One of the first undertakings in what one might call ‘Big Data’ began with a progressive political agenda and not in the garages of Silicon Valley. In Chile in the early 1970s, Salvador Allende, the first Marxist leader to be democratically elected as head of state, assembled a motley crew of economists, cyberneticians, and engineers to embark on Project Cybersyn, an ambitious attempt to build a centre of intelligence for the national economy.
Equipped with hundreds of telex machines that would feed in data in real time from factories and other productive outlets, the project was envisioned to maximize efficiency, cut out waste, and respond dynamically to various crises. It was an attempt to harness technology towards a socialist mode of governance.
But Allende was violently ousted from power through a military coup in 1973, ushering in the brutal, 17-year dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet. Under Pinochet, Chile would go on to become the first laboratory of neoliberal reforms that supplanted the Keynsian/New Deal consensus of the post-war years.
Looking back today, it is striking to note the prescience of Project Cybersyn. Much of what it boldly imagined has come to pass, albeit in a form and with a political content diametrically opposed to its original vision. We cannot deny the central role that data and digital technology play in our everyday lives and the manner in which our societies and economies are increasingly being restructured. At the same time, however, the levers of these technologies have almost entirely been usurped by large transnational corporations and the profit imperative.
Over the past decade, digital enclosures and data greed have consistently blunted the power of the internet and data-based intelligence as an emancipatory force. The platform economy is dismantling and reorganizing systems in their entirety – from communication, media, and transportation to commerce, agriculture, finance, and governance – hollowing out social and public value and ushering in a marketization of everything.
The Covid-19 pandemic has accelerated the tendencies of digital capitalism to swallow whole the resources of this planet and its people, starkly visibilizing the underlying inequality and injustice of the global economic paradigm. One can see the perverse incentives of the current paradigm play out on a planetary scale. Even as they close ranks against the regulatory backlash that has been confronting them, Big Tech giants have resorted to unabashed opportunism during the pandemic, consolidating their market dominance, placing themselves at the centre of trade and logistics in the short to medium term, and moving swiftly to displace public interventions in the provisioning of key social services. They have not been alone in leveraging the digital sphere towards greater power and influence. Nation states have used sanction-by-pandemic as a way to expand authoritarian powers, adopting more and more measures to track and surveil populations – measures that without safeguards and sunset clauses could easily weave into the governmentality of statecraft, shrinking room for dissent.
Meanwhile, the usual correctives to capitalism in the form of rescue plans for financial markets, large bailouts for corporations, and the buying up of corporate debt have implemented by governments. This signals a serious failure of imagination, as well as a refusal to recognize that the system does not work for the 99 percent.
The fallouts of the current crisis are not outliers of a robust system facing glitches, to be explained away as an outcome of the pandemic alone. They have to be situated within the continuities of a larger trajectory in which the digital phenomenon has contributed to social outcomes that are exclusionary, extractive, and exploitative.
We cannot resign ourselves to the current frames of the digital paradigm rooted as it is in neoliberal logic. A brand new future is certainly possible, and the seeds of change are around us. Workers are mobilizing against platform giants, raising their voices against the poor working conditions of e-commerce, food delivery, and ride-hailing companies. Antitrust probes by the US and the EU, and proposals for digital services taxation have gathered momentum. Countries in the South are also grappling with policy frameworks for harnessing data’s economic value. New platform models are being explored that eschew value concentration at the top and promote equitable gains for workers.
The Covid moment contains the potential to reshape the global economic and development order towards an equitable and just society. In October 2020, after more than a year of courageous and resilient struggle, the people of Chile forced their government to accede to their demands and hold a referendum – one in which they overwhelmingly voted to abolish the constitution of Pincohet’s regime, and draft a new one.
There is certain poetic justice that the land in which the corrosive neoliberal project was first unleashed is also the nation that now has a collective, democratic mandate to reassess its most fundamental doctrines. It would be fitting if this conjuncture also marks a return to the dream of the emancipatory promise of Project Cybersyn, in fact going beyond. Such a return to seize the democratic internet paradigm – one that unleashes equality, solidarity, sustainability and justice – is only possible through an overhaul of existing institutions. The digital needs to be reclaimed, and towards this, the purpose and meaning of the internet and data-based intelligence must be rearticulated. The institutional frames and global-to-local governance mechanisms of data and digital infrastructures (including platforms and standards) comprise the lynchpin in the battleground between democratic futures for all and private profits for the few. These frames need to be clearly spelt out so that the forces of transformative change can mount a concerted critique and coordinated action.
As a step towards this, the Digital New Deal compendium brings together leading thinkers, activists and practitioners from across the globe. The essays in this collection are written as rigorous and incisive diagnostics of our current predicament in the digital sphere, but also as rough sketches, bold leaps of imagination and intimations from an alternative present – all relating to a digital world that is still within reach, and which, we believe, is worth fighting for.
We invite you to take the leap with us.
The Digital New Deal Team
The Digital New Deal is a collaborative project of the Just Net Coalition and IT for Change with contributions from academics and activists envisioning progressive ways to engage with the digital in a post-Covid landscape by reclaiming its original promise and building a digitally just world.
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