In last week’s issue, we considered the need to take our telecommunications infrastructure back into public ownership so it can serve people instead of profit. The week before that, we began to lay out a vision for a more expansive Canada Post. But how might those ideas be combined to help us rethink technological development in the public interest?
In the same way that there was always supposed to be a “second step” in our public healthcare system to cover pharmaceuticals and other services, Canada Post was always supposed to evolve as communications technologies changed. The Canada Post Corporation Act even states that the institution should consider “the desirability of improving and extending its products and services in the light of developments in the field of communications.”
We need to remember the power of public institutions to make life better for the working class, and that includes building on their core competencies whenever they can.
In her 2019 book The Sport and Prey of Capitalists, Linda McQuaig describes how the publicly owned Canadian National Railways (CNR) was not simply a rail operator. Its president, Henry Thornton, was committed to using the public railway to tie together the country and its people. In addition to its passenger and freight services: it had offices in Europe and the United States to entice people to settle in Canada; it ran hotels across the country; it created the first radio network in North America, which later served as the foundation for the CBC.
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CNR looked for ways to use its infrastructure to serve Canadians in other ways. Canada Post, and other public institutions, should be doing the same, and one area where we desperately need a public alternative is in technology.
Over the past few decades, the tech industry has both surged and highly consolidated to the point where a few major tech conglomerates are among the most valuable publicly traded companies with global influence. And as we all know, from the stories of Amazon and Uber mistreating their workers to Facebook and Google tracking everything we do to generate advertising profits, they’re not concerned with the public good.
When thinking about technological development and how it might be carried out in different ways, I always return to a comparison made by authors Tom Evens and Karen Donders in their 2018 book Platform Power and Policy in Transforming Television Markets. They explain that when television emerged in the early 20th century, governments wanted to ensure this new technology served the public. In Europe, that meant establishing public broadcasters such as the BBC to produce educational and informative programming in the national interest, whereas in the U.S. it meant having highly regulated private broadcasters including NBC, ABC and CBS.
McQuaig explains there was significant concern in Canada about being swamped with programming from the U.S. — a concern which exists to this day and is part of the reason we created our own national public broadcaster in 1936.
However, when the internet emerged, the political landscape had completely changed. The digital revolution corresponded with the neoliberal turn of the 1980s, so governments took a hands-off approach to the tech industry as they continued to deregulate other parts of the economy.
That doesn’t mean the government had no role at all. As author Margaret O’Mara explains in The Code: Silicon Valley and the Remaking of America, state and federal governments funnelled tons of money into the tech hubs like Silicon Valley, research universities like Stanford and even companies like Apple and Google. The internet itself was invented by the military, and many of the consumer tech products we enjoy today wouldn’t exist without that public research.
Moreover, at the time the soul hadn’t yet been sucked from public institutions, so they tried to innovate. The United States Postal Service, for example, kept trying to take advantage of new communications technologies throughout the 1980s and 90s with a new bill-payment system, check-scanning project, email service and more. Yet it would run into resistance from conservative board members or politicians in the pockets of private companies such as AT&T and the banks.
But we desperately need technology developed in the public interest that isn’t trying to sell us things, or, conversely, trying to sell us to advertisers. The best vision I’ve come across just so happens to fit perfectly into one for an expanded post office.
In a report for Next System and Commonwealth, Dan Hind imagines what a cooperative institution designed to “nurture political, economic and cultural democracy” might look like. He positions the British Digital Cooperative as an evolution of the BBC, but one whose mandate is much greater given the need to create a technological infrastructure in the public good, and which is governed democratically by citizens, not by appointed bureaucrats.
The digital cooperative would have several important tasks, first and foremost to develop a new public platform for socializing, community development and education. It would not only be a place for friends and communities to interact digitally, like a social media platform, but would bring together content from publicly funded institutions like museums, universities and theatres. The goal would be to encourage interactions that enrich the community and help to build social bonds — not simply to increase engagement in service of advertisers.
The other main aspect is the creation of a suite of digital tools to serve the needs of communities around the country. That would mean creating payment systems, enterprise software and other key programs that could be used nationally and even internationally without corporate rent-seekers taking a cut.
Yet it would also involve having teams of developers distributed around the country. They would not only work with local cooperatives, groups and individuals to develop the digital tools they need, but would also serve an educational role to teach people how to use everything from software to 3D printers. And since it would all be in service of the public good, tools developed in one community could be repurposed for others.
This is an emancipatory vision that tries to reimagine the role of technology in our societies from one that exists to create profit for a company by providing a particular service to one that’s freed of the profit motive and can instead be designed for human flourishing. It can be difficult to imagine what that would even look like because we’re so used to the status quo, but next week we’ll look at one possible implementation that brings these ideas together.
Perspectives from around the world
Linda McQuaig, author of The Sport and Prey of Capitalists, explains how the Liberals’ infrastructure bank will cost Canadians a fortune by involving private investors instead of simply issuing government bonds.
Dan Darrah, a Toronto-based writer and editor, argues we need a public housing revolution, not a universal basic income.
Dayton Martindale, former associate editor of In These Times, interrogates how author Kim Stanley Robinson’s trilogy Three Californias imagines utopia.
Jahanzeb Hussain, a founding editor of Ricochet, breaks down the green wave in the French municipal elections.
Reinhold Martin, a professor at the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation at Columbia University, argues a better world requires abolishing oil both as an industry and as a form of social organization.
Grace Blakeley, author of the 2019 book Stolen: How Finance Destroyed the Economy and Corrupted Our Politics, explains why more low-income voters in the United Kingdom voted for the Conservatives than Labour in 2019 for the first time ever.
Andrew Woods, a PhD Candidate at Western University, explains how the Brazilian right is trying to distort the legacy of Paulo Freire, author of Pedagogy of the Oppressed.
Erin Stewart, author of The Missing Among Us, criticizes Australia’s overhaul of tertiary education to emphasize job readiness as corporate welfare.
This week on Tech Won’t Save Us, I spoke to Motherboard senior staff writer Aaron W. Gordon about Uber’s mismanagement of Jump Bikes, how venture capital money transformed bike-share and how the pandemic might change urban transportation.
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