Inside the Digital Society: Building (digital) back better?

The last blog post of the year. Last week I reflected on the (digital) year gone by; this week some thoughts – and hopes – for the (digital) year to come.

A reminder

First a reminder of what’s gone by. This was the first year of the pandemic: a year of crisis for global health and recession in the global economy. At year’s end, we’re facing a second or third wave of infections, continued constraints on movement and activity, and the first glimmers of recovery from nascent vaccines. The second year of the pandemic may bring recovery, but recovery may well come in fits and starts.

Last week I highlighted two impacts on the digital society.

COVID’s brought about an acceleration in digitalisation. Those who can do so have worked, shopped and played online much more than they have done beforehand. I’ve been reviewing the impact on e-commerce. It’s been substantial, almost everywhere. Not enough to stop recession but enough to mitigate some of its impacts. More on that in the first blog of next year.

But digital acceleration’s also shown its limitations. A lot of things are better done offline than online, not vice versa. Some digital ‘test and trace’ systems have curtailed infections; others have been costly failures. And those who can’t do things online have been losing out. Most commentators think that COVID’s increased inequality, as digital substitutes are more available to those with money and with higher status jobs than those without.

Where digitalisation has been most effective has been where it’s been best managed, not where it’s been most used. Solid institutional foundations and careful, evidence-based human decision-making have been critical – enabling an effective blend of online and offline behaviour.

Issues and impacts

I ended last week by raising sets of issues we should think about when considering the digital and the pandemic. Two were specific to the crisis:

  • short-term issues – how we have used digital resources to mitigate the impact of the pandemic; and

  • medium/longer-term issues – how digital resources can contribute to recovery from the pandemic in the coming year(s).

The short-term issues here are about stabilising things during the crisis; the medium or longer-term with bringing societies back to life and economies back to growth as it recedes. My third set of issues was not specific, though, because pandemic’s not the only problem that we face.

The world today’s beset as well by underlying issues that will continue after we’ve come through the present crisis: issues of poverty and inequality, health and education, security and environment, racism and political polarisation; issues that are addressed, one way or another, by the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and other international agreements.

To which we ought to add uncertainties about the impact of new technologies themselves on our future lives; on who has power and how it’s wielded; on how societies, economies and cultures will evolve.

Some framing thoughts on this in general, and then three hopes for 2021.

Can we ‘build back better’?

In a crisis like today’s, it’s easy to focus on getting back to where we were and forget the underlying problems that made where we were much less than where we’d like to be. There’s a fashionable phrase about this. We should, say many, aim to ‘build back better’ rather than restore the status quo.

The UN Secretary-General’s referred to this a lot of late. ‘It is time to reset,’ he told the General Assembly last week. ‘We must seize the opportunity for change. … The recovery from COVID-19 must address the pre-existing conditions it has exposed and exploited, from gaps in basic services to an overheated planet.’

‘Building back better’ means tackling the underlying issues as well as the pandemic’s legacy: tackling poverty; inadequate healthcare and education; economic weakness and inequality; environmental threats from pollution and from climate change; poor governance and the abuse of human rights; insufficient global coordination; polarising politics. What does that require, and what does it require of digitalisation?

It won’t be easy

First, it won’t be easy. The world economy’s taking a heavy hit: predicted to shrink by 4% this year (against expectations before that it could grow that much). Most people are worse off than they were twelve months ago. Many have lost jobs. Health services have focused on COVID at the expense of other healthcare. Education’s been diminished for a generation.

All of these things will have lasting impacts on lives and livelihoods; for many they’ll be significantly, even life-changingly, negative. They require rethinking of how SDGs can be achieved within the timescale that is left. More imagination’s needed than just doubling down on current efforts to meet existing targets. 

There’s an opportunity here to integrate the digital more effectively than happened when the SDGs were written. The scale of change digitalisation would bring about was underestimated then – both its potential role and unexpected consequences. Resetting SDG processes could adjust that. But I see four challenges in doing so.

Optimise, don’t maximise

First, the slow pace of change in international institutions. Reaching agreement on the SDGs took half a decade. There are strong arguments for sticking with established texts and goals, even when the global context changes: not least that changing texts gives governments excuses for reneging. Adaptation to new circumstances is essential, though, if opportunities aren’t to be missed.

Second, the risk that measures taken now to speed recovery will exacerbate some underlying issues. Governments and businesses will be keen to go (forgive the term) ‘warp speed’. For some that may mean doubling down on use of fossil fuels, in the short term at least; it may mean easing social and environmental protections, accepting inequalities. Short-term gains can leave legacies of long-term harm.

Third, the over-reach of digital enthusiasts. Some digital insiders think ‘building back better’ means maximising digital. Internet evangelists and management consultancies are hyping up their hopes for ‘digital transformation’, for society to be restructured by, through, and in the interests of technology. But it’s humanity, not technology, that should determine our direction. It’s the balance between the human and the digital that matters. We should aim to optimise, not maximise, the digital.

And fourth, related to this, the risk that we’ll forget the central goal of SDGs: that ‘no-one should be left behind.’

The impacts of digitalisation are complex, particularly where power structures are concerned. Decisions taken now – political, commercial, technological – and those who have the power to make them – a few governments, some businesses, technologists writing the code and designing the algorithms for the next wave – will shape future societies. Other governments, businesses and individuals are likely to be ‘left behind’ if they don’t get onboard, but either way they may have little say. 

Four hopes for 2021

All of which leaves us with enormous challenges. Recovery will be difficult enough; building back better will be tougher. The SDGs represent the nearest the international community has to a master plan and they include most of the crucial issues (though they underestimate the opportunities and risks of new technologies, and some targets need rethinking in the light of COVID'S impact).

The risk of thinking big, of course, is that we end up doing little. Incremental change is often more important than plans to change the world. What we do in the first year of recovering from COVID will be crucial. I’ll end with three hopes for that, which I’ll no doubt write about much more in 2021. They’re related to the different types of issue that I raised last week.

First, regarding short-term mitigation of pandemic impacts, I hope we learn the lessons – good and bad – from what we’ve done. Where did digital technology help? Where were data sets inadequate, inadequately shared or inadequately representative? What did we learn about how to balance the right to health and rights of privacy, the needs of society and the preferences of individuals?

Learning lessons requires serious evaluation: not just statistics but listening to the views of those affected – in all societies, not just those at the heart of digital development.

Second, regarding medium-term recovery from the pandemic, I hope we prioritise interventions that focus on inclusive recovery rather than competing vested (national or commercial) interests – whether that’s in the distribution of vaccines or economic growth.

Less focus on digital ‘solutions’; more on digital’s contribution to recovery. Approaches that build on lessons learnt and experience to date, that relate to the differing needs and resources in differing societies, that are evaluated for their impact on the future as well as on the present.

Third, I hope to see more serious, substantive dialogue about the relationship between the digital and those long-term underlying issues that are at the heart of prospects for humanity and for the planet.

More realism and less spin; more evidence, less hype. More collaboration between experts in all relevant areas – social sciences and economics, health and education, employment and environment, ethics and natural sciences, as well as digital technology. More listening by those experts to the subjects/beneficiaries/victims of policy decisions.

The last’s a big ambition, maybe, but maybe year’s end is a time for optimism. Either way, how we address the balance between ‘digital’ and ‘society’ in our response to the pandemic will set a course for how we do so in the longer term.

I hope you have a good Northern winter / Southern summer break. Inside the Digital Society will return in January with a look at what’s happening to e-commerce.

Image: Photo by Omar Prestwich on Unsplash.

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.
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