The ability to understand and shape the Internet of the future is an exciting prospect that can hopefully usher in a more equitable and accessible world for all.
Two decades ago, computers were heavy, and phones were bricks. Now, computers fold up into our backpacks, and phones have even more processing power compactly in our pockets. Never before has technology advanced so dramatically and so quickly, and many of us take this progression for granted.
The interconnectedness created by our perennially online world is the central premise behind the term “democratization of technology.” This is your guide to what democratization means for the future of tech and humanity.
What Does Democratization of Technology Mean?
The democratization of technology is one of those buzzy terms that sounds like a loftier idea than it actually is. The democratization of technology simply means that access to technology is quickly becoming more accessible to a larger number of people.
While patents used to gatekeep technological advancements, limiting their reach to a precious few, we are increasingly seeing a free exchange of ideas that has allowed technological innovations to be used by anyone from big corporations to individual consumers.
This democratization makes technological advances such as remote work accessible to the general public. It also means that a larger number of people can contribute to the development and creation of new technologies, helping technology progress even faster.
When Did the Democratization of Technology Begin?
The term itself is not inherently new. The printing press, invented in the 1400s in Germany, is perhaps the most classic example of the democratization of technology. Suddenly, books and other texts could be rapidly reproduced for far cheaper. Regular people could own books, not just the elite and the clergy.
In the case of the printing press, Gutenberg’s design of moveable text spread rapidly throughout Europe. Before long, French and Italian printers were able to use and improve upon his design.
Both by printing books en masse and in sharing the technology with his apprentices, Gutenberg is responsible for one of the biggest milestone moments in humanity’s history. He put both the content and the ability to produce that content into the hands of the many.
The Democratization of Technology in the Internet Age
The internet is considered the printing press’ modern counterpart, though it is exponentially richer in information. In that sense, the internet also symbolizes the democratization of knowledge.
With a dial-up connection, anyone, anywhere could access seemingly endless amounts of data. It was a centralized encyclopedia. The world’s history, the weather, the news—if you could get online, you were connected to the rest of the planet.
Vitally, much of the information on the internet also opened the doors to the democratization of technology. This could be as simple as a Microsoft Office FAQ page that shows users how to navigate Word or a computer engineering forum laying the groundwork for how the internet is coded today.
What Is Open Source Tech?
Open source technology is software with source code that anyone can access. This software has a copyright license that allows users to modify, study, or distribute its source code for any purpose. This allows for collaboration, public trust, innovation, and the free exchange of information.
In many ways, open source code represents the fundamental potential of the democratization of technology. If more people are able to understand the basics of software at no cost to them, more people can contribute to the progression of technology.
Where Did Open Source Tech Come From?
In the early days of the Internet, Microsoft and Apple were engaged in something of an arms race, desperately trying to produce the most widely used home computer. What this really means is that they were engaged in a proprietary information race.
Each company continually iterated on their operating systems and software, resulting in two distinct ideas on what a home computer (and now phone) should look like.
The differences are clear. You know what a computer running on Windows looks like versus one running on iOS. Apple is notorious for suing companies they think have used their design or patents. In fact, they sued Microsoft in 1988 for allegedly stealing elements of iOS for Windows 2.0. They ended up reaching an agreement in which Microsoft could license these elements.
Ironically, years before either company produced a computer, Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates wrote to then Apple CEO, John Sculley, to suggest that Apple make iOS available to other manufacturers. While this would have meant that Apple would be revealing its secrets to other companies, it also would mean that iOS would become the de-facto operating system for home computing.
Apple passed on the idea, but we have to wonder what technology would look like today had they considered it.
What Is the Open Source Initiative?
The Open Source Initiative (OSI) is a non-profit organization dedicated to expanding the commercial use of open source software.
To better understand OSI and why it’s important, we first need to explain its origins.
The idea behind open source tech materialized around the same time as Apple and Microsoft’s battle of the minds. In 1983, a programmer at MIT named Richard Stallman started to release free code under the name GNU Public License.
Stallman found the rush to patent and protect software code foolish. If software was made available to engineers everywhere, more people could learn how it works, modify it, and improve upon it. Stallman believed this would lead to a proliferation of better software, meaning a better experience for everyone using it.
This philosophy ultimately led to the founding of the Open Source Initiative in 1988. In addition to facilitating the sharing and modifying of open source software, OSI also hosts community collaboration. They do this so that people can learn more about the code they’re using and improve upon their own skills at no cost.
For example, disadvantaged people who have traditionally had doors shut to them because they weren’t able to afford a college education now can teach themselves how to code. If we can predict anything about the future, we can predict this: Coding and computer engineering jobs aren’t going anywhere.
How Can the Democratization of Tech Help Create a More Accessible Future?
The truth is that we’re already living in the age of technological democracy. With so many people holding phones in their pockets, we’re living in a globally connected information age.
So the question is, where do we go from here? How will the continued progression of accessibility change our lives and the way we interact with technology?
Artificial Intelligence for All
AI is often spoken of in hushed tones in deference to the endless amounts of movies that tell us to fear the singularity. Thankfully, the reality is less extreme.
AI is already well-adapted into our society. Our emails are clogged with shopping recommendations, Amazon knows when we’re running out of toilet paper, and our phones can collect every image of the same person from our photo libraries into an easily searchable folder.
This is all possible thanks to the democratization of technology, which has allowed information to be easily sharable and has placed technology in the hands of companies both large and small.
What’s more, we’re seeing unconventional businesses starting to add bots into their customer service options, replacing legacy jobs with automated machines. Open source technology is enabling small companies to add chat features to their websites and social media accounts.
That type of 1:1 experience, at scale, can help businesses build relationships with their customers. In other words, we’re creating data-rich relationships.
And yes, alright: MIT engineers are teaching robots social cues. Dun dun dun.
Unchaining the Workforce
If there’s one thing the last two years taught us, it’s that you don’t need to be in the office to do your job. Remote work was already on the rise before the pandemic, and now it’s in full swing, with many workers opting to never return. Technology accessible due to the democratization of technology is empowering this shift.
Although Microsoft was once caught up in the proprietary games, it is now more open to open source technology. It’s working on animated avatars that can be created in Microsoft Teams and then brought into any corner of the Metaverse. These avatars mean people can be anywhere and still do their jobs as if they were at the office IRL.
With more of the workforce literate in technology, it’s likely that the office job as we once knew it has been radically altered forever. As long as employees have a strong WiFi connection, anyone can work from anywhere.
We talked earlier about how open source code can help people teach themselves the basics of software engineering outside of legacy institutions, and that’s a trend we’re seeing in every corner of education.
Remote learning at the high school and elementary levels during the pandemic proved that while online education is difficult, it is possible. Coding bootcamps, design and copywriting workshops, and the sensation that is Duolingo all have blazed untread ground on what it means to acquire a new skill.
Many companies are even reconsidering prerequisite experience and educational barriers in their job applications. You don’t need a college degree; you just need to know Python. Democratized technology has undoubtedly empowered this shift.
Want to know tonight’s specials at a nearby restaurant? Look it up on your phone. Need to contact someone in a foreign country? It only takes seconds. Want to take a high-quality image of your friends? Your phone has a built-in camera.
These ideas were unimaginable until very recently, when the advent of the internet changed the way we communicate forever. The democratization of technology has made information available to us all, but as with anything, there are pros and cons to a more globally connected world.
Sometimes, when things don’t work—when the WiFi goes down, or we don’t have cell service, or our devices malfunction—we can see just how powerful this technology is, how much purpose it serves in our lives, and what’s at stake when it goes offline.
However, the accessibility of this technological breakthrough has made education and upward mobility more available for the many, it has enabled a globalized remote workforce, and it’s allowed AI to create the data-rich relationships that make e-commerce that much easier.
As we continue to progress technologically into an unprecedented future, we can thank the democratization of technology for making that progress possible.