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All content by Kyle E. Mitchell, who is not your lawyer.

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Type Error: “Democratizing”runaway sales speak hits the curb again

In dictionaries “democratization” means more democracy, first and foremost. In marketing it means something else. “Democratizing Ecuador” means more democracy in Ecuador, not more Ecuador. “Democratizing robotics” means more robotics for more people, not more democracy.

The very word “democracy” evokes shiny, high-minded ideals. Overloading “democratize” with “make more available” helps advertisers and activists bounce that light on whatever they’re pitching. They tend to get away with it, even if they’ve no solid line to draw from what they sell to any institutions, civil society, or popular principles component to democracy.

Words change in sound and meaning. That is what they do. “Democracy” might be a particularly precious word. But what’s the harm in companies saying “make more available” and “we’re team democracy” all at once, with one word? What’s wrong with them flying the flag? Nothing. Until what they do picks a fight with the ideals they want to draft off of.

In good times, when happy associations come to mind first, this mostly just means dodging obvious faceplants. You won’t find “democratizing surveillance” on DJI’s website. You’ll find it in book titles scaring us about their drones. You won’t see Signal or Telegramdemocratizing conspiracy”. You’ll see them democratizing “privacy” or “security”, that kind of thing.

Whether Russia has or hasn’t actually used specific devices equipped with recent machine learning tech, it’s safe to say their coders—those who haven’t already quit or fled—remain ever grateful for GitHub, the package registries, and all that they can find in them. The prospect of autonomous battle use tickles our taste for drama. But there’s every reason to believe mass analysis on social media, voice-rec on radio, and image-rec on satellite occurred to military intelligence on both sides long before Bellingcat got in the game. Russia has satellites, too, of course. Not to mention spies and propaganda teams. And all the basic comms, logistical, mapping, record-keeping, and other generic needs served by software.

Nothing new here, of course. Giving software to everyone has long meant giving it also to the Kims of North Korea, the Al-Assads of Syria, and, in an earlier era of software history, to the Apartheid regime of South Africa. Global public distribution has long conflicted in principle with arms control, sanctions, and other, less violent alternatives to “boots on the ground”. All of these depend on coordination. They’re undermined by defectors.

The dynamic today is the same. The difference lies in how easy it is, emotionally and analytically, to avoid the issue or rationalize it away. Pretty easy for Americans in the middle ’90s, with the USSR fallen, their nukes secure, and the US economy booming, its homeland seemingly safe. Not so easy today, with Iranian drones overflying the Dnieper, Korean ones overflying the DMZ, missiles whizzing over Japan, Chinese jets roaring around Taiwan, and Ukraine making the news every day.

If you’re thinking more about the nefarious potential users of your software, you’re not alone. But ask yourself: Is that because the world has really gotten so much harder, or because it’s gotten harder not to see what was always there?

Your thoughts and feedback are always welcome by e-mail.

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