Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) of the twenty-first century have fueled countless futuristic dreams of a just, democratic, people-powered world. The advent of personal computers and the Internet transformed global society from an industrial to an information one, where information processing took centerstage and ICTs became pervasive. Today no dimension of human life remains untouched by ICTs. These technologies have resulted in a deeply connected world, where time and geographical boundaries are bypassed and people from all walks of life can connect and communicate.
Semiconductor technologies have paved the way for increasing miniaturization and coupled with the industrial economy of scale, have brought magical mobile devices to the hands of millions. With mobile devices providing digital platforms for social media services, the rate at which digital technologies spread has been exponential. These changes promised a world where the pre-internet monopolies would fade away and information processing and knowledge production would be in the hands of the people rather than the powerful of the world as seen in the colonial era.
Muslims also saw many positives in ICTs and embraced such technologies without hesitation, in stark contrast to their predecessors who expressed many doubts about communication technologies of their era, like print, radio and television broadcasting, although each of these was accepted in time. Islamists of the twenty-first century have been quicker to accept such technological innovations, seeing them as a potential tool to challenge the hegemonic control of major world powers, corporations and media houses. The Arab Spring and other anti-establishment movements strengthened the belief that these new technologies provided a kind of liberating power,, not to mention the many other services provided by these digital platforms. Beyond the political, many Muslims also see in ICTs a critical medium for the teaching of Islam, both to teach Muslims about their faith, and for proselytization. Similar trends may be observed in other communities, ideologies, political affiliations, development practitioners, activists and the like.
So have the big promises of the ICT revolution been fulfilled?
Is the world more democratic now, powered by the people?
Are the previous century’s colonial monopolizers of knowledge and power gone?
Are capitalist modes of exploitation gone?
Is the political domination by the few now a thing of the past?
These promises remain unfulfilled. The market share of the Information economy is still in the hands of a few corporate multinational giants. The divide between the rich and the poor is not vanishing but increasing. The exploitation of the weaker in the supply chain of this Information economy continues.
What does Islam have to say on this? Muslim discourse on ICTs tends to focus on what one is using the technology for. So if you are using ICTs for a good purpose then you don’t have to think much beyond that. However, a more wholistic approach is needed, one that takes into account the consequences of the mass adoption of ICTs across the world.
“Muslim discourse on ICTs tends to focus on what one is using the technology for. So if you are using ICTs for a good purpose then you don’t have to think much beyond that. However, a more wholistic approach is needed, one that takes into account the consequences of the mass adoption of ICTs across the world.”
A prime example: the supply chain of the mobile devices in our hands. Many materials used in most mobile devices are brought from precious metal mines in Africa, often controlled by warlords whose laborers work under severe conditions. The devices themselves are generally assembled in Asian sweatshops, where again laborers are exploited to work more for less pay. The largest profit goes to the industries who manufacture them and not the laborers themselves. Do we ever think about this from an Islamic ethical point of view? Do we question the reason for the cheap cost of these mobile devices? By buying these devices, do we not become a part of this exploitative supply chain? And at that point, even if we use these devices for good, does that good intention wash away the sinful acts of exploitation rampant in this supply chain?
Tyranny of the Digital Platforms
Another ethical dilemma: the free services given to us by many websites and apps we use on our PCs and mobile phones. Are they really free? Google and Facebook claim that they are offering great services at no charge, but as Milton Freidman said, “There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.” The business model of these digital platforms follows that of the old media houses, which relied primarily on advertisements. Our attention is a commodity, traded over for the “free” services being provided to us. What distinguishes the advertisement strategy of these new digital platforms from their predecessors is the ability to offer targeted advertisements. These digital platforms spend fortunes collecting and analyzing every trace we leave when using our digital devices. As we make use of these services, we hand over more and more information about ourselves, our desires, our goals, our behavior patterns – all of which help these digital platforms know more about what we are likely to buy. This information is used to offer targeted advertisements, increasing manifold the probability that the viewer buys the product being advertised.
Having established that these services are not, in fact, free, and are making money by commodifying our attention, we must now recognize the danger that lies therein. The primary goal of these digital platforms is not to provide services to us, but to maximize their profits. As such, media platforms like YouTube and Facebook try to make their services as addictive as possible. These addictive services, amply filled with targeted advertisements that the viewer is more likely to buy, does not bring about a heathy society, but rather produces a hyper-consumerist society addicted to media consumption and obsessed with buying more and more, whether needed or not.
Moreover, although marketed as free, the “freeness” of these services often comes at the cost of disrupting local entrepreneurial systems. Globe-spanning corporations like Google and Facebook possess the huge capital needed to offer services to the public at a discounted price, forcing any potential small businesses competing in a related market to run under loss and eventually shut down. For this reason, the largest market share of the present information economy goes into the hands of a few big multinational corporate players i.e. Google, Microsoft, Facebook and Amazon. However, the cost of this “freeness” has to be paid for somewhere. Talk to the common laborers in these rich multinational corporations: the delivery personnel, drivers, packagers, etc. and you will again see the same kind of exploitation which was the hallmark of the previous industrial economy.
Beyond the above ethical concerns, the commoditization of information and knowledge results in a society where every human endeavor is done to sell more. Art and literature is made to sell and not to explore human creativity. Education is likewise commoditized. News is presented in ways that maximize viewership, regardless of accuracy. The entertainment industry harnesses every kind of negative human trait and gains popularity not based on the merit of its content but on the extent of violence, sex, and spectacular wealth is portrayed therein.
This commodification of information and knowledges stifles our intellectual capabilities. Take, for instance, Google’s search engine – perhaps the greatest symbol of information technology innovation. We go to Google to search for anything, often without a thought as to how it works. This search engine displays webpages according to Google’s page ranking algorithm. The higher the rank of the webpage with respect to the keyword, the higher the webpage will appear in the search result. But how is this page ranking done? Generally, the more a page is visited, the higher its rank will be. However, Google has started personalizing search results based upon who is searching a given keyword. This ostensibly helps the user find results more relevant to his or her likes and context, thus making the search experience friendlier. However, if we start receiving search results according to our own biases then how will we develop a critical perspective on anything we learn? Even the factor of “most visited” does not guarantee the credibility of that webpage, as sensationalized content will predictably draw more viewers than a more accurate, but less appealing, webpage. A search of keywords on Islam, for instance, reveals higher rankings for Islamophobic websites than for accurate depictions of Islamic practice. Such websites peddle lies about Islam but they earn the crown place in Google’s search results by the simple fact that they are visited more and the more a page is visited the better its page rank. Is this really how we ought to envision knowledge acquisition? In this manner, we create our own filter bubble and remain inside a shell, closing all doors of critical thinking, disagreement and dialogue even when connected to what ought to be the largest repository of information in human history. The present polarized nature of cyberculture is a proof of this critical flaw.
The pervasive usage of digital communications likewise stifles our ethical growth. Platforms like Instagram and Facebook harness the addictiveness of the dopamine release that follows every like or view or positive comment. Enjoying praise is a natural human tendency but an obsession with receiving more praise, through more likes, is deeply problematic. If our life choices and actions are defined more by what others like and praise, how will we develop a stable moral character?
“Platforms like Instagram and Facebook harness the addictiveness of the dopamine release that follows every like or view or positive comment. Enjoying praise is a natural human tendency but an obsession with receiving more praise, through more likes, is deeply problematic. If our life choices and actions are defined more by what others like and praise, how will we develop a stable moral character?”
Even when attempting to use these platforms for good, there are often negative consequences. Consider the timeline of a typical social media platform. Scrolling through the timeline, we see one post after another. In one moment we are sad, another moment happy, next we are laughing, and this keeps going on and on. This rapid shift in our attention prevents us from giving any deep thought to a single issue. This is especially the case with social media activism: posts about crimes committed around the world are meant to draw attention and enact positive action, but more often simply result in a loss of empathy and mass desensitization, with the sad result that news of theft, murder, lynching, rape and other tragedies becomes no more than a few seconds of disquiet, quickly forgotten after we see the next post. Even our engagement with these issues, when limited to the virtual realm, makes us unconsciously so passive that we never think about doing anything beyond likes and shares.
Crony Capitalism, Fake News and State Surveillance
It comes as no surprise that the capitalistic tendencies of these digital platforms and the power seeking tendencies of political actors have often furthered their goals in tandem, taking crony capitalism to the digital arena.
Today fake news spread via social media can easily become viral, reaching millions of viewers. This is all the more worrying because fake news is not harmless: it is often designed with specific, malignant political ends in mind, yet too often such news goes by unregulated on digital platforms. One of the biggest reasons behind the virality of fake news is the technological design of these platforms. The more something gets spread the more profit these companies can make, and unfortunately fake news often has just the right degree of sensationalism to capture the interest of the masses and become viral in a way that accurate reporting does not. As you can advertise anything on these digital platforms, political actors build support for their movement by buying advertisements inciting fear and division among the masses, matched with any number of fake news stories. This political manipulation of the masses puts democracy across the globe in huge danger.
Planned Obsolescence of Technology
A final example of an ethical dilemma in ICTs: the spread of planned obsolescence practices in the manufacturing of technological devices. Device manufacturing giants construct their products in such a way that they do not last, and that repairing even a small defect costs the user so much that they instead decide to buy a new one. These products are generally not modular or interoperable, discouraging the user to think about replacing only the defective parts. Furthermore, the functioning of these devices is increasingly opaque in order to discourage any kind of Do It Yourself (DIY) attempts to repair the devices. This opacity is also a means for unwanted software to be added in to the devices: since the consumer is not able to examine the deepest structures of these devices, they will not be able to measure for hidden built-in surveillance mechanisms that are used to capture more information about the consumer to fuel the targeted advertisement industry.
At the same time, these devices are advertised as status symbols. Fashion and celebrity endorsements push many to buy newer versions of these devices, with new models produced every year featuring largely cosmetic improvements. Without any need, many people replace their existing devices with newer devices every year. This results in a multitude of e-waste while also further fueling a supply chain mired in cycles of exploitation and produced an even greater carbon footprint.
“Have we ever questioned these kinds of digital platforms or keep using them blindly? Does Islam allow us to be a part of these predatory surveillance capitalistic systems without question? Are Islamic ideas of knowledge, education, art and culture so commodified? Does Islam encourage such kind of attention deficit, desensitization and passive media consumption? “
What’s the way out?
Have we ever questioned these kinds of digital platforms or keep using them blindly? Does Islam allow us to be a part of these predatory surveillance capitalistic systems without question? Are Islamic ideas of knowledge, education, art and culture so commodified? Does Islam encourage such kind of attention deficit, desensitization and passive media consumption? Similarly take the example of privacy. Does Islamic ethics encourage any kind of surveillance? Then how do we allow this system to flourish without raising any concerns against it? At least the question is for those who raise their voice against oppression through their activism day and night. If we are encouraging the same system throughout without any concern, then where is all this going to take us?
I have tried to show the darker side of the present digital realm in which we are living. I do not mean to argue that there is nothing of use in this technology. No doubt, well-intentioned people will find opportunities in any system to enact some good, and for this reason there are many positive elements in these digital platforms. But as things currently stand, the negative consequences are outweighing the positive – there is more hatred than love, more greed than generosity.
The Internet age started with a great potential to democratize information and communication but capitalistic tendencies have taken over and disrupted that potential. For this reason, we need to be critical curators when it comes to using technology, rather than blindly accept the latest development. Going beyond questions of good and bad use, we need to take a wholistic look at the broader consequences of the spread of these technologies. Doing so, we see many issues that are not compatible with a sound view of Islamic ethics, including crony capitalism, labor exploitation, compulsion in opinions, totalitarianism, environmental degradation, violation of privacy, apathy in the face of injustice, commoditization of knowledge and education, commoditization of art and culture, consumerism and materialist extravagance, and so on.
To counter these issues, I argue for undertaking the following guidelines:
- We should minimize our use of digital platforms fueled by crony capitalism
- We should create public campaigns against surveillance capitalism and lobby for regulations and policies to curb such practices.
- We should support legal reforms that seek to treat the prevailing tendencies of multinational corporations killing competition and forcing out local, small and micro-entrepreneurial agents.
- We should buy digital devices whose supply chain is less exploitative.
- We should buy digital devices only when they are needed.
- We should support more Open Source Hardware and Software and discourage Proprietary Software.
- We should discourage copyright and closed knowledge culture when it comes to digital media at least. We should call for more Open Resources in education, news and entertainment. The best current example of this is the Creative Commons which allows a more open knowledge culture. This helps to minimize the commoditization of knowledge, art and culture.
- We should minimize our digital footprints – that is use digital devices in such a way that we don’t allow them to capture information about every aspect of our lives.
- We should use alternative digital platforms that are more transparent and run on co-operative models, controlled by the end users and not by centralized agencies.
- We should use digital devices and platforms whose carbon footprints are minimal.
- We should look for technological designs and architectures which are more open, modular and encourage tinkering, plug and play, Do It Yourself engagement.
- We should fight for an alternative architecture of the Internet that is more decentralized.
- We should create more localized community operated co-operative Internet rather relying solely upon big Internet service providers.
- We should create a culture of digital literacy in order to make the masses realize the better use of digital technologies and understand the dangers associated with them.
- We should create a balance between the real and the virtual. Our life should be governed by the real and not the virtual, thus minimizing our overuse of various kinds of digital platforms.
- We should choose to work for those companies who are more socially responsible and have better ethics when it comes to profiting and making money.
- We should create better digital alternatives which can give better services to everyone, not at the cost of agency, privacy and environmental degradation but with the prime motive of public welfare
I offer the above arguments and guidelines without referring directly to specific Islamic textual sources like the Quran and the Hadith, but I hope that the issues raised here inspire further research in this regard such that our Islamic scholars and experts are able to articulate a set of guidelines for engagement with this new, digital world, based upon extensive action research and a strong theoretical grounding.
Mujahidul Islam is an Edtech Specialist at Azim Premji University. He works on the crossroad of technology, media and education with a special emphasis on the digital ways of learning and the theological underpinnings of mediated and perceptual learning. His expertise lies in ideating, developing and implementing appropriate, simple and cost effective digital solutions (platform, tools and content) in the field of Education and Development.
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