The fallacy of technological solutions to social problems

Throughout human history, discoveries and inventions have always had a great impact on the way we know and live. But they have also had a powerful psychological effect, often being labelled as miracles or magic.

Famous was the invention of Heron of Alexandria, based on his many contributions to the field of mechanics and mathematics, who in the 1st century created an automatic opening system for the doors of a temple, which for those present was undoubtedly the product of the power of the gods.
While the faithful saw that (Guevara Pezoa, 2019) “the priest lit a flame at the entrance to invoke the gods, who responded by opening the doors to allow entry, behind the scenes, the flame heated a receptacle filled with water, hidden from the view of those who came to the temple. As the water contained in the receptacle boiled, the steam generated triggered a series of counterweights that set-in motion a system of pulleys that finally opened the doors”.

Tomasso Campanella, one of the most influential philosophers of the Renaissance, stated that “technology is always called magic until it is understood, but after a while it becomes common science“.

The magic of technology, far from being a museum souvenir from a distant human infancy, is still alive and well. As in past times, there are still self-proclaimed shamans who attribute to these technical prodigies the virtue of curing all ills.

Such is the case of those who today proclaim that the ongoing technological revolution, at the heart of which is the digitalisation of the processes of material and symbolic production, will be the exclusive instrument to overcome the structural shortcomings of the current system. These interpreters omit that, as in the past, technical gadgetry serves above all the exorbitant enrichment of a few people, and that the advances generated by these instruments are not equally accessible to all, exacerbating inequalities.

Lastly, it is not even said that the logic behind these showy mechanisms strengthens dependencies, inhibiting other multiple paths of development and strongly impacting on the vision of the world.
The ploy is a publicity stunt, but also a political one.

The new “techno-business consensus” of Davos

In the face of the evident crisis humanity is going through, marked by violence in its different expressions (physical, economic, cultural, psychological, gender, ecological, etc.), the World Economic Forum, with the support of many of the main financial and high-tech business corporations, is generating and trying to impose a supposedly “novel” ideological consensus: that of technological innovation and entrepreneurship, dressed in a social and environmentalist aura, as the way to solve the various problems.

Far from promoting the essential redistribution of wealth and power, wellbeing would be achieved – according to these worshippers of money as the central value – through the “ethical” application of technology, the public-private (co-optation?) partnership and the affirmation of the usefulness of profit as a driving force in achieving the sustainable development goals set out in the United Nations’ Agenda 2030.

Every social problem, from hunger, disease, climate change, inequality, even loneliness or death can – according to these proponents of capitalist reconversion – have a technological solution, as long as there is a business opportunity, that is, always.

As an essential addition, and legitimised by themselves, they organise from their think tank Centre for the Fourth Industrial Revolution an attempt at strategic design for global governance called Global Councils of the Fourth Industrial Revolution.
Among the functions of these councils, according to their descriptive document, would be to “identify gaps in public policy or private practice that could benefit from the development of multi-stakeholder policy frameworks and governance protocols”. Another intended remit is to “create a structured but informal process among key policy makers, practitioners and experts for the exchange of information, experiences and learnings from innovative policy and governance experiments around the world to shape the trajectory of emerging technologies” as well as “act as early adopters and ambassadors to test, refine and improve the interoperability of Fourth Industrial Revolution policies and protocols.”

What sounds like conspiracy theory is an ongoing reality. Listed are the Global Council on Artificial Intelligence, the Global Council on the Internet of Things, the Global Council on Blockchain Technology, the Global Council on Urban and Autonomous Mobility, the related Drones and Air Mobility, and Precision Medicine. To prevent democratic intrusions, the pamphlet is explicit: “participation by invitation only”.
Not for nothing, the founder of the World Economic Forum and author of the book “The Fourth Industrial Revolution”, German economist and businessman Klaus Schwab, has also been a board member of the Bilderberg Club.

This aspiration to supplant all inter-state mechanisms with global governance in the hands of business corporations was already embodied in the Global Redesign Initiative in 2009.

In an introductory commentary by its three co-chairs Schwab, Malloch-Brown, (then WEF vice-president) and Samans (its executive director), to the 600-page report presented in Doha ‘Everybody’s Business: Strengthening International Cooperation in a More Interdependent World’ – quoted in the book by Manahan and Kumar mentioned below – one can read: “The time has come for a new paradigm of international stakeholder governance, analogous to that embodied in the theory of corporate stakeholder governance on which the World Economic Forum itself was founded”.

The corporate techno-political strategy

The Davos Economic Forum’s initiative known as “the great reset” aspires to be the launch of a new stage (or “reset”, to better use digital technology terms) of capitalism.

Following the interpretation of an old business adage derived from the Japanese and Chinese word for “crisis” (kiki and wēijī respectively, an ideogram composed of the terms “danger” and “opportunity”), the WEF sees in the global consequences of the pandemic not the logical correlate of the deterioration of a system of appropriation and destruction, but the possibility of infusing capital with new horizons through the model conceived by Schwab himself and called “stakeholder capitalism”.

This capitalism would come to replace “shareholder capitalism” -predominant in Western corporations- and “state capitalism”, which has had an important role in the emerging economies of Asia. Capitalism that, according to the same author, aims for “companies to pay a fair share of taxes, show zero tolerance for corruption and respect human rights in their global supply chains”. As if that were not enough, it suggests respecting competition on a level playing field, including when operating in the “platform economy”, which requires new metrics and a new purpose for investment that includes “environmental, social and governance objectives”.3

The positive marketing of this proposal, a continuation of the failed idea of “corporate social responsibility” after the social catastrophe caused by neoliberalism imposed by blood and treaties in the last decades of the last century, has excited many corporations. Although we do not know for sure, it is possible that the donations with which they support the development of this innovative strategy in propagandistic terms are deducted from their tax declarations, nowadays tending towards absolute minimums.

Far from being a bad joke, this ecological and charitable whitewashing of capital (always fond of whitewashing) is increasingly making inroads into the multilateral system of the United Nations. The capture of the system of global governance parameters is taking place through the eponymous “multistakeholder system”.

In the book “The great takeover”, authors Mary Ann Manahan and Madhuresh Kumar mapped and analysed 103 “multistakeholder” initiatives with prominent corporate involvement in the fields of education, environment, health, internet and data, and food and agriculture.

In the introduction to the text, the editors note: “By shifting the centre of key policy decisions in the multilateral system to mixed mechanisms in which the private sector rules – with the support of some states, international institutions and major philanthropists – the phenomenon of “multi-stakeholderisation” of global governance has become systemic.”

The financial crisis of the United Nations, motivated among other things by declining contributions from its richest members, particularly the United States of America, opened the floodgates for an increasing involvement of transnationals and philanthropy in sectoral action partnerships with the multilateral organisation.

“Over time, the creation of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the 2015 Paris Agreement, which incorporated multi-stakeholder partnerships as a cornerstone of their implementation and realisation, further entrenched multi-stakeholderism in the UN system,” the authors note.
Correlating this process, “on 13 June 2019, the United Nations and the World Economic Forum signed a Strategic Partnership Framework under the pretext of “deepening institutional arrangements to accelerate the implementation of the SDGs”.

No to the determinism of technology and of investment funds

It is common to identify digital technology companies with their founders. Thus, to speak of Amazon, Google, Facebook-Meta, Microsoft, is to speak of Bezos, Brin, Page, Zuckerberg or Gates. However, even if these entrepreneurs retain a significant part of the shares in their companies, the real owners of these companies are the giants of the financial world.

A brief review: Bezos is Amazon’s largest individual shareholder (9.81%), but 60% of the shares are in institutional hands. The top 5 groups (Vanguard, Black Rock, State Street Corp., Price/T. Rowe Assoc., FMR Llc) together hold 21.8%.

Larry Page and Sergei Brin, who founded Google (now Alphabet Inc.) in 1998, currently hold 2.96% and 2.82% of the shares, while the 5 financial groups mentioned above, in practically the same order of precedence, hold 22.75%. Two thirds of this company is owned by investment funds.

The case of Meta Platforms (formerly Facebook) is similar. While almost 65% of the shares are in institutional hands, Mark Zuckerberg reduced, according to Forbes, his shareholding to just under 15%. The top list of institutional shareholders includes the same five funds, totalling 28%.

Two of the financial groups mentioned (Black Rock and State Street Corp.) along with all the GAMs and related foundations are on the select list of companies supporting the work of the World Economic Forum.

Speaking about the transition to decarbonisation and a hypothetical “net zero” in emissions, Black Rock CEO Lawrence (Larry) Fink, in his 2022 letter to his investors, says: “We focus on sustainability not because we are environmentalists, but because we are capitalists and fiduciaries for our clients”. Elsewhere in his message, the new Davos mantram appears: “Multi-stakeholder capitalism is about delivering long-term, durable returns to shareholders.”

For his part, State Street Corp. chairman and CEO Ronald P. O’Hanley is even more explicit: “The era of stakeholder capitalism has arrived,” he says in a note entitled “Why the road to stakeholder capitalism begins with diverse boards of directors.” With the term “diversity”, indeed O’Hanley seems to espouse the idea of inclusiveness, saying “it is a definition that starts from non-uniformity of thought and encompasses race and ethnicity, gender and sexual orientation, religion and age, geographic and socio-economic backgrounds, etc.”.

Progressive CEOs? Or the same savage capitalism dressed up in green, lilac and even multicolour?

It is not those who have brought us here who are going to lead us out of the multidimensional and anti-humanist crisis of the system. It is not a pretended technological solution in their hands that will make the difference.

The severe social problems will only be solved through a multidimensional and participatory democracy, not only political but also economic, communicational, cultural, gender (and as many others as you like), aiming at decentralisation and deconcentration of power. The future lies in human communities, in the social base, not in their leaders.

Author: Javier Tolcachier – Researcher at Centro de Estudios Humanistas in Cordoba, Argentina.
This article was included in the digital publication Internet Ciudadana #7 and published by the International Press Agency Pressenza under Creative Commons 4.0 license.

Cover illustration by Mike Winkelmann aka Beeple released under Creative Commons license.

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