Inside the Information Society: Back to the blog. Four starting points to think about the future

It's been a while since Inside the Information Society's last outing - but now its Northern summer / Southern winter break is over. I'll be back and blogging here for APC each week until just before the turn of year.

I'm at a crossroads, too. After 25 years of researching, report-writing and project management within the Information Society, and reaching that advanced age 63, I'm changing my direction. I won't be leading any more big research projects in the future or writing big reports. I'll carry on, though, thinking and writing about the issues, challenging assumptions and, I hope, facilitating discussions in and between the different stakeholders involved.   If I can help, then get in touch.

All of which has made me reflect on what's changed and what I've learnt over the quarter century that I've been working on these themes. I thought I'd return this week with four thoughts that have come out of that experience which seem to me important when looking forward. I've written around these before but all, I think, need more attention, especially by digital insiders. Here they are, as a starting point for weeks to come.

The Digital Society is not the saviour

Back in the day, the idea that the internet and/or the Information Society would be a magic bullet that could solve any problem was too seductive. The Information Society would, claimed internet evangelists, enhance equality, democracy, empowerment; usher in prosperity and freedom; improve our health and welfare; transform our education; promote peace in place of conflict; make us all, somehow, better people. That was the tone of too many public documents (and too much of the discussion round the first session of the World Summit on the Information Society, back in 2003).

Of course the Information/Digital Society's improved many things for many people, and of course it promises to do much more that we will value. But it was always foolish to look only for upsides, not for downsides; to focus on ways in which the internet might help the powerless without also focusing on ways in which it would help the powerful.

We know now that the picture's much more complex. We've seen improvements in access to information and expression, but the Arab Spring's been succeeded by an upsurge in nationalism not liberalism. Online discourse is at least as often nasty as enlightening. The World Bank and others point to greater inequality, not equality, arising from people's unequal use of and ability to use the Internet. Datafication enables surveillance (by governments and businesses) on a scale beyond anything we've known before. Cyberwarfare and drone technology pose real threats already to our lives and children's lives.

The Digital Society changes society more than it changes people

I've argued elsewhere that the transition to a Digital Society is transforming economies, societies and cultures not just in the ways we've thought it will (the ways we know we use computers, smartphones, digital assistants) but also in their underlying structures (decision-making processes and social relationships, employment and settlement patterns, demographic and environmental change). The latter impacts - sometimes known as tertiary effects - result from changes in our collective behaviour rather than being anything that we intend.

Technology is changing rapidly and so are impacts, but people aren't. Our brains' capacity to process data hasn't grown with the capacity of our hard drives, let alone with the capacity of clouds. Our driving impulses - hunger, sex, survival, say - haven't been altered fundamentally by digitalisation (though it has offered new ways of expressing and achieving them).  

Power structures remain the critical determinants of economic, social and cultural life. There may be changes in the personnel that hold political power but there's been no great change in why it's exercised. And the internet has not simply enabled a thousand business flowers to bloom, as its evangelists naively hoped, but enabled the emergence of a new group of multinational businesses that exercise their power much as previous generations of multinational businesses have done.

The internet is not the future

A guru of the internet suggested to me once that the internet is just a passing phase. I think he was right. Too much has been written about the internet - and too many policies designed - as if it were the culmination of communications' evolution, not just one stage in the ever-changing relationship between people and technology.

In practice, I would say, we're already entering a different phase -  one which some have called the Fourth Industrial Revolution and I'm increasingly inclined to call the Digital Society. It's not the internet that's going to shape that society so much as other processes of digitalisation - artificial intelligence, machine learning, algorithmic decision-making. The Internet's a tool they use, not what governs them. We need to recognise that and move our thinking on to the next generation of technologies.

An important aspect of this is recognising that the rules we've thought appropriate for governing the internet - which are based on networking - are unlikely to be as appropriate for governing the emerging Digital Society. It's time, in short, to rethinkthose vaunted ' founding principles ' and develop  policies and mechanisms for inclusive governance that will be relevant tomorrow.

It will be very hard to have a say

And hereby hangs a problem that I've also covered in this blog. Technological change now happens very fast. New ways of doing things are constantly emerging, and are being implemented by technology companies (and sometimes by governments) before their implications can be properly thought through. Indeed, some think we shouldn't bother. Unexpected consequences are, therefore, the order of the day. Some may be welcomed by us, others decidedly will not.

Human decision-making processes - in policy development, law-making, regulation - are too slow to keep up with the page of techno-change. Governments and digital businesses are reluctant to see constraints on digital technology of the kind we take for granted in other areas - pharmaceuticals, for example - because they think they will lose out to their competitors. But there's growing disquiet amongst citizens about the directions in which digitalisation may be taking us. 

How to square this circle between the opportunities and risks of innovation? Using data-based algorithms to determine between policy options may prove attractive here to governments, but it would take political choice out of the equation. Democratic societies demand the right to shape their futures in ways that may well differ from those that algorithms think optimal.

And so:

I mentioned in an earlier blog that I've approached the internet and digitalisation, in the 25 years that I've spent analysing them, with three key words in mind:

  • Potential

  • Caution

  • Context

Or, in sentences:

  • The Internet and the Digital Society have great potential to enable and enhance. Some will use that potential to address the challenges that face humanity, which is good. Others, though, will use it  to seek advantages for themselves or others in ways that aren't.  Technological progress is not necessarily politically 'progressive'.

  • We should therefore be cautious about our projections and our policies. As societies, we should seek to promote what will enhance society and do what we can to protect society from harm. We can only do this if we look at the Internet and at digitalisation carefully and objectively, teasing out what's happening rather than what we wish would happen.

  • The impact of change differs in different contexts - in Britain and in Chad, for the elderly and for the young, for the powerful and for the powerless. People have the right to choose what will work best for them, rather than being shoehorned into what works best on the north-west seaboard of America.

If we want to shape the internet and the Digital Society, in summary, I'd say we need to think about what kinds of societies we want, how technology is reshaping them, and whether/how those two things can be brought together. We're unlikely to find answers to this in the past, one reason why I'm  personally glad to see the UN move forward from unproductive contemplation of 'enhanced cooperation' to the much wider agenda of the UN Secretary-General's new High-Level Panel on Digital Cooperation.

Next week I'll question the language that we use to describe the digital transition.

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.


Image by HILLS GO 400 used under Creative Commons license.


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