From Libretto #6 (2023/24)

Lawless on the high seas

Google, Meta et al are building a future that promises freedom – and delivers surveillance. Christiane Mudra’s BETA is a work of investigative musical theatre exploring the hazards of technology

While the EU Commission discusses its umpteenth policy on digitalisation, engineers, economists, lawyers and programmers are busy in Silicon Valley designing a brave new world. Funded by Paypal founder and billionaire Peter Thiel, they are pursuing their dream of creating a truly free society located in international waters. Their plan is to construct artificial islands in the middle of the ocean, free of any fealty to a nation state, to build an environment without taxation, welfare state or laws, all of which are only spanners in the works of their grand project. Schemes like these are hard to reconcile with mainstream concepts of democracy and individuality.

Thiel is quite open about the disgust he feels for the state, yet that has not stopped Britain’s National Health Service from contracting out the management of its patients’ medical data to Palantir, Thiel’s controversial spy software company. The deal was signed and sealed only a few months ago. It’s staggering how policymakers can be so naive when the repercussions of their actions are so serious. Highly sensitive data are being entrusted to a firm that is a key player in the surveillance sector and considered to have close ties to government intelligence agencies.

It’s common knowledge that our digital data are the raw material mined in a sector that is increasingly tilted towards the interests of a handful of powerful giants like Meta and Google. But many users spare little thought for the real-life effects that this amassing of data can have on our lives. BETA is my attempt to address this issue.

The play’s characters reflect the matrix of tension. On the one hand we have a tech pioneer, similar to a Peter Thiel or Mark Zuckerberg or Elon Musk, who is set on cornering the products and consumers of a particular market. At the other end of the scale we have a hacker who’s warning us of the power of these corporations and is fighting for transparency, data protection and freedom from digital hegemony. And shifting between these two poles is a politician who is busy facilitating the digitalisation of government institutions while dealing with the challenges of disinformation and consumer protection. This third protagonist is torn by a dilemma: the political establishment is playing catch-up, having long since become beholden to the corporations it is trying to regulate. And as if that weren’t enough, elections are round the corner.

BETA is not anti-technology per se. I’m interested in how we should be developing technology so that it continues to serve humanity rather than being exploited to erode civil rights. I’m convinced that legislation is the only way to tackle the monopolists. It’s more than questionable whether EU initiatives like the »Digital Services Act«, the »Digital Markets Act« or the »Artificial Intelligence Act« are going to be up to the task.

Innovative technology is complexer than ever and increasingly difficult to grasp and explain. Algorithms are concealed within the devices and platforms that claim to be simplifying our lives. With BETA I’m trying to make data streams audible and perceptible on an aesthetic level. For years the motto of Google, which has over 90% of the German search engine market, was »Don’t be evil«, but its policy towards competitors has never been as touchy-feely: for them the rule was: »Copy, acquire, kill«.

We have to be more sceptical of corporate bosses with their smarmy PR and their stuck-record dross about user friendliness. The cultivated image of the apolitical hoody-wearing nerd conceals an ultra-liberal ideology intent on profit maximisation. The concentration of quasi-state power in the hands of transnational companies that are not subject to democratic accountability, is a real threat to our basic rights. If BETA can sensitise audiences and get them to rethink their user behaviour, I will have succeeded.

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