A quarter of a century ago, the Canadian author Douglas Coupland published his third novel. ‘Microserfs’ was the tale of a group of young Microsoft employees who decide to exit the realm of Bill Gates in Washington state and chase a dream of their own in California places that, back then, sounded like the epitome of futuristic magic: Palo Alto, Menlo Park.
As well as prescient flashes of the world to come — “Beware of the corporate invasion of private memory,” warned one of its protagonists — what always stuck with me was its air of techno-optimism, perfectly crystallised right at the end, when the central character’s mother has a stroke and is rescued from silence by a set-up attached to an Apple Macintosh. She communicates via such staccato sentences as “I am here”, and “I feel U”; the novel’s closing pages capture her and her family marvelling at the fact that she has become “part woman/part machine, emanating blue Macintosh light”.
The book was published in 1995, when computers suddenly offered an ever-expanding window on to the world. Many of us had no doubt that the leap from old to new represented nothing but progress. By the start of this decade social media platforms were being hailed as a means of individual and collective emancipation. But where has this faith in the future gone?
We know the basic script: despite the digital utopia we were promised, our lives are now dominated by a tiny number of omniscient, greedy and essentially unaccountable tech companies. Google, Amazon and Apple all have cases to answer, but the failure to match huge power with any sense of commensurate responsibility is being most vividly played out at Facebook, amid mounting horror about its polarising effects on not just political discourse but basic social stability. Once our default setting was to accept, open, download. Now it feels like many of us increasingly fixate on the opposite options: delete, quit, cancel.
Last week I was in Berlin, the city that increasingly stands as Europe’s tech capital (an honour the effects of Brexit look set to confirm). For two days the city’s south side was hosting Disrupt, one of an ongoing series of events organised by the technology industry news outlet TechCrunch. They take place in Europe and the US, offering a chance for start-ups to jostle for investment and attention, alongside interviews and discussions centred on where the world may be headed next.
Some of what I heard was grimly predictable. An executive from Facebook-owned Instagram parried questions about the recent departure of the firm’s founders and its parent company’s problems and took refuge in the kind of bromides that now sound laughably hollow: “The user is the North star for all the decisions we make”; “We want to make you feel close to people who you can’t see every day”. I heard presentations from would-be CEOs who had a depressingly familiar attitude to the magic they could blithely work with limitless oceans of personal data; some of the people enthusing about data-harvesting “smart cities” seemed to be waiting for their chance to take 21st-century surveillance to its logical conclusion.
Lingering memory of Big Brother
All that said, European tech is rather different from its American counterpart. Insiders talk about a concern with privacy that runs much deeper than in the US, partly because of the lingering memory of Big Brother in former Communist countries. With Silicon Valley having long since colonised social media and a huge swathe of online consumerism, people tend to concentrate on more finely targeted inventions aimed at businesses, the workings of government, medicine, charities or NGOs. Many tech tycoons still try to persuade us that they are here to unite humanity, with profit as a mere side-effect, but most of the attendees I met were willing to chew over the profound philosophical questions tangled up in the power and reach of digital capitalism, and the urgent necessity for governments to get to grips with them.
Most importantly, I met plenty of clever people, still brimming with a belief in the future, with creations that made their optimism look entirely rational. A trio of developers from Spain, now resident in Berlin, are close to completing a navigation system for blind and visually impaired people, which forensically monitors and processes their environment in a similar way to the computers wired into driverless cars. A small team of people, split between Boston and Lisbon, explained an invention for people with severely restricted mobility, allowing them to type and talk using rapid-fire predictive text, and survey their surroundings with a 360-degree camera that comes with face recognition, so that people can be followed even when they have left the user’s immediate visual field.
In the main hall, a team of people from the Lebanon wowed the crowd with an app for people with diabetes which not only monitors blood-sugar levels, but uses location data to survey restaurant menus for appropriate food options, and sends push notifications at the points in the average day when diabetics too often forget their next insulin injection.
Much-misunderstood blockchain technology remains a byword for the often shady and uncertain world of cryptocurrencies, but at its heart is something with no end of other uses: a means of giving an immutable single identity to people and products, which lies beyond the reach of hackers. One start-up held out the prospect of refugees using blockchain IDs to secure essential services — such as banking — rather than being faced with the usual walls of impossible bureaucracy. With a similar sense of altruistic excitement, Wassim Merheby, a former Nokia insider from Dubai, told me about Dhonor, a system he has invented with his teenage son, a passionate and talented coder, that will allow the component parts of medical treatment — from drugs, to batches of blood, to donated organs — to be indelibly recorded and verified, thereby offering individuals and governments a way out of a world of illicit organ trading, contaminated blood supplies and counterfeit medicines.
Later I saw a hoarding that said #BurstYourBubble, and spent an hour learning about a Berlin-based news platform, Nuzzera, which gently alerts readers to stories and opinions beyond their usual political frame of reference — and, if they respond positively, slowly and subtly carries on extending their horizons. “It started with Brexit,” one of its founders told me. “We were taking about that and Trump. And Alternative fur Deutschland. Everybody drew it all back to algorithms and social media, and doing things differently.”
As with so many of the coders, developers and cash-strapped entrepreneurs I spoke to, they had no guarantees that their creation would not either collide with the power of big tech and disappear, or be gobbled up. But their enthusiasm did its work. Since I returned home I have found myself less susceptible to techno-dread, and have reconnected to some of that 1990s optimism.
“The belief that tomorrow is a different place from today is certainly a unique hallmark of our species,” wrote Douglas Coupland; and in the same spirit, one might come up with a few more aphorisms. Facebook does not have to own the future. Technology is not reducible to California disgrace. And even though it sometimes flickers, the magical blue light shines on.
— Guardian News & Media Ltd
John Harris is a noted columnist.