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This week sees Inside the Digital Society return after its Northern summer/Southern winter break. For that return, an overview of where we stand on ‘digital transformation’. Happening or not? For good or ill? With what consequences in the current state of world affairs?

‘Digital transformation’

The term is popular, and has been now for decades. I’d suggest it has two meanings.

From a technological point of view, it suggests dramatic change in our relationship with the world around us. Digital technology will supplant what’s gone before more than it will build on it.

All aspects of experience will experience this change. The more cautious compare digitalisation’s impact with that of printing, say, or the harnessing of electricity. The more enthusiastic see a digital revolution comparable with the agricultural revolution of the distant past or the industrial revolution of the eighteenth-onwards centuries.

But the term is also used more generally, to imply progress towards a better world. The assumptions about digital transformation in intergovernmental agreements and in national plans, in the rhetoric of online businesses and much civil society, are (often relentlessly) upbeat.

This, they suggest, is the way that we can beat the problems that beset us, from poverty and inequality, through ignorance and bigotry, to the pandemics of the future, conflict, climate change.

Each of these meanings reflects both reality and aspiration. Digital transformation’s happening, they imply, which both see as a good thing, but as yet it’s nothing like the transformation that’s to come, which both think will be better.

So what’s transformed so far (at home)?

I’ve been reflecting, in the blog break, on how digitalisation has ‘transformed’ – or at least changed the parameters – of my own life.

Back in the 1950s, when I was born, few of today’s communications media were part of life, even for my (averagely incomed) family in  affluent western Europe. We had no television until I was five, no telephone till I was ten. At secondary school I explored the 24 volumes of Encyclopaedia Brittanica rather than using Google and Wikipedia. The things that I routinely do today by internet were analogue.

So much has changed, but also, we should remember, so much has stayed the same. My children’s schools were very much like mine, and so will be my grandchildrens’. The surgery I had during this last blog break was undertaken in a hospital that worked much like it would have done when I was born, using techniques that were familiar then.

The same two parties dominate my country’s politics. Its social structures have evolved through changes that are not digital – more gender equality, multiculturalism, changing relationships between the state and citizen – at least as much as they’ve been changed by digital development.

The fundamental goals that I and others have pursued – from personal relationships to job security – and the institutional structures of my society remain broadly the same. What digitalisation’s changed are some of the mechanisms by which those goals can be pursued and those institutions and their structures are maintained, most notably in interpersonal communications and in the ways in which citizens now interact with government and business.

And in the wider world?

Much the same might be said of the wider world in which we live. There’ve been big changes in the way the world of nation states now works – such as decolonisation and shifts in geopolitical power first towards the United States, more recently towards Beijing. And there’ve been new challenges identified, particularly climate change. Digitalisation has had significant impacts alongside these, most recently in adaptation to the economic impact of COVID-19.

But most of the fundamental challenges of governance remain unchanged, as do the goals of international cooperation.

We’re still beset by conflict (more so now than in the 1990s), by poverty and inequality, by racism and misogyny.

The fundamental motives of our governments remain the same – some more concerned with power, some more with public services.

The structures of international governance – such as the United Nations and the International Monetary Fund – and the goals of international cooperation – in human rights, development, etc. – are largely as they were when I was born.

Big Data corporations differ in their ways of working from Big Oil, Big Pharma and other more traditional industries, but they still operate as global corporations that seek to maximise their market reach and profit.

As with individuals, in other words, the fundamental goals and structures of our governance have proved resilient so far in the face of digital development. Digitalisation has altered the ways in which those goals can be pursued and their structures managed, but has not changed the underlying goals and structures fundamentally.

What of the future?

We are, of course, it’s often said, in the early stages of digital transformation. The real step changes, it’s implied, will come about as the next generations of digital technology are deployed: as machine learning (ML), robotics and artificial intelligence (AI) become pervasive and innovations that are yet to come supplant old ways of doing things.

The impact of these changes will be profound, for sure. Thirty years from now, we will (if we survive) look back on today’s digital environment in much the way that I look at my childhood’s (though to some extent you could say this difference between early and later life has been experienced by every generation).

There will be major impacts of AI, robotics and ML on most aspects of our economies and our societies. Some instances of how things might evolve can be seen in the development of autonomous vehicles and cybercurrencies.

We don’t know how they will work out or what will be successful and what won’t. They point towards different modalities becoming the norm in many aspects of our lives during the next generation, though at present many of these innovations are primarily concerned with convenience and efficiency (e-government, e-commerce) while those that are intended to seem radical can seem surprisingly conservative (see Facebook/Meta’s Disney-like conception of the ‘metaverse’).

Transforming what?

Digitalisation can and will transform the modalities and mechanisms of life and governance, in other words, but won’t transform the fundamental motivations underpinning individuals, governments and businesses.

Individuals will still seek to maximise personal advantage vis-à-vis their neighbours, fellow workers, fellow citizens; still seek power, prosperity and wealth; still pursue romance; still aspire to education and good health; still care for friends and families, and in some cases hate all of those that are not like them.

Governments will still seek to secure and maintain their own authority, whether in their own interests or those of citizens. Businesses will seek to maximise their profits and returns to shareholders.

The international community will continue to face challenges that have beset all previous generations – conflict within and between nations, racism and discrimination, poverty and hunger, inequality and crime, poor health and education, natural disasters and the consequences of human activity (critically now through pollution and climate change).

A basis for thinking about digital transformation

However great the extent of technological transformation, these underlying forces will remain. Understanding this should be fundamental to thinking about public policy on digital development, its potential and its limits, and the kind of contribution it can make to addressing challenges such as those set out above or in the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

While digitalisation will change some nuances of power structures within the international community and national societies, it will not change their nature. Individuals, political groups and businesses will still seek to gain and exercise power over one another, and the possession of such power will be fundamental in determining digital (as other) outcomes.

Geopolitics will still be dominated by countries that have economic, military and technological power. Those that don’t will struggle to be heard. Global institutions will continue to reflect these power dynamics.

Alongside power structures, inequalities will remain, within and between societies. They may even be exacerbated by digitalisation since the advantages of technology are more available to the rich and better-educated while technological expertise and capital are geographically concentrated, rather than widely distributed.

Four implications

So ‘digital transformation’ will affect the ways in which we do things, often profoundly, but not the underlying motives that guide our goals and aspirations. This has many implications for how we – and policymakers in particular – should think about it. I’ll pick out four, and make one further point on each.

First, we need to recognise that change will be dramatic in some areas of life, but much less so in others, and that it will affect each of these more or less profoundly at different times. Changes in the ways that people do things will often require regulation/legislation, especially if the goal is to make entitlements and outcomes equivalent offline and on.

Second, we need to accept that ‘digital transformation’ will have both positive and negative impacts (including impacts that redistribute power between different individuals and groups in ways we do or do not favour). Digitalisation is not, as some suggest, ‘on the right side of history’ but merely part of the social evolution that one day will be history. It is as transformative of criminality and warfare as it is of health and education. Public policy (and international cooperation) need to address this rather than promoting innovation without thinking about outcomes.

Third, should accept that ‘digital solutions’ to challenges such as those posed in the SDGs can be no more than partial - contributions rather than solutions. The fundamental challenges posed in the SDGs arise from political, economic, social and environmental factors, and can only be resolved, if at all, by attention to those causes. Digital interventions – digital fixes – may help (or hinder) in the short term, but real ‘solutions’ must address the fundamental causes not the symptoms.

And fourth, integrating digital development into broader international goals, along these lines, requires much more extensive cross-sectoral and international cooperation than we see at present.

The UN Secretary-General has set out aspirations along these lines in his Common Agenda, including plans for a Summit for the Future (now to be held in 2024) which will include a Global Digital Compact (GDC). But these are difficult times for international cooperation, whether concerned with aspirations like the SDGs or other challenges including two – cybersecurity and cyberwarfare – that arise from digitalisation itself.

The need for global dialogue on ‘digital transformation’ – whatever it means – is profound. Perhaps discussion on the forthcoming GDC will help.  But we’re less well placed to bring that dialogue about today than we were when the internet and digitalisation were in their infancy.


Image: Session on Digital Transformation - Sketchnotes by Claudio via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) 

David Souter writes a fortnightly 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.