Big Tech needs a version of Martin Luther

How would you go about convincing the world that it was in the grip of a power that was deeply hypocritical and corrupt?

This is the question John Naughton asks about our commitment to big technology. He answers this question in a strange way – by reference to the way Martin Luther confronted the corruption of the Catholic church. I admit that being brought up as a Lutheran probably caused me to read more than the title of the Naughton post, but his analysis, Lutheran or not, is interesting to consider.

Naughton makes a number of interesting observations. How did Luther survive (in a physical sense) taking on such a powerful institution? He was protected by powerful people and his access to a means of mass communication (new media – the new printing press) allowed him a measure of protection.

What was the key to the success of the complaints he listed? He identified both flaws in the ideology and the business model of the Catholic church. The key was the focus on indulgences (payment for the forgiveness of sins). Religion was not supposed to work this way.

Like the author, I find myself reluctantly realizing that I am a recovering utopian.

recovering utopian. When the internet first appeared I was dazzled by its empowering, enlightening, democratising potential. It’s difficult to imagine today the utopian visions that it conjured up in those of us who understood the technology and had access to it. We really thought that it would change the world, slipping the surly bonds of older power structures and bringing about a more open, democratic, networked future.

This technology and internet thing is working out quite as I had hoped. What we have lost is the voice of the little guy. The business sector was able to gain control and we are now more and more at the mercy of big money. They figured out that we were either not as smart as we think we are or more likely simply lazy and cheap. We are willing to trade our values and control of our attention for free. Luther called folks on similar weaknesses – paying a few bucks for release from the responsibility for sins was a good deal. It was easier than doing the right thing.

I do not know if I agree with Naughton’s theses, but I do find them scary and worth the effort to oppose.

No 19: The technical is political
This thesis challenges the contemporary assertion of the tech industry that it stands apart from the political system in which it exists and thrives.

No 92: Facebook is many things, but a “community” it ain’t

The Naughton piece seems to end before he gets to the point of proposing solutions. I guess this is up to us. I propose we start with this – awareness. Revelations related to the election of 2016 should make this clear. Twitter and Facebook feed our biases to harvest our attention. I would use these same services to declare awareness of this corrupt business practice.

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