Laws, Tech, and Narratives for the Future

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Jun 16, 2019
by David Bray
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Laws, Tech, and Narratives for the Future

Executive director for the People-Centered Internet Coalition Dr. David Bray writes op-ed inspired by conversations at the Salzburg Global Law and Technology Forum Dr. David Bray in conversation at Salzburg Global Seminar

Dr. David Bray was a participant at the Salzburg Global Seminar program, Privacy, Security, and Ethics in an Asymmetric World, the inaugural program of the Salzburg Global Law and Technology Forum. He is the executive director for the People-Centered Internet Coalition, an Eisenhower and Marshall Memorial Fellow, World Economic Forum Young Global Leader, and one of the “Top 24 Americans Who Are Changing the World Under 40.” Later this month, on June 26, he will deliver the future-focused AI World Society Distinguished Lecture at the United Nations Headquarters on United Nations Charter Day.

Through shared narratives, the enforcement of laws, and use of technologies, humans have shaped social norms and reshaped how power (i.e., the capability to compel or oblige someone to take a certain course of actions) has been distributed in our communities. Now, with the beginning of the 21st century, we are facing big questions of “Quo Vadis?” — where do we want to go? Communities and human societies, especially given the recent rate of new technologies challenging the distribution of power within our societies. With these changes, there is both huge opportunity for improving our communities with people-centered approaches, as well as significant challenges where our digital future may not be as hopeful as we would like it to be.

We, humans, are tool users. Our tool use is connected to our use of narratives, laws, and technologies to distribute power. Starting with the beginning of history, we used fire and stone tools to make the transition from a nomadic lifestyle to one where we began to settle and plant crops. Our use of tools helped give rise to civilization, including the advancement of writing, the development of calendars for crops, and the start of navigation of the seas.

Even before the start of human civilizations, human nature included some aspects where selfish instincts –- be they greed, envy, or other hurtful elements — challenged the formation of large human communities beyond immediate family members. While some civilizations generated social order through sheer physical force imposed upon other humans, compelling obedience, other civilizations generated social order through an initial system of laws that sought to protect communities from the greed, envy, or other hurtful elements of others. Such a system of laws was not developed for purely altruistic reasons. The same system of laws solidified the power of rulers and included different forms of taxation over the labor of their subjects.

Laws, Technologies, and Civilizations

Laws and the legal process of distributed power, and in several cases of early civilizations, solidified the power of community members to compel or oblige other humans to perform certain actions. Laws and the legal process also enabled humans to co-exist more peacefully in larger groupings insofar the distribution of power did not motivate any part of the community to revert to sheer physical force to change this distribution.
As human communities grew, so did their use of tools and development of more advanced tools such as metal tools and weapons, bows and arrows, and later both gunpowder and flintlock firearms. Such tools as technological developments had the effect of expanding civilizations and disrupting the distribution of power within societies.

Certain new tools as technological advances, such as the assembly line, required new laws to protect individuals from an asymmetrical distribution of power associated with these technologies, such as long work hours in unsafe working conditions. With advances in technologies, the ethics of societies also shifted, with the embodiment of these changing ethics in new laws — such as laws against child labor.

Certain technological developments, like railroads or radio, allowed certain individuals to aggregate power or allowed the distribution of communications across communities that challenged the distribution of power.

For some civilizations, these technologies helped highlight discrimination against groups of humans in societies and prompt civil rights laws. The same technologies however also allowed a mob-mentality that failed to uplift humanity in ways that were intended, such as Nazi Germany’s use of “People’s Radio” sets leading up to and during World War II that created dangerous echo chambers of thought during that dangerous time period.

Human Narratives and Societies

There’s an additional interesting linkage between narratives, community norms, and power distribution. In addition to tool use, and due to selection pressures in our species’ evolutionary history, we humans are storytellers. This may have to do with consciousness, including some element of simulating events — which stories allow us to do. By simulating events in our mind, we can “test potential scenarios” without incurring some near-fatal or fatal outcome and thus increase our survival chances.

Stories can be told that change behaviors. A simple, visceral story of, “I did X once, and it caused me to puke my guts out” probably would serve to make several people who have never do whatever X was to avoid it. Note: this is where we get into the serious challenges of misinformation online, namely that the best way for something to go viral is to make it hateful or fearful; positive narratives don’t go viral as well.

If stories can be told that change behaviors, repeat behaviors over time can become ‘sticky’ habits. These repetitive habits inculcate norms. The power of narratives is exactly their ability to shape behaviors over time, thereby institutionalizing norms and power distribution in our human communities— again, with power defined as the capability to compel or oblige someone to take a certain course of actions.

There’s also increasing evidence though that we humans developed communication and language to convince others that the scenario there were facing was similar to what we were facing, too (i.e., “myside”) so much that some researchers now call confirmation bias “myside bias” which is adaptive insomuch that if the group of humans can collectively be on the same “myside” that helps with coordinated responses to whatever threat or opportunity was presenting itself.
Now, however, our world is much broader than the immediate environment that we see and experience nearby. This has dangerous side-effects, such as challenges in reaching consensus or disputing the relevant facts for a situation.

Quo Vadis?

Now, with the start of the 21st century, we need to ask important questions about where we want to go? How do we want to uplift and improve our communities with people-centered approaches? Whereas laws can be revised and rewritten, digital technologies— once developed— are hard to put back in the box.

We see increasing polarization in open societies, partly as a result of these questions of where we want to go not being considered in ways that can translate to action. An even larger question is, where do different localities want to go in terms of progress in parallel to what values or norms it wants to hold dear to? This is a question that span sectors. No one organization or influencer or group with power can either solely answer or execute actions towards that desired future state. In the absence of finding ways to build bridges that span sectors, power — through narratives, laws, or technologies— will be grabbed by whoever aspires to this.

An important question for the future, is can we build such bridges across sectors? Will our divisions be our undoing as open, pluralistic societies?

Can we develop narratives of hope for open, pluralistic societies that bring people together?


Dr. Bray was a participant at the Salzburg Global Seminar program, Privacy, Security, and Ethics in an Asymmetric World, the inaugural program of the Salzburg Global Law and Technology Forum. More information on this multi-year series is available at the following link: https://bit.ly/2VPcn3z