On December 6, Evegeny Morozov gave a keynote at the Transforming capitalism in the Age of AI conference organized by the Foundation for European Progressive Studies in Brussels. In his speech, he presented a progressive vision for public digital infrastructure, emphasizing the importance of thinking about it through the paradigm of the digital commons. Below is a transcript of the last part of his presentation:
“When I see that initial critique went wrong, was in formulating this alternative third path, this alternative third way, strictly through the paradigm of software. They didn’t perceive institutions as also capable of facilitating social coordination. But ultimately, that’s what institutions are. If you look at most public institutions in society, whether it’s the post office, or the library, or the university, or many of the other examples I’ve given you before, their primary task is facilitating coordination among people, among people in institutions, among people and knowledge bases, but social coordination is at the heart of what they do. And the reason why I went into this detour, into thinking about institutions, is that (…) it is obvious that in this day and age, we can not just be building alternative free software products to match those that Silicon Valley is building.
This is nice, but I think those thinking about this through the paradigm of digital commons are probably getting a little bit closer to the right answer. Because digital commons imply not just the passive use of infrastructures, it means active care and maintenance of them. It means an actual involvement in an infrastructure as an institution, as opposed to just passive use. And it’s obvious that if the path that the progressives would like to follow is neither that of the market AI nor the centrally planned AI. Then, the alternative that I think is consistent with their own philosophy and with their ideology is that of an institutionally mediated AI that facilitates social coordination. And that would be social coordination for perhaps the provision of public services; perhaps it would be for reinventing health institutions; perhaps it would be for facilitating and getting people away from the kind of alienation that we feel about politics and civic life. But ultimately, an answer to a properly distinct need for a properly socialist or social-democratic, progressive AI, I think, has to start with recognizing that this is a deeply political mission, and the deeply political mission has to return to the progressivism as something that is about allowing people to reach the maximum of their potential in a socially mediated and institutionally mediated environment and to do it in a way that does not solely rely on the market as the only institution capable of getting us there. I think it is very important to account for the costs of relying on the market, and as we account for them I think it is time that we also develop alternatives.
To develop these alternatives, I do think that a proper re-examination of our own project is needed, and I do think that trying to think about this through the lens of a massive push for digital commons as a hybrid path between infrastructures and institutions that societies and groups can be using to coordinate their own activities outside of the market, as the only reference point, would be a step in the right direction.