Three Principles to Live By in Our Smartphone Society
March 10, 2020
Remember what life was like before smartphones? Younger generations won’t, because our pocket computers have become such a fixture in our societal landscape, we can’t imagine life without them. We marvel at the clickable-tappable-swipeable conveniences they bring us. But as Nicole Aschoff writes in The Smartphone Society: Technology, Power, and Resistance in the New Gilded Age, now is the time to take control of our phones, repurposing them as pathways to a democratically designed and maintained digital commons that prioritizes people over profit. She challenges us to imagine a new way to incorporate smartphones into society that goes beyond delinking or decommodification. As a starting point, she offers these three principles.
Principle 1: Our Phones Shouldn’t Be Used to Perpetuate and Obscure Coercive and Unjust Relationships.
Many of the critiques about smartphones stem from the myriad ways they are used to perpetuate and obscure coercive and unjust relationships. Our pocket computers are used in ways that reconfigure, and often reinforce and renew, existing power inequalities. We see this power inequality most starkly in the relationship between corporations and workers, and between corporations and consumers. In the gig economy our hand machines mediate the employment relationship, encouraging app workers to view their phones as their boss. But our phones are not the boss; companies are. Right now, many high-tech companies are flagrantly violating existing independent-contractor laws. We need to radically update our laws regarding employment relationships for the smartphone age to give workers the dignity, pay, and protection they deserve. The relationship between tech companies and consumers needs an even bigger overhaul. Companies shouldn’t have the right to either collect and/or sell our data or access to our data, and the data broker industry is ripe for elimination. At the very least, we should have the right to easily delete forever any text, videos, or photos that appear about us on private platforms.
These demands are part of a much broader discussion about our right to privacy. Privacy is a fundamental right that needs to be reemphasized and reconsidered in the smartphone age. Instead of privacy being an afterthought, or worse, purposefully violated, in the design of our technology its importance should be written into the design of the software, algorithms, and apps that make the modern world go round. Free-software pioneer Richard Stallman argues that we need to redesign computer systems to have limited data collection ability, not just to regulate how the data is used once it is produced: “If we really want to secure our privacy, we’ve got to stop the collection of the data. Rules to limit how the collected data may be used may do some good, but they’re not very strong protection. The privacy issue is broader.”
The question of privacy also highlights the role of governments, especially the US government, as major purveyors of coercive and unjust behavior. Governments shouldn’t have the right to monitor our every keystroke, swipe, and tap, to take photos and video of us to use with facial recognition software. They shouldn’t be able to surreptitiously use this data to monitor, harass, arrest, and even kill, either in the United States or abroad. This includes local police departments that use social media to quash civil disobedience and community organizing. It feels daunting to demand a stop to a pattern of government surveillance that seems to know no bounds, but it can be done. The US government was forced to rein in its surveillance practices after the 1975 Church Committee revelations of illegal CIA surveillance of groups and individuals. With concerted effort it can be forced to again.
Finally, our phones are also used to perpetuate and obscure unequal power relationships between people. If we’re serious about restoring privacy, we need to get serious about enforcing repercussions for those who publicize information shared in confidence in an attempt to humiliate, discredit, or otherwise harm another person. For example, instead of shaming teenage girls who sext, we should hold the people who publicize private messages accountable. At the same time, people shouldn’t be able to hide behind their apps and platforms to bully and harass others. We need to have a public conversation about free speech and what we expect from the applications that we use. Twitter, Facebook, Google, and other websites are not democratic organizations run in the interest of the communities they serve; therefore, it shouldn’t be up to them to decide or mediate the shape and content of public speech.
Principle 2: We Shouldn’t Use Our Phones to Mask Bad, Selfish, or Immoral Behavior.
One of the most amazing things about our phones is how they empower us as consumers. With a tap and a swipe, we can beckon life-easing services and access a mind-boggling range of consumer goods. Indeed, it’s so easy to consume that our phones often facilitate unthinking consumption. But Americans should think hard about our consumption norms because they are underwritten by privilege—for example, the power that comes from elevated social status or living in a wealthy country—and this privilege often comes at the expense of others.
We may be able to get a head of broccoli delivered from Postmates in an hour, but this doesn’t mean we should. We can make do with what’s in the pantry or walk to the store. The new consumption norms encouraged by our smartphone economy are not ecologically sustainable, and although we may not see the ancillary cost when we tap our apps, there is a price to be paid. This doesn’t mean we should depend on lifestyle politics as a solution to climate change and habitat destruction. It means that as a society we must have concerted conversations about the kind of future we want. What do we value more, millions of products available on demand and a private car that arrives in three minutes, or a planet that’s suitable for human life?
Just as our phones hide unequal relationships, they also can encourage bad behavior. We witness and participate in this behavior when we watch a video of someone overdosing on fentanyl, a video shot by a bystander who’s filming rather than helping the person or the screaming toddler standing next to them. The internet abounds with evidence of bad phone behavior—outing nannies who dare to check their phone while working, real-time photos and comments about unsuspecting plane passengers taken surreptitiously by the person sitting behind them, virtue signaling pile-ons, and infinite varieties of trolling.
Our bad phone behavior isn’t usually a matter for the police. It is evidence of a society whose norms are in flux. It’s time we develop new social norms for the smartphone age to protect people’s dignity and privacy, as well as our own. Developing new social norms about acceptable smartphone behavior will enable us to update our concept of privacy, a crucial objective that will give us standards for acceptable behavior and practices, whether between ourselves and our own device, between people, or between institutions and people. It will also encourage more reflexivity about our own motivations and agendas when we use our phones, a necessary process if we’re going to get control of the machine in our pocket.
Principle 3: Our Phones Should Be a Pathway to a True Digital Commons Where Life Isn’t for Sale.
After two shouldn’ts here is a should. The internet is an interesting, hilarious, and occasionally wondrous place. It is a great human invention. So are smartphones. The 1999 report “Funding A Revolution: Government Spending for Computing Research” demonstrates how the federal government played a central role in building the nation’s computing and communications infrastructure through taxpayer funded research and development. Mariana Mazzucato points out in her award-winning book The Entrepreneurial State, “Apple was able to ride the wave of massive State investments in the ‘revolutionary’ technologies that underpinned the iPhone and iPad: the internet, GPS, touch-screen displays, and communication technologies.” Moreover, our unpaid, appropriated work is what makes these platforms so valuable and central to modern life. As such, we have the right to demand what kind of digital society we want—the right to demand that our smartphones be a pathway to a true digital commons, a place where our data, inseparable from our life, is not for sale at any price.
One of the greatest tensions of our smartphone society is the disconnect between the motivations shaping how ordinary people use their phones and the motivations of the tech titans who control our phones. One group is interested in socializing, learning, doing politics, and being entertained, while the other is primarily interested in making a profit through extracting user data to sell to other companies. These conflicting drives are ultimately irreconcilable. Omaha farmers captured this underlying contradiction in the first Gilded Age: “We believe the time has come when the railroad corporations will either own the people or the people must own the railroads.” We’re at a similar crossroads. If we want expanded privacy and dignity as technology advances today, we need to create spaces that allow for privacy and dignity. Right now, the platforms and apps that both individuals and society have come to rely upon are not those spaces.
Does that mean we should build a People’s Facebook or Google? Perhaps. It might mean running these companies as utilities, recognizing their centrality to everyday life and thus regulating them as such. Or it could mean advocating that every person receives a digital baby box, riffing on Finland’s practice of sending expectant mothers a box with everything she needs for her new baby. Instead of diapers and onesies, each person would be given an encrypted email account, access to taxpayer funded broadband internet, secure server space, and a library of web and social media tools that follow free-software principles and don’t collect and sell people’s data.
In the present climate, goals like these might seem out of reach. But the barriers to achieving them are not technological or financial. The digital architecture that undergirds our smartphone society is surprisingly lean in terms of manpower and capital costs. Recall that Instagram only employed thirteen people when it was acquired by Facebook. Moreover, the knowhow to build a public system subject to democratic design and control is widely available. The biggest barrier today is the “common sense” cultivated by Silicon Valley that our country’s digital architecture should be discussed and decided by the people who own the tech companies rather than by the ordinary people who use the technology, provide the data and the taxpayer funding, and are impacted so profoundly by the priorities and proclivities of the tech titans.
Instead of giving in to techno-determinist impulses designed to keep us in our place we should encourage a broad and hearty debate about what a true digital commons should look like. It should be a debate that’s not afraid to make big demands and isn’t dominated by software engineers and elites. Our smartphones have brought digital technology into the most intimate spheres of life. It’s time to take control of them and repurpose them as pathways to a democratically designed and maintained digital commons that prioritizes people over profit.
About the Author
Nicole Aschoff is the editor at large at Jacobin magazine, where she writes about capitalism, technology, and labor. Her writing has also appeared in the Guardian, the Nation, Dissent, and Al Jazeera. Aschoff is the author of The New Prophets of Capital, and she contributes frequently to podcasts, radio shows, and documentaries about corporate power. Aschoff received her PhD in sociology from Johns Hopkins University and previously taught at Boston University. Connect with her on Twitter (@NicoleAschoff) and online (nicoleaschoff.com).