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Sharp-eyed readers will have noticed that ‘Inside the Information Society’ took a break towards the end of last year.  It’s back today, with a long list of themes up and ready for 2018.  

As before, this blog will raise questions and challenge assumptions about where the Information Society is heading.  It will reflect on major events around the Internet and its impact on society, economy and culture; on changing media; and on the new, post-Internet and ICT-enabled technologies that seem set to transform the way we do things in the future, for good or ill.  It will talk about technology, development, environment and rights; comment on new research and public policy; and ask how we can shape the future before it shapes us.

A moment of transition

You could say that we’ve reached a transition point in the Information Society’s development.  For those who live in the global North, at least, it’s no longer up-and-coming, it’s here-and-now.  

ICTs – especially mobiles – are now central to most people’s daily lives in Europe, North America and many other places.  They’ve become the most important means of engagement with other people and society for many individuals, particularly younger people.  Most decisions made by governments and businesses are mediated through them.  Big Tech is now the most powerful business sector.

That’s less true in the global South than in the global North but, there too, many now live by the phone, and ICTs become more pervasive in government and business year on year.

Which requires a rethink

The Information Society, in other words, is now today’s reality rather than tomorrow’s aspiration.  Not a day goes by without it featuring, one way or another, in the headlines of our newspapers, news bulletins and news feeds.

Reaching that transition means we need to change our thinking about the Information Society and about the Internet.  We’re past the point when we can merely hope or expect that its impact will be positive.  We have to deal with the impacts that it’s having, which are complex, multi-faceted, unpredictable and far from being all benign.  And – unless we’re happy for Big Tech to guide us – we need social, economic and political frameworks that enable us to shape those impacts for the future.

That should be our agenda when we think about the Information Society today, and will be the agenda for this column for this year.

Six trends

Here are six trends which I see taking place within this context.  All differ in key respects from how we thought the Information Society would evolve ten years ago.  All have significant impact on our societies, economies and cultures now, and the impact that all have’s accelerating.  In every case, there’s dissonance between the way we have seen things and the way we need to see them for the future.

  • Impacts on societies, economies, development

We’ve expected ICTs to have big impacts on social and economic development – in economic production and exchange, in access to social goods (like health and education), in opportunities and in behaviour – and indeed that’s happening.  

There’s great potential to be grasped, but we have to recognise that it won’t necessarily be shared.  As the World Bank’s pointed out, the benefits of ICTs so far have gone mostly to those who have the money, resources and access to power to take advantage of them.  Increased productivity through automation in the future can mean GDP growth at the expense of jobs.  

We’ve paid attention to enabling more equitable access to the Internet.  We need to pay attention to more equitable distribution of its outcomes.

  • The impact of social media

We’ve expected the Internet and social media to empower and liberate by making freedom of expression and access to information much cheaper than they’ve ever been before.

As they have done, but we’ve learnt that maximising the quantity of content’s no certain route to greater rights or better decision-making.  Because we don’t have time to access all the content that’s available, we rely on intermediaries and algorithms to choose for us.  For many of us, that means that the content we experience is less, not more, diverse.  And we’re learning how vulnerable that makes us to manipulation and to propaganda as well as to what might help us do the things we want to do. 

We’ve paid attention to the Internet’s ability to expand the public sphere.  We need to pay attention to its impact on social norms, political behaviour and power relationships.

  • Cybersecurity

One of the Internet’s great strengths – the ability of remote devices to access, communicate and modify each other’s content – is also one of its great weaknesses.  Internet pioneers wanted to exchange information within communities with shared norms and interests.  They didn’t anticipate (or anticipate enough) that making networks open to their friends would also make them open to their enemies.  Ever since the Internet's been global and commercial, cyber-security has been chasing cyber-insecurity.

As ICTs become more pervasive, global and complex, the risk’s not just to our communications networks but to the economic systems on which lives and livelihoods depend.  Weak cybersecurity’s the norm today across the Internet of Things.  Smart cities and smart systems will also be vulnerable cities, vulnerable systems.

We’ve prioritised enabling opportunities through innovation in technology and services.  We need to focus on means of reducing risks of harm as well, and inculcate those by default.

  • Market concentration

We used to think the Information Society would let a thousand flowers bloom; that there’d be greater competition to meet our every need; that myriad small businesses would be offering niche services for niche communities.  

And so it has in some contexts, but at the global level – where power’s concentrated – the opposite’s occurred.  Major Information Society businesses require a lot of capital (data centres don’t come cheap).  Economies of scope and scale in network businesses strongly favour large suppliers, leading to concentration in markets such as social media, online search and services, as well as infrastructure.  

We’ve paid attention to market dominance in communication networks.  We need to pay attention to dominance in online services, in data management and in the next generation of technology that’s about to come onstream.   

  • It’s no longer all about the Internet

We used to see the Internet as all important in the Information Society, because it was the cutting edge at the time of the World Summit on the Information Society (2003/2005).  The cutting edge today’s with other new technologies – artificial intelligence, robotics, algorithms, big data, ‘smart’ systems, autonomous vehicles, coming trends like quantum computing, the interface between information technology and sectors like biotechnology.  These make use of the Internet but they do not belong to it; the Information Society is a bigger and more powerful phenomenon than Internet and is no longer driven by it.

We’ve focused attention on the Internet and how it's governed.  We need to pay attention to the next generation of IT innovation, and how that should be governed.

  • The geopolitical context

Last, we used to think the Information Society would usher in an age of greater democratic values, international cooperation and respect for human rights.  

Take a look, then, at what’s happened these last twenty years.  It's authoritarian and populist politics that have gained ground in the era of the Internet, so far, rather than democracies.  The Arab Spring has turned to Winter.  Most rights activists would say there’s less, not more, respect for human rights.  International cooperation is weaker than for many years, with an upsurge in nationalism and intensified competition for global power.  

We’ve paid attention to increasing multistakeholder participation in governance.  We need to pay attention to the health of multilateral institutions and relations between nation-states as well if we want the Information Society or any other aspect of our future to be prosperous and secure.

In conclusion

These are big themes, and they’ll be addressed in this year’s posts, along with other aspects of the ever-changing Information Society.  Next week: UNESCO’s plans to establish indicators for rights, openness, access and multistakeholder engagement on the Internet.

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.