I have been visiting Mozfest for four years now, and in previous years there has always been a real sense of excitement, hope and wonder around how technology can positively impact our lives in the future. Indeed, the festival’s own description as “a seven day celebration for, by, and about people who love the internet” by showcasing “world-changing ideas and technology” has felt apt.
That changed this year.
For the first time, the focus seemed to be less on ‘showcasing world-changing ideas and technology’, and more on criticising globally idea-changing technology. While attendees used to look forwards and speculate on where technology will take us, this year felt more retrospective: Where has technology taken us.
In fairness, it isn’t difficult to image why technology advocates might be engaged in navel-gazing. 2018 has been a year where the true expanse of digital technology has been felt across the world, and large platforms have been at the centre of a number of nauseating controversies: democracy-threatening misinformation, substantive data breaches, and even genocide.
With so many sessions running across the weekend, I doubt it was the case for all of them, but almost every session I attended at least mentioned in passing the excessive data collection of platforms like Facebook, or their catch-all privacy policies that skirt around GDPR. Whether it tied into a wider discussion around the surveillance of young people, or a very direct talk lecture around the ways advertisers are using your data, the festival felt grounded in the here and now; the reality we’ve found ourselves in as a result of technology unchecked.
So how do we move forwards from this?
The seeds for this have already been sown, with numerous experts calling for better data transparency and decentralisation - including the father of the web Sir Tim Berners-Lee. But, this utopian future of data being stored on personal servers that we retain complete control over is but a pipe-dream at the moment, and nobody really offered concrete plans on how it would work. Sir Berners-Lee spent very little time actually offering specific details for Solid, focusing instead on the vague ideals of Raspberry Pi powered data silos, and risks the project might face from legislation.
The closest we are to this data utopia is through GDPR, which already requires higher transparency with data, and Open Banking that financial institutions to make your financial information available to third parties in a common format. Google, Twitter, Facebook and Microsoft have all come together to create the Data Transfer Project, but this is still in its early stages and is still (currently) just moving data between those big companies.
However, the important question is this: Do ordinary people care? You might think that after the Cambridge Analytica scandal, or the more recent wide scale data breach, that people would leave the platform. Instead, Facebook’s active user base grew 9% year over year, although this is predominantly in developing markets. Twitter, conversely, lost 9m users in Q3 of this year, although the company claims that is in large part the result of efforts to clean the platform up by removing spammers and bots. It actually still managed to turn a profit, demonstrating increased engagement on the site. It doesn’t feel like a leap to say that currently, the majority of people aren’t interested in privacy as much as they are convenience.
For example, Google might suck up a lot of your personal data, but its AI assistant is the best currently on the market, its computational photography on the Pixel phones are second to none, and its search is tailored more specifically to you to help you find things faster. Is this a concern for some people? Definitely, and maybe more people should be worried about it, but for the majority, the benefits of allowing Google access to that data outweigh the potential negatives, More compelling argument is that they don’t ask you to hand over any money. You are the product, being paid with a service.
Mozfest is still a great festival, and exceptionally worth the time if you’re interested in the intersect of technology, policy and wider society. However, I think there has been a fundamental shift in the way data and platforms are viewed, and that focus on decentralisation will only continue in further years - and maybe that will be better for everyone in the long term.