Let’s use history as our guide to learn from social movements and thinkers from the past as to how they tackled various problems of politics and power. Ada Lovelace, Tom Paine, and the Paris Commune can teach us about digital technology, To better understand, we have interwieved Lizzie O’Shea who authored Future Histories. Deep dive into a book that sounds like an oxymore. 

Hi Lizzie, so why did you write this book… now?

Lizzie O’Shea : Digital technology gives us a glimpse of how we could organise the world better, but too often it is not doing what we want. Too often it is just about creating billionaires while immiserating billions, privatizing our psychological spaces instead of building connection, building devices of surveillance rather than empowerment. My motivation is that we are squandering the potential of the digital revolution.  

This is an urgent problem. We are at a pivotal moment, in which we are facing catastrophic problems like climate change, wealth inequality and the rise of extremism. Technology will be part of how we respond to this, for better or worse. It’s critical that we make sure it is technology for the many and not the few.  

This requires that we reclaim the present in service of a different future. Our best chance of achieving this is to use history as our guide. We can learn from social movements and thinkers from the past as to how they tackled various problems of politics and power. In doing so, it is clear that many problems of the present may present in novel ways, but they are hardly new. Debates about surveillance, data collection, open source software, and digital security have political qualities that have historical precedents and it’s worth looking backwards to the past to help us generate a better future. 

An extract from your book that best represents yourself?

L.O.: I am pretty proud of this chapter about how exploding cars are like biased algorithms. I’m a practising lawyer, I sue companies for engaging in misconduct. So I think law reform to hold companies to account for harmful behaviour is important, and more necessary than ever in the digital age.

“In the late spring of 1972, Lily Gray was driving her new Ford Pinto on a freeway in Los Angeles, and her thirteen-year-old neighbor, Richard Grimshaw, was in the passenger seat. The car stalled and was struck from behind at around 30 mph. The Pinto burst into flames, killing Gray and seriously injuring Grimshaw. He suffered permanent and disfiguring burns to his face and body, lost several fingers and required multiple surgeries.Six years later, in Indiana, three teenaged girls died in a Ford Pinto that had been rammed from behind by a van. The body of the car reportedly collapsed “like an accordion,” trapping them inside. The fuel tank ruptured and ignited into a fireball.Both incidents were the subject of legal proceedings, which now bookend the history of one of the greatest scandals in American consumer history. The claim, made in these cases and most famously in an exposé in Mother Jones by Mike Dowie in 1977, was that Ford had shown a callous recklessness for the lives of its customers. The weakness in the design of the Pinto — which made it susceptible to fuel leaks and hence fires — was known to the company. So too were the potential solutions to the problem. This included a number of possible design alterations, one of which was the insertion of a plastic buffer between the bumper and the fuel tank that would have cost around a dollar. For a variety of reasons, related to costs and the absence of rigorous safety regulations, Ford mass-produced the Pinto without the buffer.Most galling, Dowie documented through internal memos how at one point the company prepared…Read more.”

The trends that are just emerging and that you believe in the most?

L.O.: There are too many to count! I think the ‘techlash’ that was unleashed after 2016 is very exciting – we are starting to see the tech giants of Silicon Valley less as benign, and much more as profiteers that are too often careless about the social consequences of their business model. We are starting to meaningfully discuss regulation (without having to endlessly debunk spurious claims about how it curbs innovation) in ways that show great promise.  

I’m thrilled that tech workers around the world are starting to mobilise internally and publicly, highlighting the political problems with technology like facial recognition, and the clients for this technology like the military and police. There is huge potential for other activists movements to work together with these workers to arrest some of the worst excesses of the digital age and demand better.

Lastly, we are starting to understand privacy not as a narrow right, nor merely as a set of contractual terms. We are starting to understand how privacy is a collective concept, and is about freedom and autonomy. It is about creating a personal and public life that is liberated from the influence of corporate power and government manipulation.  

For the first 15 years of the 21st century, policy making and industry investment was largely powered by tech utopianism, which often disguised immense social harm. We are finally starting to see a public discussion about technology that is far more nuanced, which gives us a much better chance of creating a democratic digital future.

If you had to give one piece of advice to a reader of this article, what would it be?

Many of my readers are activists, so I am going to offer some advice to them. Take the time to think about how technology affects the work you do, and act on it. Lots of people think technology policy debates, like encryption, digital security and data rights, do not concern them. But these issues touch upon almost all aspects of our lives. If you’re passionate about a particular issue, it will have a technology aspect that is worth considering. You don’t need a computer science degree to do this, and indeed, outsiders to technology often have very important insights into how to improve technological development. Never assume you don’t know enough about technology to comment on something, just be open to learning and collaborating with others who might have a technical background.

In a nutshell, what are the next topics that you will be passionate about?

I have always been interested in law and economics, that is, how economics determines how law is made and enforced. When I talk to people about my work, this is a topic that seems to be a source of immense interest, especially to those outside the legal profession. So I think this will be my next project. I believe in the law as a method of organising society in accountable and democratic ways, but I also think it’s not a moral code. Too many laws are made by the powerful, for the powerful, and I think many people are appalled by this and would like it to change. I feel like it’s important to organise around law reforms that are imaginative but also practical, and my experience as a lawyer and writer will hopefully mean I can contribute to that discussion. 

Thanks Lizzie O’Shea

Thanks Bertrand

The book : Future Histories: What Ada Lovelace, Tom Paine, and the Paris Commune Can Teach Us About Digital Technology, Lizzie O’Shea, Verso, 2019.