Inside the Information Society: How should we re-think the Information Society?

It’s time for ‘Inside the Information Society’ to resume after its Northern-summer/Southern-winter break. I’m glad to be back. I hope you enjoy the new season’s posts and that they raise ideas and issues of importance to you.

Like last year, so this, I’ll look at what’s happening in the Information Society, comment on new developments, raise questions and challenge assumptions. There’s no shortage of issues. I’ll start this week by asking if/how we should rethink the Information Society?

How do we think about the Information Society?

I used to say that the Information Society meant different things to different people.

  • To some people, I’d say, it is observed reality. They look about them and they see ICTs already changing their societies, economies and lives. They want to understand what’s happening.

  • To others, I’d say, it is an aspirational vision. They’re more concerned with all the benefits they believe will come from ICTs. They want to make them happen.

Those two views still summarise how many people look at ICTs (including ICTs for development and human rights) today. And there’s truth, of course, in both. We are seeing our societies change before our eyes because of ICTs, and we can envisage powerful positive changes that we hope they’ll bring about.

But the last few years have seen a third view becoming widespread, that the Information Society is as much a threat as opportunity. The Information Society is happening, many people feel. It’s been mostly positive so far, but not entirely so. They look forward to many of the new things it will bring about, but some of them they find disquieting. They’re worried about the uncertainties that lie ahead – especially what Donald Rumsfeld called “unknown unknowns”. Will they have jobs? Will they be monitored from dawn to dusk (and indeed while sleeping)? Will they be empowered or disempowered, enriched or impoverished by the new world of big data and artificial intelligence?

What does civil society think?

How does civil society feel about this? Here, too, I used to say, the Information Society has meant different things to different people.

  • A few civil society organisations (CSOs), like APC, have made the Information Society central to their vision. They’ve seen access to ICTs and Internet as critical enablers of development and human rights. They’ve worried about some of its potential impacts, especially on privacy, but they’ve envisaged it, mostly, as harbinger of good.

  • Most CSOs, though, have not paid much attention. They’ve been preoccupied with their own areas of concern – employment rights, say, or poverty, homelessness or the environment. They’ve made use of ICTs to help them deal with those core issues, but not seriously concerned themselves with long-term impact.

Both of these ways of thinking need to change, I’d say today, in line with people’s changing hopes and fears about the Information Society. That’s because the Information Society today is different from that, say, ten years ago when many of the CSOs that work on ICTs formulated their thinking around the World Summit on the Information Society – and because tomorrow’s Information Society will be very different still. Four reasons in particular.

What’s changed? What’s changing?

First, ICTs are no longer marginal to social and economic development, they’re fundamental. That rhetoric about disruptive, transformational change – which was overblown at the start of the century – is beginning to become reality.

Second, power structures in the Information Society have changed. Turn-of-the-century aspirations for an Information Society built by disinterested multistakeholders have been overturned. Today’s Internet and tomorrow’s Information Society are commercial enterprises driven by powerful business interests.

Third, the pace of change in technology is accelerating beyond the capabilities of governments, citizens and traditional business models to keep pace with it. Robotics, artificial intelligence and big data will become mainstream before any national or international governance arrangements come to terms with them. There’s little planning going on for their big impacts.

Fourth, these changes are not necessarily benign. Experience has shown – and this is unsurprising – that ICTs are morally neutral. They can empower and disempower. They are as likely to foster inequality as equality. They can be used as effectively by fascists as by liberals. And digitalisation implies a world in which data are gathered, held and analysed by default, which makes them privacy and data protection much more difficult.

What does this mean for civil society?

CSOs concerned with ICTs have tended, up to now, to promote the Information Society – or, at least, a vision of it which empowers individuals, fosters social and economic development, and enables human rights. But theirs’ is not the only vision of the Information Society out there. CSOs’ priorities are very different from the commercial priorities of ICT (and other) businesses, or the governance priorities of governments (particularly those that are authoritarian).

It has made sense – and obviously still does – for CSOs concerned with ICTs to promote access for all. Access will be even more crucial for individuals in the future mostly-digital world than it is in today’s partly-digital one. But it is increasingly important for civil society organisations that are concerned with ICTs to think about the rest of what the Information Society entails: to look at how ICTs will alter our societies, economies and cultures and change relationships between governments, businesses and citizens. To look at these holistically, from the perspective of their core objectives (in development, or human rights, for example; from the perspective of women or of employees; whatever core objectives they may have). To expect and plan for downsides, not just upsides; for unknown unknowns as well as aspirations.

I think two things are central to rethinking here.

Where is technology taking us?

First, civil society should focus more on where we’re heading. The changes that we’ll see over the next ten years will be more than incremental, may be existential. Tomorrow’s world will certainly be very different from today’s.

“If we want to influence tomorrow’s world,” they should be thinking, “we need to focus on what technologies and services will be around in ten years’ time; what they will have done and do to our societies and economies; how they will disrupt existing norms, jobs, structures. We need to identify the ways in which those changes will affect the issues that specifically concern us – development, democracy, rights, governance, equality, empowerment, whatever our priorities may be. And then we need to ask three questions (see below). Unless we do, we’re giving a blank cheque to those that have more power to influence the future: technologists, governments and international businesses.”

Three questions

These are the three questions that I think they should be asking of the future:

  • What aspects of the situation that we have today do we consider most valuable, and how do we preserve them as the Information Society evolves?

  • What aspects of today do we most want to change, and how can we use the Information Society in order to achieve this?

  • What aspects of tomorrow’s Information Society do we most fear, and what can we do in order to avoid them?

These three questions are equally important, and they don’t just apply to civil society. The response of most governments and non-ICT businesses to the evolving Information Society is also largely reactive, not predictive, at the moment.

Disruptive, transformational changes, long predicted, will soon be on us. They will have losers as well as winners. Future historians may look back at our time from the perspective of the winners, but we today must deal with the problems faced by those who’ll lose as well. If we’re to answer any of the three questions above, we need to do more than struggle to keep pace with changes that are happening; we need to get ahead of the game. Which is difficult, which will be challenging, but which is necessary if we’re to have a say.

Next week, I’ll write about the future of cybersecurity.

Image: Global Information Society Watch special report, 2013.

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