Aral Balkan is a man with a mission. The designer and social entrepreneur is developing alternatives for Twitter, Facebook & Co., building a better (networked) world. In our interview, he explains what he wants to achieve, and why the idea of Europe is in jeopardy through the privatisation of democracy.
Connecting people with each other, that’s the simple goal of British designer Aral Balkan – but not in the sense that large tech companies have in mind, seeking profit from user data to such an extent that they have turned into bodies of surveillance.
"Mainstream technology today is predominantly spyware. This state of affairs is a threat to our individual freedoms and to democracy. We must build independent technologies that protect our privacy and civil liberties," he writes on his website Aral Balkan obviously likes a challenge. He is trying to create viable alternatives for the Silicon Valley giants’ business models – he founded Heartbeat, for instance, a platform that enables you to communicate with your friends – and really only with your friends.
Apart from independent technologies, Balkan also cares about his users staying in control. And design is important too, of course – otherwise you can’t compete with Apple and similarly sleek products. Open source alternatives have to be more visually appealing to become more successful than their counterparts. And this is exactly what Aral Balkan is working on.
Prior to the re:publica, Aral talks about what he’s planning to do there in our interview. At the conference, he will be speaking about the chances of technology as a multiplier, and why Europe is in jeopardy through the privatization of democracy.
You already attended #rp14 last year, as a guest. What do you like about the conference?
I was positively surprised by its alternative nature given its scope. It was a breath of fresh air to see talks by the likes of my friend Mikko Hyppönen, that were not the usual technologically-‐deterministic "ha ha, business!" Silicon Valley cheerleading you get at other large industry events without falling into the despair of [writer Evgeny] Morozov-‐esque defeatism. re:publica struck me as unique for having the soul of a exciting, independent, critical event in the body of a successful and popular international conference. That is a rare combination and it gave me hope that our discontent with the malware of mainstream technology is no longer an isolated or fringe affair but that we are gaining the momentum to make a meaningful change in the world.
This year, the #rp15 motto is Finding Europe. How do you evaluate our home continent’s current situation?
We’re at a critical junction in Europe – specifically in the European Union – where we have an important decision to make: Do we want to live in a "corporatocracy" or a democracy? If we want the latter, we need to make a radical course correction.
What does this course correction look like?
What we are witnessing today is the privatisation (and thus loss of) the public sphere and the commons in Europe. We are well on the way to crafting a dystopian future where all our digital public spaces are privately owned. What we’re seeing is the privatisation of democracy. There’s a word for privatised democracy: it’s corporatocracy. And it’s the exact opposite of democracy.
So the critical question of our time is: What kind of Europe do we want to find ourselves living in? A democratic Europe with self-‐determination that upholds the rights of individuals and fosters a healthy commons, or a corporatocracy under the hegemony of digital imperialism, where all our digital spaces are owned and controlled by foreign and domestic corporate interests? I want to live in the first one, and I'm fighting for that.
The course correction you talked about is noticeable in your efforts to create online alternatives for services like Facebook and Google. Are we on the right track for those alternatives?
I’m optimistic that we can fix this. But we have to first understand the core of the problem and then allow ourselves to comprehend its sheer magnitude. As [history of technology scholar] Melvin Kranzberg said, "Technology is neither good, nor bad, nor neutral". I see technology as a multiplier – it will multiply whatever you feed it, it doesn’t care what. So far, we have been feeding it a whole lot of bullshit and getting orders of magnitude of bullshit back. It’s time that we started feeding it meaningful things instead. We must understand that individual freedoms and a healthy commons are not diametrically opposed. They are, instead, complementary; one is essential to the wellbeing of the other. Given the multiplier effect of technology, we do not even have to be altruistic to realise this, we just need a better definition of selfishness: one in which our actions take into account our own longer-‐term welfare, not just our immediate one. We have to start designing holistic solutions that nurture human rights and the commons to create the habitat that humanity needs to reach its true potential. That is the future that humanity deserves.