San Francisco, Silicon Valley

Book review: ‘Beyond the Valley’ by Ramesh Srinivasan

Image credit: Denys Nevozhai - Unsplash

A timely book about how to repair the disconnect between designers and users, producers and consumers, tech elites and the rest of us, and coalesce around a more democratic internet and a fairer economic future.

Fortuitously, and most likely intentionally, published to coincide with the 50th anniverary of the internet (on 29 October 1969, the first message was sent between two computers connected on the ARPANET network) ‘Beyond the Valley' (The MIT Press, £22.50, ISBN 9780262043137) sets out to chart a course for a healthier internet future, one more balanced and less unhinged, and how this could in turn parlay into a broader social revolution.

Ramesh Srinivasan, a professor of information studies at UCLA, starts with the premise - surely validated by our own daily experiences - that the original promise of the internet and the world wide web which Sir Tim Berners-Lee built on top of it, intended as a force for good in bringing the benefits of digital connectivity to everyone, sharing and disseminating a positive exchange of ideas, has sadly become soured by "a dirty tangle of politics, economics and other inefficient, inharmonious human activities".

As it happens, Sir Tim is currently organising governments, companies and citizen groups to create a global 'Contract for the Web', with the aim of returning the web to its more democratic, open, positive roots. Quite how that will fare in the face of Russia and China, amongst others, aspiring to circle their national internet wagons remains to be seen, but the ambition is eminently laudable and desperately needed.

In the meantime, and in our own everyday digital lives, this book can act as a handbook for a healthier digital experience. The crux of Srinivasan's essay is that Silicon Valley, California, USA, has had and continues to have an unnaturally skewed, disproportionate impact on virtually all digital technologies. For the internet to become - or return to being - a much more level, democratic playing field, we have to look 'Beyond the Valley', both physically and intellectually.

The book's scope, befitting of its title and subtitle, journeys well beyond said Valley, with Srinivasan's globetrotting taking us with him to the mountains of Oaxaca in Mexico, East and West Africa, China, Scandinavia, North America and many other places as he visits the 'design labs' of rural, low-income and indigenous people around the world.

There are also timely interviews with the likes of Elizabeth Warren, David Axelrod, Eric Holder, Noam Chomsky, Lawrence Lessig and the founders of Reddit, as well as community organisers, labour leaders and human rights activists. For once, we don't hear from the CEOs or marketing executives at Google, Microsoft, Apple, Facebook et al, even if they would also presumably profess to aspire to a more socially responsible and productive internet.

The original promise of the internet is still there - it has never gone away, merely become partially buried beneath the landslide of e-commerce opportunities and data-harvesting operations masquerading as free services. The world wide web was never intended merely as a global repository for cat photos and funny gifs, or a place to buy cheap tat from faraway factories, even if that is what the majority of internet use now revolves around. There can still be a place for all of that in the internet's future, but there is also the crucial opportunity to do much more. We must become less passive in our approach to how we use the internet, instead taking a more active role in shaping the how, why and what of the digital realm.

Srinivasan argues that to make a better internet, we need a new ethic of diversity, openness and inclusivity, empowering those people, worldwide, who are currently excluded from decisions about how technologies are designed, who profits from them and who are surveilled and exploited by them.

As Srinivasan writes: "In just the last three decades, a few folks sitting in Silicon Valley (and to a lesser extent in China) have managed to re-engineer our society, our governments, even how we feel, behave and think about ourselves." I'm sure most of us reading that sentence will instinctively flash on one or more apps or gadgets we use every day and acknowledge the extent to which that statement holds true for us as individuals.

The good news, at least in conceptual terms, is that whoever created and dictated the current state of internet affairs, we are all just as free to now begin the necessary process of rejecting their world-wide web view - "We are now waking from that spellbound slumber" - and start to redress the global imbalance.

The book is satisfyingly up to date, with Srinivasan citing numerous examples and events to illustrate and support key tenets of his thesis. The digitally manipulated 2016 US election result and the subsequent Facebook and Cambridge Analytica scandal are precisely dissected, as you might expect, but the book also looks forward to the 2020 election. Bernie Sanders vs Big Tech gets its share of attention, as does the rising value of data; the debatable merits of the gig economy; the 99 per centers' struggle to survive; the gargantuan wage disparity between them and certain 1 per center e-commerce CEOs (Srinivasan says count to 10 and Jeff Bezos has just made more money in those 10 seconds than the average Amazon warehouse order picker makes in a year); amazing digital enterprises happening in countries you might not expect (AI in Uganda, we're looking at you); the possibilities in blockchain; the future of education and more.

"All of us must step up to ensure that the digital world is more balanced," Srinivasan writes. Therein lies the rub, of course. However passionate one group might be about reshaping the internet to better reflect and empower the people of the world - addressing real needs, not merely satiating materialistic desires - there will always be a more supine group that simply wants to post selfies and 'Like' stuff. Still, the journey of a thousand miles etc.

This is a very readable book - akin to having an enjoyable and inspiring conversation with a clearly well-informed expert on the subject - that doesn't shy away from hard truths or potentially unpalatable solutions. Once you start thinking about it, as Srinivasan lays it out, there is clearly a lot wrong with Big Tech and Silicon Valley - there is no obvious need or justification for young male billionaires, playing in the Californian sunshine, throwing VC money at each other for fun, while billions of less privileged people around the world work themselves into an early grave for a pittance - so what can we do about it? Srinivasan and 'Beyond the Valley' offers us some illuminating answers.

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