Reimagining Digital Platforms: Funding Pluralism and Inclusion

By

Aleem Walji,  former CEO Aga Khan Foundation, senior leadership roles within the World Bank’s Innovation Lab and Google.org. Current and past Board roles include Board of Trustees, USAID ACVFA, Interaction Board of Governors  

and

Radhika Shah, CoPresident Stanford Angels & Entrepreneurs, Advisor SDG Philanthropy Platform and Illumen Capital,  Board member, Center for Effective Global Action, U.C Berkeley, Fellow, Center for Human Rights & International Justice, Stanford

 

Mahatma Gandhi  once said “Our ability to reach unity in diversity will be the beauty and the test of our civilisation.” 

When social media platforms entered our lives nearly two decades ago, these start-ups promised us a greater sense of connection with friends, family, and even strangers with whom we shared interests. Connectivity created ways to build connections with people near and far including possibilities to deepen relationships, expand horizons and listen to different points of view. 

Looking back, however, this promise has not been fully realized. Connectivity has not translated into greater human connection. Rather than expanding our world views and challenging our beliefs, media and digital platforms have shaped social bubbles that reinforce what we already believe and drive us away from people who disagree with us. Technology, data and analytics systematically minimize our consumption of information that challenges our assumptions. The current COVID-19 crisis is a case in point. We are all consuming facts from different sources. When they are inconsistent and it’s unclear what is true, we retreat into what we want to believe – further siloing our perspectives – and we fail to understand how others could disagree with our truth

In a democracy, this is dangerous. Limiting access to divergent views constrains our ability to weigh differing arguments and come to our own conclusions. How can we refine and expand our thinking if we do not engage with those with whom we disagree? The violence and vitriol surrounding the tragic death of George Floyd is a case in point. While segments of the population cannot understand the rage and violence that has enveloped so much of the country, those protesting are demanding their voices be heard and justice be served. But they are operating from different truths and not listening to each other’s stories. How can we find common ground and understand one another if our narrative is focused only on how we differ and where we disagree? 

Pluralism is a Conscious Choice – Pluralistic Societies Create Resilience and Prosperity

We must not forget the United States was built on the foundation of E Pluribus Unum or Out of Many, One. History has shown us time and again that pluralistic societies create prosperity, vibrancy and resilience against shocks. The wealth of cities on the ancient silk road – spanning China, Central and South Asia, Persia, East Africa and Europe – can be attributed to trade and a rich exchange of culture and ideas. The Mughal emperor Akbar expanded his rule over much of the Indian Subcontinent by embracing pluralism and appointing scholars from many religious traditions to his court. In more recent times, the Aga Khan Foundation (AKF) has consistently brought together disparate groups of people around a common cause – improving quality of life. Interdependent communities recognize that one group can only improve their lot if their neighbour prospers as well.  In the Silicon Valley today, it is the convergence of diverse ideas and different cultures infused by immigrants that has created intellectual richness and resounding economic success. 

To be clear, valuing diversity and respecting difference does not mean always agreeing with one another. Building socially cohesive societies is hard work. While we may value diversity in the food we eat and the music we enjoy, we are often less comfortable with diversity in how we practice our faith, express our political views or educate our children. But the very foundation of democratic societies is the ability to listen to one another, disagree respectfully and still maintain social cohesion. It’s about creating a shared sense of belonging that cuts across differences. As His Highness the Aga Khan, founder of the Aga Khan Development and Chairman of the Global Centre for Pluralism (GCP) has said, ‘The work of pluralism is a work in progress. Diversity is not a reason to put up walls but rather to open windows. It is not a burden, it is a blessing…when the question of human identity is seen in this context then diversity itself is as a gift.” 

While diversity is an irreversible fact in an interconnected world, pluralism is a conscious choice. It is an embrace of difference as a source of value and strength. But what is the alternative? Rather than a social order consisting of openness and respect for difference, we could revert to a society marked by division, lack of trust, and conflict. Today, we see it all around us. Is this the world we wish to co-create? As we emerge from COVID-19 unrest all around us, we are reminded of how interdependent we are and how the well being of one of us relies on the well-being of all of us. 

A Plurality of Voices and Views Should Fill our Online Spaces

Tech companies can support pluralism in society by reimagining online communication as an enabler of social cohesion, empathy, and shared prosperity. How do we ensure the spaces we create and curate online encourage a plurality of views to be heard and respected across dividing lines of race, class, gender, and faith? How do we ensure that data sets feeding artificial intelligence and machine learning are not from biased sources and further amplified by algorithms?  How do we ensure that our differences are not inflamed by narrowbanding the information we receive? Extreme points of view spread at lightning speed and misinformation is a growing risk to peace and stability. A recent study at Stanford University published by the National Academy of Sciences focused on how Race influences investors’ financial judgments.  Beyond influencing investment decisions, there is a real risk that the convergence of algorithms and a narrowing of views in the top echelons of power will scale misinformation and human biases.

While there is considerable discussion about the need for inclusion and more equitable access to technology and data, this is largely about hardware, connectivity, data privacy and digital literacy. There is little attention paid to the inclusion of different perspectives online, by seeking out marginalized voices and creating spaces for civil dialogue. The SDG Philanthropy Platform is one, albeit a rare example of a platform bringing pluralistic views and catalyzing collaboration across and within countries  and sectors. The platform includes philanthropy, Government, multilateral institutions like the United Nations and others to advance the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Why can we not build on the ethos behind such pluralistic initiatives and create algorithms that privilege inclusion? Algorithms can help unpair new searches from our search history and present us with content that is different from what we regularly consume. If AI/ML learning can help us filter our searches, it could surely help us unfilter the information we consume, create new lenses with which to view content, and open up spaces for us to engage those with whom we disagree. 

It’s time for technologists to take more responsibility and work with media, civil society, philanthropy, regulators and educators to counter forces that lead to division and mutual misunderstanding. Building on positive efforts to stop hate speech and arrest the spread of misinformation online, it is time to fund, design and build technologies and digital platforms that scale solidarity, empathy and peace and undercut division, xenophobia, and violence. Philanthropists, Foundations and Impact Investors can play a catalytic role by providing early funding for building such inclusive digital platforms as well as fostering the use of such platforms within their organizations and among their grantees and ecosystems.

As we reimagine ourselves and our societies in a post-covid world, digital platforms powered by diverse data sets, contrasting viewpoints, and a pluralistic ethos must be the new normal. WINGS Forum 2020-2021 will bring together the global philanthropy community to raise their voices, share diverse knowledge and reimagine a post-COVID world benefiting from innovation, technology and new business models. Pluralism online is an indispensable foundation for peace, human progress and achieving the Sustainable Development Goals in the spirit of LEAVING NO ONE BEHIND.

This article is part of the WINGSForum Imagine Series, focusing on the theme and sub-themes of technology, power and economy.  

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blog authors

 

Aleem Walji,  former CEO Aga Khan Foundation, senior leadership roles within the World Bank’s Innovation Lab and Google.org. Current and past Board roles include Board of Trustees, USAID ACVFA, Interaction Board of Governors  

 

Radhika Shah, CoPresident Stanford Angels & Entrepreneurs, Advisor SDG Philanthropy Platform and Illumen Capital,  Board member, Center for Effective Global Action, U.C Berkeley, Fellow, Center for Human Rights & International Justice, Stanford

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