January 31, 2019

2019: Naming the Now

A dozen ways to start making sense of 2019 and beyond

Making sense of emerging trends in science and technology is a core part of what ETC Group does. We’re impatient to grasp the implications of new realities that are emerging around us, whether they relate to artificial intelligence, social engineering, extreme forms of digital genetic modification, corporate concentration, surveillance, authoritarianism or geoengineering.

It’s can be tempting – and often useful – to apply the concepts of the past to understand the present or future. However, we also want to set aside space to name what is really new about the situations we’re facing.

What follows are twelve soundings and speculations by ETC Group that reflect how we’re making sense of the world in 2019 and beyond. In some cases, these musings are a sneak peek at the research and analysis we expect to publish sometime this year. We are excited to share them with you, and we look forward to the debates and discussions to come!

1. Data Feudalism 

The paradox of the ever-growing control that our new Silicon Valley overlords wield is that most people, at least in theory, consented to it. Every user of Facebook, Amazon, Alibaba, Google and Apple “voluntarily” accepted some terms and conditions in a dull-looking legal tick-box, whose importance may end up outweighing the ballot box. Rather than forcing us to buy things – the favored tactic of corporate software monopolies in the last decades of the 20th century – the new data-feudalists seduced us online and through our smartphones into data aggregation and behavior-shaping serfdom by creating appealing interfaces and giving away their services for “free.” However, we’re already paying the cost. We’ve handed over extreme, concentrated control over the most valuable assets of the information economy to the data platform companies. It’s this data that allows companies to anticipate new trends, and craft fine-turned manipulations of everything from political movements to traffic patterns – and make vast profits in the process.

In ETC’s view, it’s the next stage of big data acquisition, now unfolding, that may kick the concentrated power of data-lords up a notch: ecological, agricultural and environmental information is also getting vacuumed up, processed and used to leverage more corporate profits. In time, this will involve over a trillion sensors generating bronto-bytes (1000 trillion trillion bytes) of data fitted to our food systems, our living systems, our transport options, and our bodies, giving Silicon Valley greater omnipotence not only in the details of our individual lives, but also the the environment, food and genes that shape them. As Alphabet, Alibaba and Amazon move from online to out-there, it’s the equivalent of a handful of monarchs grabbing most of the common land in the world before anyone even realizes it is valuable. What’s odd is that we’re all continuously agreeing, usually without a second thought, to hand them that control while cheering the onward march of big data as an unalloyed good. We didn’t need to be forcibly displaced from our formerly-precious community resource by the Silicon Valley robber-barons because enough of us have already given it away voluntarily.

2. Automatic (is not) for the People

The late 20th century compromise between neoliberal governments and populations living in the more industrialized economies has long rested on an understanding that elites in power needed the masses to run production systems and would, in turn, offer somewhat liberal laws and safety nets to mollify them. With AI, blockchains and automation gathering apace, it's no longer clear that corporate oligarchies need the masses any more in order to run their economies, nor even loyal human spies and soldiers to suppress dissent. The result? Neoliberalism appears to be falling out of favor and lawless capitalism is taking root. The Amazon faces a slash-and-burn assault, while Amazon aggressively expands its data-and-distribution empire. As the postwar compromise breaks down in the rich colonial countries, politicians naturally seek to deflect blame for stacked socioeconomic crises –on people from refugee and migrant backgrounds and marginalized groups and religions. In social media, they have found new tools with which to turn distrust into hate. Does the rise of authoritarian populism – from Trump to Bolsanaro to break-up Brexit Europe – have anything to do with our changing technological landscape? In ETC Group’s view, “you betcha.”

3. Segmented Bigotry/Memetic Engineering


Sixteen years ago, ETC Group warned that the US National Science Foundation was pursuing what they then called "memetic engineering” – using big data analysis and neural technologies to understand in real time how ideas grow, and how that process can be externally manipulated. In 2003, US policymakers dreamed, chillingly, that “memetic science could help us deal with challenges to American cultural supremacy.” The polling industry has tracked public attitudes for decades, but today’s MAGA-era memetic engineers are now riding a wave of data amassed by social media and political databases. High-level corporate raiders have unprecedented ability to appeal to our worse angels – anti-immigrant sentiment tops the current list. We now know that by tracking and extrapolating attitudes and creating personality profiles, companies like Cambridge Analytica developed finely-tuned methods of testing messages and manipulating strategic audiences on a massive scale. Digital platforms are being used to test the population’s tolerance for extreme policies – whether it’s caged children at the US-Mexico border or hyper-extraction in the Brazilian rainforest. These companies have rationalized and amplified the libertarian right’s algorithmic shredding of social fabric for profit, often with the help of profit-seeking Silicon Valley companies.

Using mass media to distract the public from their true foes is, of course, a time-honoured practice of the ruling crowd. But sophisticated techniques of manipulation through newsfeed selection algorithms, bot networks, and sock puppets are fast-moving targets driven by corporate profits – and profoundly lacking in transparency. With Facebook admitting in November 2018 that its platform was used to fuel popular support in Myanmar for the genocide of its Muslims, ETC wonders to what extent algorithm–fueled politics are in the driver’s seat across the globe.In a year when we learned that the Belgian national football team had turned to machine learning to hone its novel and successful World Cup strategies, we also wonder whether some of the stranger messaging and political moves coming out of the world’s most powerful governments are not the poorly-thought-through twitter outbursts they appear to be, but rather the result of AI-fueled strategic analysis suggesting some very counter intuitive power plays. Are reactionary leaders belligerent fools, pawns in someone else’s game of AI-enabled three-dimensional chess, or an inscrutable mix of the two? In 2019, we’ll be second-guessing. Meme to watch: #robogov.

4. The Singularity is Dear

Those in power have a way of elevating ideas (and the intellectuals who promote them) that makes their political and economic agenda seem fated. In the 1990s, it was Fukuyama’s “the end of history” and Thatcher’s “there is no alternative” that were powerful ideas in disarming social dissent. Both asserted and applauded the inevitable dominance of the neoliberal economic model. Today, neoliberalism has lost some of its shine, but Silicon Valley has picked up the same methods to pave the way for the rise of Artificial Intelligence powered by corporate-dominated Big Data. The “Singularity” is the hypothesis that the invention of artificial super-intelligence will abruptly trigger runaway technological growth. “You can’t just stop technological progress,” Yuval Noah Harari, one of the new voices of inevitability, recently told the Guardian. “Even if one country stops researching artificial intelligence, some other countries will continue to do it.” Harari’s analysis has plenty of nuance, but cruder versions of the inevitability trope are available in bulk from PR companies hired by AI, blockchain and genomic startups. Whether the person delivering it is a vegan who meditates two hours a day (like Harari) or a pundit stumbling back from a corporate-sponsored open bar, the net effect of this discourse is to take away what is arguably the most powerful tool of those whose livelihoods are threatened by new technologies: the ability to say no, clearly and loudly. (A subject ETC tackled over 20 years ago.) Nothing about the multi-billion-dollar AI or genomics investment bubble – or its links to anarcho-feudal data empires and bigot segmentation – is inevitable. The emergence of Deliberative Democratic Technology (see below) may be a way out, or through.

5. Profit Motive as Horror

200 years after the publication of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Chinese scientist He Jiankui’s weirdly excited announcement that he had genetically edited not one but two human beings closed 2018 on a troubling cliffhanger. It was a year in which other bioscientists proudly extolled their ability to reshape populations by exterminator gene drives. He Jiankui thought he had an elegant solution to AIDS, but with several startups on the side critics charged he was also lifting the lid on commercial eugenics. The gene drive gang, some of whom also have their own startups revving away in stealth mode, may claim to be battling malaria and species extinction but they are naively lifting the latch on a new and troubling race of agribusiness tools. Perhaps there are some scientists whose desire for knowledge takes them to dark places, but the truly dangerous practice of science is when scientists' desire for knowledge is harnessed in service of reshaping life itself to extract profits and build entrepreneurial careers. Fueled in part by the enduring warning of Shelley’s cautionary tale, the restrictions so far placed on gene drives and human genetic modification show that it is possible to keep Frankenstein’s monster in the castle (or at least on the hill) – but more serious oversight of innovation is needed to stop the unholy assemblages from being created in the first place.

6. Stuffing and Starvation

According to a 2018 paper, one third of humanity is now suffering from metabolic syndrome. Metabolic syndrome is defined by the Mayo Clinic as “a cluster of conditions — increased blood pressure, high blood sugar, excess body fat around the waist, and abnormal cholesterol or triglyceride levels — that occur together, increasing your risk of heart disease, stroke and diabetes.” This rise is driven by a corporate food system that markets a surfeit of “high-calorie, low-fiber fast food” and the decline of physical activity during leisure time. At the same time, lack of food is affecting more people than ever, with one in nine humans going hungry. The World Health Organization estimates that in 2017, 151 million children under five had their growth stunted by malnutrition. Climate change was identified as one of the main causes of malnutrition, with changes leading to reduction of nutrients in staple crops. Meanwhile, too few policy-makers acknowledge that malnutrition is also common among obese people, because their diet is so reliant on sugar. An oldie but a goodie, the title of Raj Patel’s Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World Food System (2nd Edition, 2013) is a pertinent summary of global trends that are still playing out in 2019 – twelve years after its first edition.

7. Slushie or Slop?

Agribusinesses is moving towards a highly mechanized food production paradigm in which generic raw materials such as corn, soy and sugar are processed in different textures and derivatives in factories, then combined with flavours produced by synthetic microorganisms in vats, fed by those same raw materials. Is the final product dog treats, chicken scratch or fried food marketed to teenagers? The answer is yes. Corporate processors plan to use the same nutritionally-deficient base for everything, presented in different shapes, colours and flavours. This intensely centralized mode of food production contrasts with Indigenous and peasant agroecological methods – like the milpa (maize) system in Mesoamerica, or the Andean chakra system around the potato, for example – which have been cultivated sustainably for thousands of years alongside many other food crops, medicines and livestock species. These species thrive under specific conditions, and co-evolve with the communities that depend on them, responding to changes in climate, soils, and winds. Global corporate agribusiness uses technological innovations to expand the reach of its monocultures onto the remaining land controlled by the peasant farmers and Indigenous peoples, who feed 70% of the world’s population using their quarter of the planet’s arable land. In pursuit of profit and control, the capital-intensive, automated, data-driven corporate food paradigm seeks to displace healthy and sustainable practices. If they’re successful, the result will be a rise in corporate profits and a decline in the availability of nutritional foods.

8. Sky-High Stakes

The IPCC’s Special Report on 1.5˚ of warming brought a surge of urgency to the climate debate. While the conclusions were not new, many forces were galvanized by the alarming tone struck by inherently conservative scientists, functionaries and diplomats. The struggle over how this urgency will be mobilized is underway. One story to watch in 2019 is a proposal by the government of Switzerland to to address geoengineering governance at the UN Environment Assembly (UNEA4) in March. It should be a straight ban on geoengineering – or at the very least, strengthen the existing moratorium on geoengineering at the Convention on Biological Diversity and the London Convention – but may be a dangerous slide towards allowing testing and deployment instead. How governments seek to solve the urgency of the climate crisis matters. Will it be community-driven solutions that address multiple crises (nutrition, inequality, health, pollution) and dismantle the structural forces that created the climate crises, or will it be large-scale technofixes such as geoengineering that create profitable investment bubbles and further concentrate power at the top? A just Green New Deal or a Geoengineered Crude Steal? The stakes are higher than they have ever been. Words fail us.

9. Deliberative Democratic Technology

ETC is heartened by a few single examples of popular deliberation and a positive version of “taking back control”. In 2016, Ireland’s government made the decision to revisit its ban on the right to abortion, taking the remarkable step of handing the deliberations to a citizen’s assembly – an inclusive cross-section of housewives, students, ex-teachers and truck drivers, but no elected politicians. While “take back control” was being used to spread prejudice across the Irish Sea in Britain, Ireland’s citizens discussed giving women access to a technology that expanded their reproductive rights. Over five weekends, this group discussed the regulations that forced over 170,000 Irish women to travel overseas to have abortions, often in secret, since 1980. In the end, the ninety-nine members voted for a change. In the ensuing May 2018 referendum, 66.4% of Irish voters expressed their agreement with the assembly. While this basic right might not strike many as a primarily technological question, Ireland has set an inspiring precedent for democratic deliberation and combined it with decisive national legislation that has already come into force in 2019. For the last several years, ETC has been working to build networks of civil society that can serve as Technology Assessment Platforms, and the Irish example provides inspiration for how new alliances can scale up those efforts, positively impacting millions of people.

10. The Age of (Free Prior and Informed) Consent

The #MeToo movement has put the topic of consent on the front burner in wealthy countries worldwide, as brave women have come forward with accounts of sexual assault, often by prominent and powerful men. The advancement of consent as a powerful norm however, goes well beyond that terrain. Fights over oil and gas pipelines on Indigenous land in Canada hinged on the Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC) of the nations whose territories the lines attempted to cross. In 2018, ETC was thrilled to be part of those pushing for a landmark measure at the United Nations which now requires the Free, Prior and Informed Consent of any affected communities – like those in West Africa – before gene drive organisms are released into the environment.  Like #MeToo, the expanding notion of consent isn’t evenly applied, and will be resisted by powerful men and their foundations. The capacity of predatory high-tech neo-colonialists to ignore, co-opt and sidestep norms cannot be underestimated, but high-profile cases are shifting expectations, and the horizon of political possibility for a more consensual future is brightening.

11. High-bandwidth, intelligent, neural-network-enabled, gene-rich, knowledge-intensive farming

Imagine a global peer to peer network whose knowledge economy contain bronto-bytes of high-fidelity genetic information and context-specific human behavioral patterns. Imagine if we could collect and harness that network output to mitigate climate change, solve poverty and feed the world! No, we’re not trying to sell you the latest technofix. We refer, of course, to the dense global network of Indigenous peoples and peasant farmers who have formed multi-generational partnerships with the land and the species with which they co-evolve, while feeding most of the world’s population. The biodiversity they protect, maintain and steward is worth trillions – in the specific sense that without it, no economic activity is possible. Peasant farmers and Indigenous communities are the future at least as much as they are the past – and hopefully a lot more. The real “precision farming” deeply understands and adapts to local conditions and responds to actual needs, and it’s agroecological farming. The dukes and lords of data do not yet harvest or own it, and with a bit of strategy and hard work and a good dose of resistance, we hope they never, ever will.

12. Despair is the New Hope

The rapid erosion of governments and institutions and the accompanying violence might not be purely reflections of loss. Though its outcome is far from assured, a transformation is also underway. The mobilization of new radical proposals and the countermobilization of reactionary forces reveals that systems are in crisis. It is a time of ugly honesty, but also unprecedented creative possibility. More than a decade ago, Arundhati Roy wrote: “Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.” If a new world is finally being born, some kicking and crying might just be a sign of health.

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