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When people talk about the digital society, what’s their priority?

For most people in the digital world the stress is on the digital. Many might say “the more digital, the better” – though with some anxieties about risks (to rights, for instance, to equality, or to security). That’s natural: they believe in the technology and the potential for the digital society to be a better one.

For most outside the digital community, though, what’s more important is what happens to the world they live in, their society. Whether the cause of change is digital is secondary; what matters is the outcome, and its impact on their lives.

When digital insiders talk about a digital society, in other words, they talk about a DIGITAL society. Outsiders are more concerned about a digital SOCIETY.

Digital insiders tend to ask what’s good or bad for digital (and maybe therefore for society). Those who’re not insiders want to know what’s good or bad for their societies (and maybe therefore for the digital).

This might be called a paradigm divide, a difference in world views. It affects many aspects of digital governance, and, through that, governance in general. It’s been there for a long time and needs bridging, because it’s becoming more important.

Digital and analogue

One of the implications of this is that, when we think about the coming digital society, we need to think as much about:

  • what will still be analogue in future as well as what is digital;

  • outcomes that are indirect (examples later) as well as those that are direct;

  • impacts on social groups that are marginal to digitalisation as well as those deeply engaged;

  • and the process of transition that’s involved in the expected ‘transformation’ – we won’t go straight from manual to self-drive vehicles, for instance; there'll be a lengthy time when both are on the road together.

Thinking about the ‘society’ in ‘digital society’ should be a priority for digital insiders who are keen to maximise digital transformation as well as those whose first priorities are social, economic or environmental.

This is not about hindering digital change but about understanding it and managing it in ways that contribute to social goals: optimising beneficial change and coping with change that’s not so beneficial.

The impact of COVID

It’s hard to escape the impact of the COVID crisis at the moment, and it’s very relevant to this. There are many ways in which it’s been hastening the shift to digital ways of doing things, in business, government, society and culture.

Trends that digital enthusiasts have long anticipated – towards e-commerce and home-working – have been accelerated by necessity in lockdowns. The COVID crisis has been a testbed for them: where they’ve worked well and where they haven’t.

It’s demonstrated more clearly, too, some of the indirect effects that are harder to anticipate but also need to be addressed if the digital society’s to work well as a society. COVID’s been a pilot, if you like, for some of the disruptions that are going to come our way. It can help us think about their implications for public policy across the board, and where we’re going to need to re-think.

I’ll give four examples in a moment, but first a note on technological disruption.

Technological disruption

The world’s seen many technological disruptions. Winners and losers always arise from them. Think of the industrial revolution, for an example, replacing craftworking with factories; mechanised agriculture displacing small-scale farming; successive generations of armaments technology giving power to those who had the gunpowder, the maxim gun, the tank, the drone.

Digital technology’s not new here. Disruption’s an inevitable outcome of (what seems) inexorable innovation. Its impacts vary. Take three instances in culture at the moment:

  • Book publishing has been reasonably successful so far in fending off displacement by digital devices.

  • Newspaper publishing much less so, to the extent that there may now be no viable commercial model for public interest media (a theme I will come back to later in the year).

  • The dominance of streaming music has forced musicians to rely on live performance rather than recordings for a living once again – and made them deeply vulnerable during the pandemic.

We can see impacts of technological disruption like this all round us. We need to think about their implications for society, rather than just expecting or hoping for the best. Four examples of the bigger picture, then, accelerated by the COVID crisis.


Take the two big issues talked of in employment:

  • How many jobs are vulnerable to displacement by automation in the digital society?

  • How many people in the digital society will work from home, as they’ve done in the pandemic?

Does a digital society mean that fewer of us will have jobs at all or that we’ll all work for fewer hours? That many more of us will work from home? What are the implications for incomes, income equality, taxation, access to services? For employment rights and unemployment benefits? The work/life balance when home and workplace are the same place? For gender roles within the household? For domestic violence?

Thinking about employment in a digital society needs to go beyond job numbers and reskilling. We need to think about the social changes that can/will come from changing jobs.


Or take e-commerce, on which many have relied much more during pandemic (a subject I’ll explore later this month). E-shopping’s growth has been a lifeline for many, but it’s accelerated trends in retail markets which undermine traditional business models.

Some local food suppliers where I live in Britain have gone online, and the quality of food I get from them is higher than I used to get from supermarkets. They’ve been innovative and I’ve benefited.

But that’s not been true in many places in this country or elsewhere. Some local businesses have succeeded in making the change but many more are failing. Some sectors can’t go online at all, other are hugely vulnerable to big players that have been online for years. The biggest gainers have been global businesses, not local – Amazon rather than the local bookstore, for example.

The shift towards e-commerce has many positives, especially in crisis (see later in the month). But thinking about shopping in the digital society needs to go beyond convenience and price. What are the implications for competition, for local innovation, for local expertise? For taxation and the public services it funds (small businesses pay far more tax here than does Amazon)? And, next point, for the nature of urban environments in the digital society?

City centres

Put those two things together – employment and e-shopping – and there’s potentially a big impact on city centres. Two of Britain’s biggest chain retailers are in deep financial trouble and being rescued by online businesses that will keep just a fraction of their stores.

The loss of major shops on high streets and in shopping malls can be dramatic: convenience stores, charity shops and niche retailers aren’t enough to keep footfall high enough to make them pay. A shift to homeworking would have a similar impact, reducing the number of customers in office blocks that spill out into pubs and restaurants, cinemas and nightclubs. COVID lockdown’s shown the way that this could go, undermining the viability of many city centre businesses and therefore many city centres.

The digital society is going to mean a different urban landscape. Thinking about it requires thinking about the future viability of city centres – which will mean finding alternatives to lost shops and offices and shops if they’re to have vitality / avoid degeneration.

We should be thinking, too, about the places people live in the digital society as homeworkers look for different kinds of homes (more space) in different kinds of places (no need to commute).

Social interaction

My fourth example’s social interaction. The digital environment’s already made big changes here: the broadening of contacts that’s occurred through social media; the concentration in like-minded groups; the shift to online dating; changing views on what’s thought acceptable and what is not in personal and public communications.

What’s been accelerated here by the pandemic, forcibly and (for most) with some reluctance, is digitalisation of the way we socialise – and therefore of the way we’re socialised, the way we interact with others. Not just the simple business of keeping family connections underway on Zoom, but the more complex challenges of making new relationships and building friendship groups, maintaining teams of co-workers and local communities, organising political parties and campaign groups.

Will COVID's disruption of these social interactions have lasting impacts, and what do they teach us about what’s needed for them in the digital society? What impacts are they having now on children, for instance, whose learning of life-skills at school has been so heavily disrupted by the loss of playground socialising? What impacts will there be on the social dynamics of workgroups (on issues like recruitment and promotion)? On social welfare, social protection, family law?

And so …

What I’m suggesting here, in short, is that the challenges of the digital society are not primarily concerned with things digital but with society. Digitalisation is making profound changes to society and it is these changes, not just technology, we need to understand.  If it is to work for the benefit of all – to be ‘people-centred’ and ‘inclusive’, to be transformative in ways we want not ways we don’t – we need to pay more attention to the ‘society’ in ‘digital society’ than to the 'digital'.

Next week: the changing geopolitics of digital development.

Image source: High-level conference on e-health, by Arno Mikkor (EU2017EE)

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.