Inside the Information Society: Cyber-optimists, cyber-pessimists and cyber-realism

Author's name: 
David Souter
London [9 January 2017]

Cocktail hour. Source: Yumikrum, Wikimedia CommonsCocktail hour. Source: Yumikrum, Wikimedia Commons Each week David Souter comments on an important issue for APC members and others concerned about the Information Society. This week’s blog post looks at cyber-optimism, cyber-pessimism and the challenges ahead.

Are you a cyber-optimist or a cyber-pessimist? Do you see the Information Society that’s coming as a blessing or a curse? Do you enthuse about each new step along the road to digital nirvana, or do you fear the future’s digital dystopia?

We’ve lived for years with cyber-optimism. We’re seeing now an upsurge in its opposite. As we start another year I want to put the case, instead, for realism about technology’s potential and for more active engagement in determining how that potential’s realised.

Cyber-optimism

For twenty years and more, cyber-optimism has dominated thinking in the ICT sector and amongst its followers – in government and business, in (some) development agencies and rights organisations, in parts of civil society.

Cyber-optimists believe, at heart, that digitalisation means progress and will make the future better than the past; that the Information Society is sure to be empowering; that the transformations which it brings will be for the good of all. Their positive welcome of the digital was at the heart of WSIS (the World Summit on the Information Society, 2003-2005). It’s at the heart, too, of much ICT4D.

The job of government, for cyber-optimists, is to ‘create an enabling environment for innovation and investment’ and then get out of the way, leaving technology to work its magic.

Cyber-pessimism

The last few years have seen an upsurge in its antithesis, however: cyber-pessimism – in political and social commentary, in popular culture, among a public that’s grown suspicious of experts offering solutions, even among some who were once cyber-optimists.

Cyber-pessimists fear the consequences of rapid digitalisation. They don’t like the look and feel of the society they think is coming. They fear that algorithms and automation will disempower, not empower, citizens; that powerful data management companies will commodify them; that governments will surveille them; that technology, tech markets and tech businesses will take control of all our lives.

Utopia or dystopia?

I’m exaggerating these positions, obviously. Most people have, at best, an underlying sense of what they feel about technology, for good or ill (or both); no more than that. But I sense there’s greater polarisation between the Information Society’s advocates and its Cassandras than there was five years ago – a trend that I’d attribute to growing recognition that ICTs are becoming more pervasive more rapidly than previously appeared.

Polarisations like this matter, not least when optimistic experts fail to acknowledge growing alarm among the wider population about what they both believe is coming. There are important policy implications.

Cyber-optimists point to the good that they believe technology can do for us, and think we should do nothing that could jeopardise it – hence their commitment to ‘permissionless innovation’ and minimalist regulation. Cyber-pessimists point to the harm they fear will follow, want to find ways of managing the impact of technology, and fear that they won’t find them – hence their desire to rein in the power of technology businesses, to protect employment, to avoid our lives becoming digital by default.

Both optimists and pessimists agree that the Information Society will bring fundamental change in many, most, almost every aspect of economy, society and culture. They differ over whether that will be for good or ill. Optimists have faith in new technology; pessimists are resigned to it or want to fight it.

What do I mean by cyber-realism?

As is often the case, I’d say, there’s truth in both perspectives, but only partial truth. Both pay too much attention to technology, and too little to people and the societies in which we live. Technology alone will not determine how the digital age will look and feel; it will evolve through the interaction of technology and society.

And that interaction gives us space to have a say. Instead of faith or fatalism, it implies that we can at least seek to shape the Information Society rather than accepting whatever technology, and technology markets, permit.

Of course, policy interventions take place now, but we’re still struggling to find coherence in the context of very rapid technological change. There’s too much hype about the wonders of technology within the ICT community, for example, and too little analysis underway of the long-term economic, employment or environmental impacts of digitalisation. I’ll suggest four shifts in thinking which would be helpful.

Four shifts in thinking

First, we should stop thinking that the Information Society will be necessarily ‘good’ or ‘bad’, positive or negative, for the things we cherish or the things we fear. It will be both, as it has been so far. (Think, if you need an example, of the ways in which social media’s inspired both – to some degree – the Arab Spring and today’s alt.right). Digitalisation creates opportunities and threats, like every previous technology. Realism is about recognising that it does both, rather than assuming one or the other.

Second, we should recognise that, in developed countries at least, the Information Society’s already here. We’re on the cusp of living with digital devices and automated services much more intensely than we’ve done to date – with the Internet of Things, with virtual assistants, shortly with driverless vehicles. If we don’t consider in advance how we want those innovations to change our lives, we’ll let them change our lives in ways that we don’t want. (Think, perhaps, of the way that we’ve allowed online services to undermine our privacy because we let service providers set the terms of service in their interests.)

Third, we should recognise that we have the right to shape the Information Society, rather than simply taking what technology (and technology markets) hand down to us. If we want an Information Society that respects human rights, protects the environment, limits (rather than extends) capacity for conflict, fosters economic and cultural diversity, we’ll have to do more than simply say so and hope technology delivers. We’ll need actively to pursue those public policy goals within the institutions that frame society and the institutions that frame technology. Maybe, too, we’ve more than just the right; perhaps we’ve a responsibility to those that will inherit the Information Society that follows after us.

And fourth, we should consider today’s technology from the perspective of the future. It’s hard, of course, to anticipate how information technology will evolve. But that problem’s not unique to ICTs. It applies just as much to biotechnology, for example, to weapons technology, or to technologies for energy production. Foresight will help deliver insight. We should analyse the future rather than gaze at it in wonder or in fear.

What does this require?

It may be hard to predict the future of technology and tech markets, but we can do more to look at what they mean from our human perspective too. We can identify the things we value most in our societies, and wish to sustain as they move onward. We can identify the things we’d like to change about them, and we can identify the things we fear in new technology. Doing so might be one way to aim for the ‘people-centred’ Information Society that WSIS sought.

Different people, naturally, will have different views on how they wish society to develop, and how they’d like the interaction between technology and society to go. Again, there’s nothing new in that. It suggests we need two things.

The first is better evidence, from independent sources. We’re too reliant, as things stand, on technology businesses (and consultancies dependent on them) to tell us what they think technology will do. We need more independent analysis, from economic, social, environment, development and rights perspectives; more insights from experience; more foresight which isn’t based in vested interest.

The second is more active, less polarised, debate about the kind of relationship between technology and society that people find desirable and about the legal and regulatory framework which that implies. This won’t be easy, particularly at a time of growing international dissonance. But, if anything, that makes it more important that we move away from cyber-optimism and cyber-pessimism to try and shape the Information Society that we’re going to live with in more dangerous times.

In next week’s post, I’ll review a recent UN survey on how e-government’s developing.

David Souter is a longstanding associate of APC, and has worked for more than twenty years on the relationship between ICTs and public policy, particularly development, environment, governance (including Internet governance) and rights. David writes a weekly blog for APC, looking at different aspects of the Information Society, development and rights. David’s blog takes a fresh look at many of the issues that concern APC and its members, with the aim of provoking discussion and debate. It comments on current topics and international meetings, draws attention to new reports and publications, critiques assumptions and suggests alternative perspectives. The views are his own, not APC’s. We hope that they will stimulate discussion, and that others will contribute their ideas in complementary blogs in future. More about David Souter. Follow him on Twitter .
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