hope intimated by Hofstetter at the end is as faint as this gloomy analysis is convincing: she suggests that the “opportunity for democracy” here would be if the users were to lose confidence in the social media advertising platforms as a result of the “collateral damage” and turn their backs on them.

Saskia Sassen’s article is an excursus on the subject of high finance supported by algorithms. She says that digitisation contributes towards the rise of exploitation logics. Their complexity can easily disguise the predatory nature of the project. For instance today’s finance sector generates artificial bottlenecks to benefit its own ends. The decisive factor here is the systemic character of a financial system that assimilates more and more areas of business. Sassen compares this financial system with an invader that “comes, plunders and runs off with the spoils”. According to Sassen the hope that remains is faint too, and it is this: the self-destruction of a system that intrinsically tends towards abuse of power.

How can we tame our “digital pets”?

Constanze Kurz and Frank Rieger of the Chaos Computer Club investigate the possibilities of how we can tame our “digital pets”, as they call the little digital helpers based on algorithms and artificial intelligence. The goal needs to be reclaiming autonomy when it comes to the use of our data. The demands posed by Kurz and Rieger are well-known: the use of high data volumes by the “Big Five” – Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google and Microsoft – should be discussed by a wide audience, business models should be regulated, and the data leeches should be under obligation to provide more transparency with regard to their own technology. The two authors finish by appealing for everyone to limit the power of digital organisations by acting responsibly, which presumably also includes boycotting them.

Publicist Evgeny Morozov warns of the consequences of a data-driven economy. The Belarus national rejects the popular viewpoint that digital technology is bringing the world out of financial crisis or even heralding an age of post-capitalism. It’s no wonder that the Silicon Valley corporations for instance support the idea of an unconditional basic income, because: “After all the thing they are best at is minimising their own tax liability, so that they very probably won’t contribute much towards the funding of such ambitious social programmes.” According to Morozov, a high-tech entrepreneur has already found a cynical solution for those superfluous to the world of business: just give them all virtual reality glasses so that these miseries can at least spend all day in virtual bliss.

The state’s austerity policy also suits digital companies, he writes. So it comes as no surprise if a bankrupt town that can no longer afford to fund an acceptable public transport system instead subsidises Uber, a private transport service, so that it can at least offer its residents some sort of convenient transport facility. The more power secured by the big digital corporations, the greater Morozov perceives the danger that the post-capitalist era to which they aspire will culminate in a new type of feudalism.

But why is everyone going along with it? Wolfgang Hoffmann-Riem, a jurist, offers a logical explanation. It may be true that the customer is offered the choice of accepting the General Terms & Conditions or not, but appearances can be deceptive. “Anyone unable to avoid the modern communication world for professional or private reasons,” says the law specialist, has to “submit” to it.

As is always the case with collections, not all articles are on the same level. For instance the article about blockchain technology by Primavera de Filippi is full of redundancies and contains unnecessary bloat in terms of language. Nevertheless the volume provides some good perspectives on and insights into the new digital world order. Morozov’s ideas are particularly convincing and impressive in my view. His text can be viewed on the Freitag website.
Cherry Picker

Augstein, Jakob (Hrsg.): Reclaim Autonomy -
Selbstermächtigung in der digitalen Weltordnung
Berlin: Suhrkamp, 2017. 189 S.
ISBN: 978-3-518-12714-8

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