Our fears will be realised if we become afraid of technology | Kenan Malik

Cast your mind back to 2011 and the Arab uprisings that began in Tunis before spreading to Egypt and beyond. Protesters used social media to communicate and coordinate, so it became the “Twitter revolution” and the “Facebook revolution”. It was the peak of techno-utopia, a moment of hope that technology would transform our political lives and put citizens in control.

Today, techno-utopia has given way to techno-dystopia. Many worry that technology is undermining democracy, spreading misinformation, equipping criminals and the authorities with new tools. This month, Apple, under pressure from the Chinese government, pulled an app that let protesters track the movements of Hong Kong police with crowdsourced data. It has been a long road from Tunis to Hong Kong. There is an element of truth about techno-utopia and dystopia. Social media makes it easier for protesters to communicate, create forums for discussion and spread information. Technology also makes it easier for authorities to snoop on citizens and control dissent.

Both viewpoints treat technology as if it had a life of its own, as if it possessed agency. This makes it more difficult to answer the vital question: not “Is technology good or bad?”; but “How should we organise ourselves as citizens to make the best use of technology?”

Techno-dystopia has created a climate in which there are increasing demands on social media companies to police the internet more diligently, and greater fear of cybercrime than of state surveillance. The irony is that the fear that technology can be used against our interests is leading to us, as users, having less control of the technology we use and to be more estranged from it.

Kenan Malik is an Observer columnist

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