Technology & Science

The Poli-Tricks of TL;DR: The Technical is Political

Cartoon by Manu Cornet via bonkersworld.net. CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0

This post is an edited version of a keynote delivered by Nanjira Sambuli, Web Foundation Senior Policy Manager, at re:publica19 in Berlin. It was first published on Techpoint.africa.


It’s increasingly evident that digitalisation has brought numerous benefits. From convenience and ease of communications, to easing movements of goods and services across the globe. But let’s take a trip down memory lane, to where this sort of digitalisation kicked off.

Let’s take it back to those days when internet access was starting to be more accessible to us. For some it was dial-up. For some it was flip phones. And for most of us now, smart phones.

It was the dawn of social media and the great promise that was held then. Communication took on new, exciting forms. We started to see transcending of physical boundaries.

We started to speak of, and started exploring, the whole idea and potential of citizen journalism. Any one of us could be a news source. We saw revolutions starting to be powered by this connectivity and there was great possibility of what could happen. The world was truly ours to reorder by leveraging these technologies. We shared so many aspects in completely new ways. More and more of us have been plugged into these internet-powered tools and platforms.

Arguably, many of us have tapped into the opportunities. The reality is, we are starting to realise we started to see opportunity differently. There were just these little hurdles to get over first. The T’s and C’s, EULAs and other acronyms. We gladly ticked yes! Enter tl;dr, ‘too long, don’t read’, the internet speak du jour.

Nanjira Sambuli delivers keynote at re:publica19 in Berlin

This culture of conceding that the terms and conditions that we are expected to review before accepting to use some of our favourite platforms are too long and technical for us to pour over, when convenience, fun, memes and more await us on the other side. Related is how we consume information today.

It is practically impossible to take in all that is out there and to dig deeper into the backstories and narratives of any one story or event. In the resulting attention economy, tl;dr becomes a survival tool — a means to somewhat be ‘informed’ on some or more things, than attempting to double down on everything. To be woke-ish, if you will. However, we are now realising — some more painfully than others — that there are serious costs to tl;dr as the modus operandi.

These costs are risks and very serious threats that have started to close in on us. The online platforms we congregate to for communication are all too easily misappropriated. Now, we are experiencing revelations of how the sites to which we congregate to connect and communicate are being weaponised, unbeknownst to many of us.

Those fun games we played, turned out to be instruments for quantifying us. The intricacies we’ve shared: our thoughts and pictures were turbocharging systems that now even dare predict what we might do next and try to shepherd us to those predetermined decisions and actions.

Algorithms, those merchants of convenience, supposed to optimise our experiences, have been abused right from design and we are now at a point where we are reflecting on whether they have done more harm than good. The tl;dr culture has caught up with us and now we have to calculate the cost.

So, on one hand, digitalisation means we are more informed, engaged, enlightened. On the other, we are increasingly disillusioned, and learning that we haven’t always had the full picture.

The normalised culture of tl;dr has become a powerful tool of obfuscation: the true costs of plugging into a particular tool or platform are laid out in hundreds of pages of legalese, but the pitches that we more easily and readily interact with, are all quite evangelistic, about how our lives will be made so much better if we opt in right now. Well, we agreed, and now we are learning the hard way just what it is we agreed to.

It turns out it’s not just about tech, it’s intricately linked to life as we know it, imagine it and experience it. Meanwhile, power dynamics have shifted fundamentally. At some point, it seemed as though we assigned trust to these tech giants who have innovated us to where we are in this journey of digitalisation.

Our trust in them has been exploited to serious detrimental effects. Much in the same way that our trust in representative political institutions (governments) is rapidly fading because rather than live up to the promise, technologies and governance are battlefields for power and domination. In this process, shared human values, our rights, our agency have all been casualties.

Trust — in pretty much everything and everyone we expect or elect to represent us —  is waning across the globe. What does this all mean going forward and especially as the effects of tl;dr become more apparent with how tech platforms and even democracies have run amok?

I don’t think tl;dr is solely a result of digitalisation; rather, it is more visible because of the digital convenience trade-off. The technical, we are now realising, is political. It does not exist in a vacuum.

Moving fast and breaking things has been breaking societies. I believe this is an opportune moment for us to revisit how we negotiate spaces of coexistence, of representation for our immediate present and future. tl;dr, in my view, also speaks to the need to reinvigorate and redesign our institutions and governments at local, regional and global levels. We can’t feasibly engage in every intricacy of life’s complexities and this is why we seek representation. Representation needs to be about humility and service.

It is time for us to reconfigure to whom we defer expertise, figure out how to hold them to account every step of the way — from politicians to tech mavens alike.

It is time to redesign, reform and sustain the kind of organisations we need for this age, from the hyper-local to those that shape new global commons, not to be predominated by western views and ideals.

It is very much about the role of governments and sociopolitical representation, but also about how to reinvigorate our civic engagement, our active cultivation of discourses, terms and conditions, laws and policies that govern the offline and online spaces in which we exist. It is about reclaiming our power and agency to fight back against the growing sense of helplessness creeping upon us all.

It is time that human values and rights are truly upheld at home and abroad. Trust needs to be re-cultivated before we splinter into self-selecting, fearful groups, online and offline.

Let me share with you how I’m trying to walk the talk. Firstly, I have made it a mission to claim spaces and narratives not imagined for ‘we’ — persons of colour, women, and any other representative group not in the ‘mainstream’.

I refuse to settle for or perpetuate the notion that experts — in tech, politics, society — look a certain way and beneficiaries look another way. I believe it’s about taking a lateral, not just vertical view. Connecting the dots. Renouncing filter bubbles.

I have been working hard to cultivate spaces and new ways to gather governments, private sector and civil society actors as equals at the table, to debate and address these issues and devise solutions to address these pain points. In my work at the Web Foundation, one practical step is through research and advocacy conducted by the Alliance for Affordable Internet (A4AI), where our work, amongst other things, ensures beneficiaries are respected as the experts of their own lived experiences.

Another way is through web inventor Sir Tim Berners-Lee’s and the Web Foundation’s call to bring together various actors to build a roadmap for how we build a web that serves humanity and is a public good for everyone, everywhere through the Contract for the Web.

Through my work as a member of the UN Secretary General’s High-Level Panel on Digital Cooperation, I have been seeking ways of working together to address the societal, ethical, legal and economic impacts of digital technologies so we can maximise benefits to society and minimise harms.

I am interested in figuring out how international organisations — new or existing — can truly embody the mantra ‘no one is left behind’. It is critical that our work centres on the most marginalised and disenfranchised in society. Listen to them, work with them, not assume solutions for them. It’s not perfect, it’s not easy, it’s not enough, but it is a start.

Digitalisation, in effect, is turbocharging the political, civic, social and economic changes we all experience today. We must have it maximise the benefits and minimise the harms to our online and offline present and futures.

Let’s not throw out the baby with the bathwater. Let’s find spaces to go cultivate the basics of inquiry, of addressing our hopes and fears, frustrations, fury, of negotiating our coexistence — right from the hyper-local to the global.

Allow yourself to test your assumptions. Just as important, guard your fervour for change and reform. It won’t all happen today, but we must not give in to the status quo, nor give up altogether.