Re:publica 2018: giving ′power to the people′ online | Digital Culture | DW | 03.05.2018
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Digital Culture

Re:publica 2018: giving 'power to the people' online

Europe's largest conference for digital culture is taking place in Berlin for the 12th time. Whistleblower Chelsea Manning is one of the event's guests discussing the threats and the challenges we are currently facing.

The Re:publica, Europe's largest conference for digital culture held annually in Berlin, wants to reach out to the mainstream. Over 9,000 visitors are expected during the three-day event through Friday. This year's slogan is "Pop the Bubble," shortened to the hashtag #POP, which is also an abbreviation for "The Power of People." 

It sounds like an emergency call — to base developments on people instead of technologies, and to focus on humanitarian values instead of becoming digital slaves, as made clear during US whistleblower Chelsea Manning's presentation made on Wednesday. 

"We can't depend on an institution, we can't ask for institutions to simply fix themselves. We actually have to make them change," she said.

"We really need to figure out how to hold people who develop machine learning accountable," Manning added. "It is more than just hype. It's dangerous."

Between fears and challenges

This call is echoed by different speakers at the event.

"What we need is a debate on the type of society in which we want to live in," said German philosopher and author Richard David Precht.

There are several reasons to be worried, in his view. "We are facing huge monopolists from the US such as Google, Amazon, Facebook and Apple," he told DW.

They are powerful enough to manage people digitally and to canalize their needs, he believes. The Cambridge Analytica Facebook data scandal is the most recent demonstration of this. 

Read more: Cambridge Analytica shuts down following Facebook data scandal 

German media scholar Bernhard Pörksen warns, however, against spreading generalized fears related to the current digital revolution.

"I believe that the apocalyptic horror vision of a society that is completely manipulated by technologies is to no one's advantage," he told DW. "The media offers fantastic possibilities, but we are not up to the challenge yet. I would say we are in a phase of mental adolescence facing these possibilities."

Just as growing concerns for the environment have impacted society and business in recent years, Pörksen hopes for a change of mindset that will focus less on "digital economy" and more on "digital ecology."

Social media is currently polluted by hateful comments and violent threats — and that needs to be stopped before it's too late, he believes.

Read more: The artworks Facebook has turned into porn

Technology amplifies existing problems

As US media scholar Danah Boyd pointed out during her opening panel, technology merely amplifies existing problems.

If Google provides only pictures of white newborns when one types "baby" because its algorithms recognize that most people click on these images, it only serves to limit diversity online.

How social diversity and humanitarian values can be promoted online will be further discussed this week as Re:publica seeks to pop the digital bubble.

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