Inside the Digital Society: How transformative is now – for society and for the digital society?

This is the third in a series of blogs about implications of the corona virus for the digital society. This week, some thoughts on future governance. Part two of these next week.

How transformative is now?

Blogging in a fast-evolving existential crisis isn’t easy. Every day brings new assumptions, new realities. What was unlikely yesterday seems the norm today and insufficient by tomorrow.

It’s the virus, more than the internet, that is “moving fast and breaking things” right now.

The scale of changes in economic, social and political norms over the past few weeks is enormous. They alter parameters for the future across the board.

There will be very many deaths, how many yet we know not, nor how they will affect all regions. And there will be lasting disruption to the world we know:

  • diminution in economic activity locally and globally, including loss of livelihoods and businesses, lower production, lower trade, from which it will take years to recover;

  • altered relationships between government, businesses and citizens, increasing government authority and responsibility for social welfare, social order and economic reconstruction;

  • changed relationships within families, friendship groups and associations, as lockdown downscales contact or forces it online;

  • changes in public attitudes to rights and responsibilities, including the relationship between the individual and the community;

  • and (possibly) changes in geopolitical power structures, including the global roles of major power blocs (the US, China, Europe) and those of multilateral institutions (the UN, World Bank, IMF).

A global reset

A return to business as usual, it seems to me, is unlikely to be possible. The aftermath of this crisis will suggest resetting some of the fundamentals of our thinking over the past decade and more. Times will be different and require something new.  Why?

  • Many of the assumptions that we have made about rights and responsibilities, including interpretations of human rights agreements, have been disrupted by the rebalancing of rights required by the crisis. That includes our understanding of the Universal Declaration and its Covenants.

  • International institutions will be thought more necessary than many (not least within the internet community) have thought, but are likely to seem somewhat outdated for the problems of today, in need of change to meet the problems of tomorrow. That includes multilateral institutions like the UN and its constituent agencies, but, I’ll argue later and next week, also multistakeholder bodies including those concerned with digital governance.

  • The core challenges that the international community has agreed on will become disordered. Many of the SDGs will be much more difficult to achieve and require new approaches for the remainder of their time. Attitudes to collaboration over climate change may change as a result of the experience of corona virus and the economic disruption that goes with it.

These could provide opportunities to reboot the fundamentals of global governance in ways that meet tomorrow’s needs. Whether they do so will depend on how governments and international institutions respond: with defensiveness or with imagination.

How transformative is it for the digital society?

The digital society will be especially impacted. How?

The impact of today’s crisis on society, economy and individual lives, it’s worth remembering, is being mitigated by the prevalence of digital technology – at least for those with meaningful access.

Imagine how much more difficult it would have been for people who are now doing so to work online instead of in their offices if we’d had the technology we had in 2005. How much more difficult the loss of physical social contact would have been for families and communities without the social media that many of us now take for granted.

But, first, remember that the present crisis emphasises the inequality inherent in today’s digitalisation. It’s the digital divide made real, and more. Those who have access to money and other resources are more likely to be online, to make more use of online resources, and to know how to maximise their value in this crisis. Those who are most disadvantaged socially and economically are likely to be on the wrong side of digital divides as well, without the opportunities available to the connected in this crisis.

The corona crisis will bring the inequalities associated with digital divides yet more acutely to the fore.

And, second, remember that today’s restrictions on economic and social life are forcing activity online much faster than would naturally occur (which was already too fast for many of our institutions).

Online alternatives are replacing traditional ways of shopping and banking, for example, far faster than would otherwise have been the case, wherever they're available. Some online businesses, like Amazon, will gain from this. But many retail businesses will be fatally undermined, without the time they needed to adjust to the more digital business environment they knew was coming. That doesn’t just affect those businesses themselves but the context in which they operate, for example the viability of city centres.

The future governance of a digital society

All this raises issues about future governance of the digital society.

Let’s say that debates about digital governance have revolved around three (or four) mindsets:

  • the individualist, libertarian, anti-government impulses of many in the internet community;

  • the profit-maximisation priorities of data corporations; and

  • the desire of governments to optimise digitalisation for social management

    • whether to improve services for citizens (in more democratic countries)

    • or for surveillance and control (in more authoritarian environments).

The parameters of internet and digital governance have evolved along with internet and digital technologies, as the internet has gone from being the niche pursuit of geeks to the world’s most important information infrastructure. But it’s increasingly recognised that they’ve not evolved fast enough or been sufficiently integrated with wider governance to address the massive impacts they’re already having on society, economy and culture.

  • Many internet insiders have been keen to maintain what they consider core principles of internet governance largely unchanged, without considering sufficiently whether internet outsiders, with other priorities, think that gives them much say about something that’s now fundamental to their lives, their goals and opportunities.

  • Digital corporations have been keen to maintain an unrestricted right to innovate – for example by exploiting personal data – in pursuit of commercial gain, and to avoid government regulation which would limit their freedom (of the kind that is the norm in other economic sectors).

  • Governments are (to varying degrees) concerned to build on digital networks and data gathering to improve the efficiency and cost-effectiveness of what they do and (to varying degrees) tempted (or concerned) by the potential for surveillance and social control.

Established modes of digital governance are already being challenged as digitalisation’s become increasingly important and technology’s advanced immeasurably past the possibilities of early computing and the early internet. They’re going to come under much greater pressure when the current crisis turns into recovery, for four reasons.

  • First, because the nature of this crisis and the requirements of recovery will emphasise the role of government and the importance of good government in the public imagination.

  • Second, because the crisis will accelerate the shift in economic power towards digital technologies and corporations, which will wield more political influence and authority.

  • Third, because those digital technologies and corporations are likely to be at the forefront of recovery, as communications businesses have been at the forefront in post-conflict situations.

  • And fourth, because the crisis will demonstrate further still the fact that digital technologies are unequally available, that their benefits are likely to remain so, and that this is detrimental to society.

New ideas for digital governance are surely going to emerge from this. Already, for example, there’s more talk of broadband being seen as a public utility, as in the past was telecoms, with universal access mandated by the public interest rather than left to market forces.

The question is whether, after this crisis, digital stakeholders fight one another to maintain their vested interests and historic norms or take the opportunity to cooperate in resetting digital governance for the future.

Next week I’ll make some suggestions as to how  they might pursue the latter course.

Image by JR Korpa@korpa, under Creative Commons.

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.


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