Oh, that's really cool. It's a sign that change is somewhat possible. And to follow on that, I want to ask, do you think it's possible to reshape digital power, broadly defined as you described at the beginning in the public interest, and to use it to address the big crises such as environmental collapse?
Cory: I think that technology that's responsive to its users’ needs, technology that is designed to maximise technological self-determination, is critical to any future in which we address our major crises. The main thing that digital technology does, the best way of understanding its transformative power, is that it lowers transaction costs – the costs you bear when you try to do things with someone else.
When I was a kid, for example, if I wanted to go to the movies with friends on a Friday night, we would either have to plan it in advance or we did this absurd thing where we would call each other's mothers from payphones, leaving messages and hoping they somehow got through. Of course, now you just send a text to your group chat saying, Anybody up for a movie? That's a simple and straightforward example of how we lower transaction costs.
The internet makes transaction costs so much lower. It allows us to do things like build encyclopaedias and operating systems and other ambitious projects in an easy, improvisational way. Lowering transaction costs is really important to fomenting social change because, by definition, powerful actors have figured out transaction costs. If you're a dictator or a large corporation, your job is to figure out how to coordinate lots of people to do the same thing at once. That's where the source of your power is –coordinating lots of people to act in concert to project your will around the world.
So, while these transaction costs mean the cost of figuring out who is at a protest has never been lower for police cops, the cost of organising a protest has also never been lower. I spent a good fraction of my boyhood riding a bicycle around downtown Toronto pasting posters to telephone poles, trying to mobilise people for anti-nuclear-proliferation demonstrations, anti-apartheid demonstrations, pro-abortion demonstrations and so on. So, whatever fun people might make of clicktivism, it is riches beyond our wildest dreams of just a few decades ago.
So, our project needs to be not to snuff out technology, but to figure out how to seize the means of computation, how to build a technological substrate that is responsive to people, that enables us to coordinate our will and our effort and our ethics to build a world that we want – including one with less carbon, and with less injustice, more labour rights and so on.
Here's an example of how it can do that to address the environmental crisis. We are often asked to choose between de-growth and material abundance, so we're told that de-growth means doing less with less. But there is a sense in which more coordination would let us do significantly more with less. I live in a suburban house outside Los Angeles, for example, and I have a cheap drill because I only need to make a hole in my wall six times a year. My neighbours also own terrible drills for the same reason. But there is such a thing as a very good drill. And if we had a world in which we weren't worried about surveillance because our states were accountable to us, and we weren't worried about coercive control, then we could have drills that were statistically distributed through our neighbourhoods and the drills would tell you where they were. That is a world in which you have a better drill, where it's always available, always within arm's reach, but in which the material, energy, labour bill drops by orders of magnitude. It just requires coordination and accountability in our technology.