Inside the Digital Society

It's a while since APC published my last blog from 'Inside the Information Society': nine months or so. Now feels like the right time to begin the blog again, but with some changes.

Quite a few people have told me that they've missed this blog, which is gratifying. I reply that I've been taking time out to reflect on how the 'Information Society' is changing, the changing ways in which it's impacting on the wider world, the ways in which it interacts with other global challenges.

I'll start with comments on how views about what I'm going to call the 'Digital Society' are changing, followed by six guiding principles that I think we need to bear in mind when we think about it - and finish with three changes to the blog: in title, tone and type of content. 

Looking back or looking forward?

I've been asked recently to review what's happening in the Information Society fifteen years after the second World Summit on the subject ended in 2005. It's a natural request. The United Nations is pledged, in five years' time, to review the Summit outcomes on their twentieth anniversary.

But there's a question underpinning that review. We're already generations of technology past what was thought to be in train back then at WSIS (an event that's faded from most memories and doesn't enter the vocabulary of students in computer science now).  

We're heading for a future of AI and robotics, machine learning and digital surveillance rather than the GSM, telecentres and basic laptops that excited people at the time of WSIS. Every day now, news channels (online and offline) speculate about another innovation in the digi-sphere. It's far more important now to look ahead than back.  

For good or not so good?

And attitudes to what we see ahead are changing. Tomorrow's world, for many people, no longer seems as enticing or exciting as it did - or not just exciting and enticing but threatening as well.  

Digital opportunities are recognised as widely as they were in 2005, but experience so far has seen many promised benefits fall by the wayside and different outcomes arise, including unexpected harms. Alongside innovation now, much of the most interesting work that's being done in academia and elsewhere is about digital risk: how to anticipate it and how it should be mitigated.

Six guiding principles

'Inside the Information Society' always sought to question the assumptions made by policymakers, civil society and others about the directions we are heading. That won't change. But here are six guiding principles that will inform this blog henceforth. You might call them my alternative assumptions.  

1. A digital society is coming

The first's that, short of global cataclysm, a Digital Society's become all but inevitable. Digital technologies will become increasingly important in most aspects of our lives, economies, societies and cultures.  

What's more, the pace is likely to accelerate. It's already very difficult to anticipate outcomes, and that will be more so in future, year on year. Policy and practice need to be predicated on that rapid growth of digital, not just on known knowns but also on unknown unknowns.

2. It’s not about the internet

Second, digitalisation's no longer principally about communications or the internet. The most important digital innovations in the next ten years are likely to be found in other areas of digital technology - artificial intelligence, machine learning, robotics, the management and exploitation of big data sets, surveillance and the manipulation of what we'll call, for the moment, 'social order'.  

This is no longer the technology of the geek inventing cool new apps and services; it's the technology of the corporate and powerful.  

3. Impacts will vary: not everywhere’s the same

Nevertheless, the impact of the Digital Society will vary greatly. Between Chad and China, Surinam and Singapore, there will continue to be digital divides.  

These will feed into wider economic and social inequalities and differences. Many people will fail to secure access to services and resources from which they would benefit. The lives of the wealthy - individuals and whole populations - will be digitised faster and further than the lives of others.  

But there may be some different experiences that are more nuanced, especially as the digitalisation of our lives becomes pervasive. Those that live in more democratic societies, for example, may experience less digital intrusion (and social manipulation) than those living under authoritarian regimes.

4. Technology's no panacea

Fourth, digitalisation is no panacea.  

Outcomes are unpredictable (and mostly unintended), they will be mixed, and "benign" outcomes cannot and should not be assumed. There's no inherent bias here in favour of equality or human rights.  

It's taken far too long, but even digital evangelists now recognise that innovations will have negative as well as positive effects; that they're being used with malign as well as benevolent intent; that if we want to shape the future - to make it 'people-centred' in WSIS language - we need to think about potential consequences before they happen rather than just hoping for the best.

5. Other new technologies also affect society

In any case, digitalisation's not unique but only one of several transformative technologies that are also fast evolving and having impacts that will drastically affect the future.  

Nanotechnology and gene editing, for example, use digital technologies to facilitate their innovation but are not and should not be thought subservient to them, any more than advances in computing and robotics are or should be considered subservient to the internet. Policies that underestimate this, or overestimate the dominance of digital, will err.

6. The world is facing other challenges

And sixth, as it has always done, the world is facing many challenges that ICTs reach only marginally at best, offering some opportunities for mitigation (but also sometimes adding rather than subtracting problems). 

More apps won't deal for us with the four horsemen of environmental apocalypse: pollution, resource depletion, loss of biodiversity and climate change. (I'll look in a future blog, for example, at cybercurrencies' environmental impact). They won't resolve racism and gender discrimination, or prevent geopolitical conflicts erupting into violence.  

Digitalisation, in short, will be transformational in many ways but it doesn't change the fundamentals of our natures and we shouldn't burden it with every expectation. Power structures will continue to govern human relationships - though there will be shifts in who holds power and how. Conflict (including war and civil war) won't be dispensed with, just done differently; likewise crime and exploitation. Inequalities won't vanish; some will diminish, some change, others be amplified. We should be looking at the interactions between these fundamentals and our new technologies, not expecting new tech to resolve them.

Changes to the blog

So, finally, three changes to this blog.  

First, title.

We've moved on, it seems to me, from the optimistic talk of an 'Information' or 'Knowledge' Society that prevailed at WSIS to something that's more complex. We need a term that reflects that and does not assume that either positive or negative outcomes will prevail. A 'Data Society', perhaps. Or, my preference, a 'Digital Society'. So, henceforth, 'Inside the Digital Society'.

Second, tone.  

This blog has always sought to challenge assumptions about the Information Society and its impact and suggest some other ways of looking at them. That will continue to be so. Its thinking will be rooted in the six principles that I’ve identified. This is a partial rather than a comprehensive shift. The aim will always be to provoke ideas and thinking.

Third, type of content.

Every day, it seems, these days, we're inundated with new content, new ideas, new articles about the digital. There'll continue to be space within this blog for big assessments of the bigger questions, but some weeks will focus specifically on new reports and news that readers might have missed. Starting next week with the recent report of the UN Secretary-General's High Level Panel on Digital Cooperation.

David Souter writes a weekly column for APC, looking at different aspects of the information society, development and rights. David’s pieces take a fresh look at many of the issues that concern APC and its members, with the aim of provoking discussion and debate. Issues covered include internet governance and sustainable development, human rights and the environment, policy, practice and the use of ICTs by individuals and communities. More about David Souter.
APC-wide activities: 
« Go back