person on a cellphone, black and white image filled with angles and shadows
PHOTO: Lucca Lazzarini

“Democracy improves as more people participate,” Audrey Tang, the digital minister of Taiwan, wrote for The New York Times in 2019. “And digital technology remains one of the best ways to improve participation —  as long as the focus is on finding common ground and creating consensus, not division.”

Back in 1994 when I first came across the web I was struck by its tremendous democratic potential, of how it opened up society. Little did I realize that the web would ultimately open up society to attack from malign hatemongers like Trump and Bolsonaro.

Little did I think that the “free” advertising-based model pursued by the likes of Facebook would be such a cesspit of waste and social poison. Little did I think that the web would allow for the concentration of economic power in the hands of the Amazon and Google tech elite. And to crown it all, that this tech elite would relentlessly pursue tax evasion which would hollow out society, leaving little money for basic services, making things brittle and fragile.

The pandemic is good for the tech industry. They will be able to concentrate more power and wealth because of it, while avoiding even more taxes. While Bolsonaro devastates Brazil and the Amazon, Bezos can gleefully devastate small business, making societies serfs to the great lord, while paying his workers the absolute, absolute minimum. Tech and the return to slavery. That’s a story.

Our public spaces have been hollowed out by the elite. The web and technology have been primary tools in this process. There is no sense of the fair society in the tech bro mindset, just a relentless pursuit of growth, profit and tax evasion.

Hate sells better than hope. Want is easier to advertise than need. To build a fair society is not to build one where the greedy tech elite accumulate vast wealth, but one where ordinary people can lead decent, honorable lives by getting paid decent wages and having decent healthcare. This is not an impossible dream. There is more than enough wealth and capacity to do this. We simply lack the will, the courage.

In Taiwan, we see a light of hope shining. They have used technology to help nurture consensus not division. The people genuinely participate in the policy space and they are listened to. Any Taiwanese citizen “can post a comment about the topic or policy being discussed,” Audrey Tang explains. “Crucially, other users cannot directly reply to these statements, which reduces the likelihood of trolling and abuse. Instead, they can click ‘agree,’ ‘disagree’ or ‘pass/unsure’ on each comment.”

The system then uses real-time machine learning to analyze all the votes and “produce an interactive map that groups like-minded participants together in relation to other, differently minded users,” Tang explains. “The map lays bare the gaps between various groups — as well as any areas of agreement. Ideally, this incentivizes people to post comments that attract more supporters, creating a path toward consensus.”

Coronavirus has shown us how fragile and interconnected our world is. Since 1970, there has been an explosion in wealth and technology, and an equally great explosion in inequality. Investment in the public space has been sucked dry by obscenely overpaid, tax-dodging vampires, leaving brittle shells that crack when the hard winds of a pandemic blow.

Before Bezos and Zuckerberg unleash their robot army, we should act. It’s not too late, though it’s getting there.