Technology, Culture and Unity: The Need for Inclusive Alternative Futures

By Doina Ghimici, Core Government Functions and Parliament Policy and Programme Specialist at UNDP Bangkok Regional Hub

December 15, 2021

Imagining inclusive alternative futures and working to help materialize the most preferred ones has become almost a necessity.

Many people take technology for granted. Although for far too many, access to essential technologies such as Internet and smart phones is far from granted. (According to the SDG Report 2020 almost half of the global population – i.e. 3.7 billion people – were without Internet access in 2019 and in LDCs four in five people remained offline in 2020).

Moreover, not everyone is happy with how technology is designed, manufactured and deployed today. Questions related to inequality, ethics, pervasive surreptitious discrimination and privacy, for example, preoccupy an increasing number of people and organizations. These questions become even more burning when projected into the future.

Using their imagination, either with structure and intent, or rather intuitively or unplanned, people try to find possible answers or solutions to the questions and issues that bother them. We all try to imagine alternative, better futures!

There have been many structured attempts to reimagine the Internet, for example. The future of Internet is oftentimes a theme picked for explaining alternative scenarios at introductory foresight workshops. This is, on the one hand, because the future of humanity is inherently dependent on new, digital technologies, and on the other hand, because people everywhere increasingly acknowledge the centrality of interconnection – both human-human and human-nature (or human-planet) interconnections.   

I totally agree that “culture shapes technology and thereafter technology shapes culture”, and to the need for the Global South (and traditionally excluded communities from both North and South) to be more active in shaping present and future technological development. We need to be mindful, however, that not only culture in general, but also political culture – and political systems specifically – play a role. The way technology is built and deployed is likely to remain radically influenced by political values and behaviors – including with regard to human rights, democratic accountability, oversight and integrity.

Imagining inclusive alternative futures and working to help materialize the most preferred ones has become almost a necessity. But what sometimes worries me are ideas such as a possible “Southern Internet”, which has been suggested as a better alternative to the unfair “Northern” one we currently have.

Indeed our global political, economic and even technological systems have embedded structural failures and need overhauling. But simplifying interpretation and putting too much emphasis on what divides us (as opposed to what unites us) can easily backfire. For example, too much emphasis on North-South division may in the long run be as dangerous as the East-West divide used to be for half of last century. Not everything in the global southern social and political cultures is positive. Just as not every white man is privileged. Therefore, a technological future (or a future Internet for that matter) that would be informed exclusively by socio-political cultures of the Global South may not automatically be significantly better than one informed by Northern culture.

Perhaps focusing our attention on building global consensus on shared values, principles and minimum standards – and doing so through a truly inclusive global dialogue that involves everyone – would be the most important priority at this moment in time. I believe this should be our immediate objective.

Although it is easy to anticipate that, once agreed, enforcing global standards regarding new technologies might be problematic – as is the case with other international standards and obligations. Nevertheless, creating a common vision and shared standards through a truly inclusive dialogue could help with subsequent enforcement. Similarly, starting the dialogue from a careful analysis of risks and threats (including those of an existential nature), and balancing this with due consideration to opportunities, may essentially help achieve the envisaged consensus on a common vision. Then, guided by humanity’s truly inclusive and shared vision, alternative, culturally appropriate technological futures could be brought to life.  And the visioning and consensus building very process, owing to its inclusivity, could help reduce the technological divide – for example by having internet access granted by design to all people everywhere, and investing heavily and effectively in technological skills and capabilities.

What unites us must always have been stronger than what divides us. Just that humanity was not always aware. Some people (like indigenous people) have been remembering this truth from their ancestors all along. As more and more people enhance their awareness today, I trust ways in which the vision of unity could eventually dominate mainstream politics in both North and South will be found. And if it may not come naturally (sufficiently early), a plethora of complex, systemic risks and truly existential threats, which no country or part of the world can tackle in isolation, will push us to get there.

Technology is both a source of risk, and a source of hope and solutions to our shared risks and existential challenges. Technology could equally be central to humanity’s regenerating process of coming together!