Wednesday November 11, 2020 — San Francisco, California

The tech industry often likes to talk about how it’s “democratizing” existing fields and markets by making them more accessible and empowering more people to access technology. However, this language often fundamentally misses the point of both democracy and empowerment.

Empowerment comes in many forms, but two of them that are of interest are collective empowerment and individual empowerment. Democratization, when the word is used correctly, refers to collective empowerment — allowing groups of people to make decisions together. Collective empowerment is necessarily in opposition to individual empowerment, since in exchange for having a voice in governance, we agree to listen to the voices of others. This limits our freedom, but allows us to work together. Most technology projects offer individual empowerment — giving people tools to allow them to enact change in their computing environment, which is libertarianizing more than democratizing.

This isn’t to say that collective empowerment is more important than individual empowerment, or vice versa. Both are important, and both are worth working on. But it’s best to understand the difference, and don’t say that you’re “democratizing” something simply because you’re improving access to tools.