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Inside the Digital Society returns this week after its Northern summer / Southern winter break.
I’ve spent some of that break reflecting on the way we’ve thought about the internet and digitalisation over three decades, and how we may need to think differently in future. What assumptions have we made; and what assumptions should we make, about its relationship with politics and geopolitics?
Let’s start with context.
How do we think about the internet and digitalisation?
Most readers of this blog are digital insiders, at least to some degree. And digital insiders – those who make their living in the digital environment – think differently about it from those whose experience is as consumers. Assumptions made about what’s possible today and may be possible tomorrow are different. So are views on how to navigate the opportunities and risks.
There is a paradox in this. Digital insiders know what they/we want technology to do (for ourselves, for society, for governance, rights or development). But, as the digital environment becomes more and more pervasive, the outcomes that we’re seeing increasingly diverge from the aspirations and the expectations that digital enthusiasts have sought.
Digital insiders often think that others underestimate the power of digital (and often they’re not wrong). But digital insiders also underestimate the power of what’s not digital, not least the influence of politics and geopolitics on digital outcomes.
The internet accelerated onto the world stage at a time of change in global politics. The World Wide Web’s invention coincided with the fall of Berlin’s wall and just preceded Mandela’s walk to freedom. Many people – most famously US academic Francis Fukuyama – saw that time as a decisive and irresistible move to liberal democracy (though he worried about our ability to manage new technology).
The association of the digital with 'progress' and 'development' was an underlying theme at the World Summit on the Information Society almost twenty years ago. The idea that the internet would democratise political engagement and challenge citadels of power was one reason why it was met with some suspicion then by authoritarian regimes.
In the years that followed, that assumption that digital development would be politically 'progressive' was central to the thinking of many digital insiders. The internet, it was often declared, would empower the disempowered, expose corruption, spread information that would improve personal decision-making and political engagement, enable rights. Politics and geopolitics would benefit, it was suggested, and could maybe be transformed.
That thinking had especial play around the time of what was called the Arab Spring when – digital corporations and US politicians averred – online access and new social media enabled progressive/popular movements to challenge long-established conservative regimes.
What’s happened since
The last two decades haven't turned out quite like that. Around the world, in politics and geopolitics, we've seen a shift away from liberal internationalism and an upsurge in populist nationalism.
Few countries today are more liberal than they were twenty years ago, more are more authoritarian. Politics in many countries have become more polarised, and geopolitics are now more divided, in spite of crises that might have brought nations together such as climate change and COVID. Countries that experienced the Arab Spring have fallen back into authoritarian rule or experienced extensive civil conflict. Multilateral institutions have been weakened. Human rights today are more challenged than they were, by both governments and corporations (especially where privacy’s concerned).
Some argue this has political trajectory has happened in spite of the internet and digitalisation; others that they have contributed.
Digitalisation and politics
As usual, it’s not that simple. We’ve learnt much more about the ways in which the internet has interacted with society, economy and culture during these decades. The relationship cuts many ways, not one.
We’ve seen much that’s beneficial (which I won't detail in this blog, but have explored elsewhere) but we’ve also seen how digital development(s) can empower the powerful at least as much or more than they empower the powerless - along with the creation of powerful new interests such as data corporations. We’ve found that misinformation and disinformation/propaganda spread (at least) as rapidly online as content that’s reliable or valuable. We’ve learnt that digital technologies are open to exploitation and manipulation in ways that weren’t (but should have been) envisaged by their pioneers and still are not sufficiently acknowledged by some advocates.
Digital technologies have been shown to be potentially transformative, in short, but not only in ways that progressive pioneers had hoped that they’d be. The digital society that's now emerging has features we can welcome and others that should scare us.
This is particularly important because its transformative potential is accelerating and becoming more transformative. Applications of artificial intelligence, machine learning and other kinds of innovation will also lead to outcomes that we welcome and outcomes that we fear. There will be many unexpected, unanticipated consequences. Powerful actors are best placed to take advantage of them.
These factors have affected how the internet and digital development play into politics. Which brings me to three ways in which, I’d say, we need to challenge old - and make some new - assumptions.
First, as I’ve argued elsewhere, the internet’s (and digital technology’s) relationship with power in politics is complex.
Most digital insiders expected, twenty years ago, that digitalisation, especially the internet, would empower the poor, democratise the state, promote rights and advance development. Clearly it has enabled shifts in information resources and capabilities that help to do this, but it’s also often increased inequalities between those with and without power, funds and resources. Those with such resources have had louder voices in the digital environment than those without. This disparity becomes increasingly important as more and more data about individuals are gathered, analysed and leveraged by governments, businesses and others, for surveillance or for exploitation.
The assumption that digitalisation would empower, not disempower, led digital insiders to pay too little attention, in the early days, to countering this risks involved in power structures. More attention is paid now, but in many ways the opportunity to shape the future’s gone. As Bob Dylan’s said to have said – I've been looking for the source – ‘privacy is something you can sell, but you can’t buy it back.’
Much the same is to be seen with what has been called ‘information’ but is more accurately ‘content’. Huge expansion in the volume of content that’s available has made it unmanageable for individuals without the help of intermediaries, whose vested interests (and whose algorithms) have sought to maximise not social but financial value.
The assumption that more content would lead individuals to explore content in its diversity, thinking more deeply about the complex nuances of their societies, has been shown wrong. Quantity has not enhanced quality. Search engines and other media that select content to suit their users – from the massive range available – are now widely thought to have narrowed rather than to broadened the focus of content, entertainment or ideas for many individuals - not all but enough to divide people rather than unite them. And political interests, more effectively on the right than on the left, have seized opportunities to manipulate opinion through targeted messaging that's very short on nuance. (Clickbait works.)
(Geo)politics influences the internet, as well as vice versa
Both of these factors undermine a third assumption that's been held within the digital community - or was widely held around the time of WSIS: that digitalisation will change politics and geopolitics, and for the better.
The idea that the internet – and digitalisation – are transformative is commonplace. In many ways it's proving true, but I'd suggest it’s changing the manner, not the underlying nature, of human relationships and power dynamics. It's not the people that are different, or the things they want to do, but the means they have available to do them.
Digitalisation's influence on politics and geopolitics has been significant but not always in the ways that digital insiders have expected. The power of surveillance, for example, has increased while privacy’s declined, shifting the balance between the individual, the state and business. Governments have exploited new ways of interfering in each other's politics, through propaganda, manipulation of social media and cyber attacks.
Is this the internet/digital influencing (geo)politics or is it the other way about? I'd say geopolitics has done at least as much to influence the course of digital development as vice versa, is on track to do more, and will thereby shift the power dynamics of the digital as well as of the physical and political environments. That shift in those dynamics is taking place in a global context that is becoming more authoritarian rather than more liberal.
Look at current debates, for instance, around cybersecurity, surveillance, cyberwarfare, AI and space exploration. Look at the shifting balance of power of China digitally vis-à-vis that of the United States. Look at the ways authoritarian regimes are using digital technology to entrench themselves. For many people now, it feels more like ‘Winter is coming’ than the Arab Spring.
Digitalisation is going to transform the world in many ways, in short, but it won’t be the only factor that determines how it does so.
It isn’t independent, for example, from the shift in global dominance away from the United States towards China, or from the growing challenge to human rights and multilateral institutions that were established after World War Two.
It will be subject to - and its trajectory will be changed by - unexpected events such as COVID (which in some contexts has accelerated its development), and growing threats, particularly climate change, which alter the foundations of economic prosperity, social welfare and international security.
The assumptions about global development that were made during digitalisation’s infancy need rethinking for a world that is increasingly authoritarian, increased conflict within nations and intensified geopolitical risk. There are major implications in this for how we seek to manage technological development, to shape it in the interest of our own and future generations. Permissionless innovation, in particular, looks very different in the hands of authoritarian governance than it does in those of rights-respecting governments.
Digital insiders have spent much of the last thirty years thinking how the internet and digital technologies will transform the world. They should spend more now thinking about how the world will change the internet and how digital technologies will play out in a world that has become more, not less, authoritarian and polarised. The geopolitics of the future matter more than the aspirations of the past, and we ignore them at our peril.
As the old saw has it, hope for the best but prepare for the worst.
Photo by Fabio Paiva, Glasgow School of Art, via Flickr.