Technology isn’t neutral – we have to make it work for us

Technology can and should benefit everyone – to use it as a tool for concentrating power and wealth among an elite is a shameful waste.

Technology creates power. Those who use it can increase their capabilities to communicate, produce or survive. And that is usually a very good thing. But those who own it have their finger on the master switch and act as gatekeepers to essential services.

More of us than ever feel powerless when it comes to technology. Jobs are being lost to automated robots, constant surveillance overshadows our lives, lack of skills prevent us from using the latest gadgets and software. There are many of us who experience this dark side to the advancing march of technology.

But this is no Terminator situation yet – the machines themselves are not cause for concern. What we need to worry about is the people and institutions that own the hardware or software and use it to consolidate their own grip on power.

First and foremost we will see this in the workplace. The owners of companies, whose pure and simple imperative is to generate profits, hold enormous power over their employees. Where labour is expensive or troublesome for employers, there is an increasingly feasible option of investing in automation. This means there are not only the crowds of unemployed workers, who could be drafted in at any moment, to discipline the workforce — now there is the increasing threat of algorithms and computers. This means that wages stay low and companies do not invest in improving productivity.

Technology is providing new and insidious means of keeping the wage bill down. Platform companies, such as Uber and Deliveroo, enable a business model that extracts value from workers’ labour without formally employing them or bearing any responsibility for paying minimum wage rates or providing sick pay. Surveillance technologies, like those employed in Amazon’s warehouses, allow the company to reward and punish workers for particular behaviours in an especially intrusive and dehumanising manner. The collection and sharing of personal data could make it cheaper and easier for employers to uncover personal details, like pregnancies, about their workers.

These developments are varied but have one thing in common: empowering employers at the expense of employees. This is a far cry from the Silicon Valley vision of technology, where individuals are empowered to take on the world. Having your own Twitter account may indeed give you a freedom and power you did not previously experience, but it is nothing in comparison to the power and influence being amassed by those who own and control online networks. It’s no coincidence that Donald Trump made a very swift move to meet and placate tech leaders after his election.

It’s clear then, that for all its benefits technology brings risks that we need to counter. These will manifest in two important ways:

  • Worsening inequality and wellbeing. On the current trajectory, large swathes of our workforce will have increasingly inadequate pay, more precarious employment contracts and intolerable working conditions, while a small number of gatekeepers will own, control and profit from digitalised goods and services.
  • A breakdown of the welfare state and the tax system. Without proper action now, a major source of public revenue – income taxes – will be greatly eroded. It’s no wonder the Prime Minister has ordered a review of the consequences of platform companies for the public purse. More fundamentally, the consensus that sustains the welfare state in many countries depends on widespread contribution to the system – as well as widespread benefits. A society that is split into technological winners and losers may see this consensus break down.

These technological trends are well on their way, but politics is far behind. New policy ideas and reinvigorated debate are needed urgently. For a start we need to be considering:

  • Collective and public ownership of digitally produced goods and services, to fundamentally reallocate power, not just resources
  • A shorter working week, to distribute the available work more evenly
  • A reimagined role for trade unions, to balance the increasing power of employers
  • Stronger regulation to govern surveillance by companies and the state
  • Public investment in high-quality, affordable essentials like housing and energy

Technology can and should benefit everyone – to use it as a tool for concentrating power and wealth among an elite is a shameful waste. But this is what will happen unless we take back some control over this transformation and shape it for the common good.

Technology can help us re-imagine a fairer, more democratic future.

Find out how

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