The Rise of Digitalism: Will the Coronavirus Trigger the End of Liberalism?
“Don’t waste a crisis” – M.F. Weiner, 1976
A famous quote that has often been linked to Winston Churchill in the form “Never let a good crisis go to waste”. Whoever said it, there is a truth to it, and also now we see governments around the world using the crisis to make changes which could outlast the current crisis:
- The ‘emergency law’ just accepted in Hungary will allow Viktor Orbán to rule by decree without time limits. The chances that this law will be reverted after the crisis is over are very small;
- The Chinese government brought state surveillance to new levels, and experts said that “the Coronavirus has given the Chinese government a pretext for accelerating the mass surveillance”. Moving around in China and entering your house or workplace requires citizens to scan a QR code, to give their name, ID number and temperature, which enables the government to see your exact movements in the past weeks. This is way beyond George Orwell’s 1984. The chances of this surveillance tool being removed after the crisis are small.
- The European Commission has apparently looked carefully at the Chinese government as they now also want to track telecom data to model the COVID-19 spread. The USA is looking at using facial recognition and geolocation to also track COVID-19 patients. It might be the objective now, but what happens if the crisis is over and the EU and USA still have access to these surveillance tools?
- A state in India requires its citizens to send a selfie to the government every waking hour. The app designed for this will include the GPS coordinates so that government officials can verify the person’s location. Imagine what they could do with all the data collected?
We live in challenging times, and once this crisis is over, the world will be a different place.
A few months ago, I started thinking about the rise of Digitalism. I believe that the Corona crisis will be a catalyst for the rise of Digitalism and that we will have to be very careful as to what this will mean for citizens. Let me explain.
Digitalism as the World’s Political Philosophy
After Nationalism, Communism and Liberalism, it is now time for the era of Digitalism as the leading, global, system of social organisation. Whether we like it or not.
In the past hundred years, we have seen various forms of social organisations, and political philosophies come and go in various parts of the world. First collapsed (extreme) nationalism after WWII. Then communism collapsed in the Western world with the collapse of the iron curtain. In China, however, communism survived and even thrived by welcoming capitalism into the system, allowing the people of China to grow their wealth significantly. In the Western, democratic, world, Liberalism became the accepted political and moral philosophy.
Although Liberalism has thrived in the past decades, it seems that this global story of social organisation is reaching its expiry date. As Yuval Noah Harari has written in his books, the rise of big data and artificial intelligence could mark the end of Liberalism and liberal democracy. According to Harari, the international, rule-based system is collapsing, and we need a new post-liberal order now. I believe this new order is upon us, driven by emerging technologies that will change our lives drastically in the coming decades, and the current Corona crisis is a catalyst for it to make Digitalism the new world’s political philosophy.
The End of Liberalism
Liberalism is a political doctrine where the protection and freedom of the individual is the core driver. It is the task of the government to protect individuals, although it happens that governments abuse this power, as we now see happening in Hungary. Liberalism is based on free competition and a self-regulating market. Unfortunately, many of these core principles are disappearing in the world. Organisations are becoming so powerful, due to an ever-increasing hunger for data, that governments are failing to break the power of those companies that deliberately and consistently breach consumers’ trust, privacy and freedom.
Emerging technologies such as big data analytics and artificial intelligence, combined with the constant data harvesting thanks to the Internet of Things and social media, have created a surveillance society managed either by private companies or by the state.
Governments from around the world, including Western democracies, recognise the power of data and AI. Depending on the country you live in, this results in a further reduction of citizen protection and (digital) freedom. With more processes being outsourced to machines, also job protection is on the line.
Furthermore, many, almost all, companies harvesting consumer data fail to protect their data and governments fail to protect the citizens. Although there are still exceptions such as the investigation by the New York Attorney General into Zoom’s privacy problems, the really big companies such as Google or Facebook can continue their processes without any problem. As a result, individuals’ privacy and safety are rapidly diminishing. The list of data breaches is endless, and businesses are expected to lose up to $5 trillion by 2024 due to cybercrime, directly impacting consumers’ privacy.
To make matters worse, recommendation algorithms are rapidly limiting an individual’s freedom, although many might not perceive it that way. Recommendation engines already run the world. These algorithms base recommendations on data collected and often only provide recommendations that match your profile, resulting in a feedback loop that limits your freedom. They do not serve the individual, but the company that created them with the objective to sell more or have you stay around longer. Recommendation engines are toxic, but they are everywhere. Unfortunately, also governments increasingly lean on such algorithms to make decisions.
Finally, free competition is also quickly disappearing in the online world we now live in. The big tech companies, including GAFAM (Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft) and BAT (Baidu, Alibaba, Tencent) are seriously limiting free competition by acquiring every startup/company that could become a threat to them. Founders love it because they go home with a massive paycheck, but it seriously limits competition. Breaking them up would be a good idea, but due to their sheer size and their enormous lobbying power, nothing has happened so far. So, what is next?
The Rise of Digitalism
Since the exponential growth of the internet and the explosive growth of data harvesting, a new story has slowly been developing. It is the story of, which I like to call, Digitalism. It will be the first truly globally adopted political doctrine, encouraged and accepted by all governments, all companies and increasingly feared by most citizens. A political doctrine that no citizen really wants, but that will become the main story, nevertheless. We might be able to limit its effects, but that would require collective action as citizens.
The story of Digitalism explains the future as a struggle for data among companies and (certain) governments trying to collect as much data as possible and citizens trying to protect their data and privacy. Digitalism envisions a world where data is the most important resource in society. It thrives on capitalism and depending on the role of the government either enables mass surveillance (whether state or company surveillance) or aims to empower its citizens. Regardless of the direction, it enables a winner takes all mentality resulting in increased inequality. Those citizens that cannot keep up will lose out.
Digitalism is a form of social organisation where the artificial is taking its place in society. It will require humans to adapt as machines will increasingly play an important role in society. What will start with human-to-machine collaboration and an augmented workforce will quickly result in predominantly machine-to-machine collaboration across all levels of society, significantly limiting the number of jobs available. The current requirement by many governments to work from home (no matter the good intentions behind it, will probably accelerate this as companies will start to look for different ways to keep up productions. Robots, after all, cannot get sick and produce 24/7).
A few years ago, I wrote about the Imagination Age, where creativity is the only thing left to do in an age dominated by AI. However, in the few years that passed since I wrote that, AI has advanced so dramatically that I am no longer convinced that creativity will remain the sole domain of humans. Already, there are plenty of stories about machines writing books, making music or painting pictures. With computing power still on the rise, and the upcoming quantum computing era, AI is likely to redefine creativity as well.
Consequently, the future of work and creativity are performed predominantly by machines. With intelligent machines and AI becoming more prominent in society, taking over more and more jobs and directing more money to an ever-smaller group of elites, the masses will have to find new meaning in their lives. When we come out of this crisis, depending on how long it lasts, remote works might find out that they no longer have to return to the office.
Say Hello to the Artificial
In my latest book – The Organisation of Tomorrow – I describe in-depth the rise of the Artificial and how it will require organisations to adapt. Artificial agents, which include digital agents as well as robots, will increasingly have the power to change their behaviour, collaborate, strategise and make decisions independently and autonomously, thereby altering context without being subject to further human action. As such, the artificial will change how we organise activity and how we run our societies.
With AI increasingly becoming pervasive in organising activities, the balance that exists between humans and machines seems to be slowly shifting, in favour of the artificial.
Advanced computer-assisted information processing technologies (AI) will result in a reduction of human nodes in an information network. Even more, when AI is combined with smart contracts and distributed ledger technology, the possibility appears of developing organisations that are entirely built up with code, without management or employees involved—so-called Decentralised Autonomous Organisations or DAOs—where artificial agents act completely autonomously with intentionality.
The appearance of the artificial intelligent agent within organisations and society will change how organisations and societies work. Yes, in today’s world, data-driven organisations cannot, yet, function without humans as organisations and societies remain social entities. Still, the more technology takes over and turns organisations into a DAO; the more jobs will be taken over by AI and robots. These automated companies will be owned by a small group of individuals, or companies, but can amass great fortunes due to the lack of expensive human capital.
What Will Digitalism Bring Us?
Digitalism will disrupt societies. Let’s look at a few scenarios of how the rise of unconstrained Digitalism will affect our society:
- We will see more and more dark factories. Such factories are equipped with fully automated systems and, hence, do not require lights as humans are not part of the manufacturing process anymore. The companies will be expensive to build, but once operational will see huge financial returns due to the lack of expensive human workers.
- Hackers and security professionals will turn to artificial intelligence. Autonomous artificial hackers will result in machine to machine fights operating at unbelievable speed and agility trying to steal and protect the data of consumers and organisations. Digitalism will also put the traditional hacker out of a job and affect consumers’ privacy even more.
- Artificially created fake news, bad bots and armies of online trolls will influence the online (political) discourse. The objective of these digital agents will be to sustain the state or company surveillance in place. Citizens will find it increasingly difficult to know what and who they can trust online.
- Companies and governments will increasingly outsource their processes to AI, thereby increasingly taking over blue- and white-collar jobs. It will make organisations much more effective and efficient, but it will also come with significant challenges. Not only is AI created by biased humans and often trained with biased data, but AI will also become a black box. Thanks to neural networks, it will become increasingly difficult to understand why certain decisions were made. Thanks to Digitalism, how we run our society will become opaque and only known to the elite owning the data and AI.
- Whether a free will exists has been debated for ages, but with the rise of unrestricted Digitalism driven by ever-more advanced recommendation engines, free will could disappear. Due to the unconstrained data harvesting, AI will know better what you want than yourself. Organisations will thus have an economic incentive to constantly improve their recommendation engines, turning humans in machines that simply follow the AI’s recommendation.
These scenarios might scare you, and so they should. A society organised based on Digitalism will result in a tiny elite who will control the digital tools while the vast majority will be subservient to them. Nevertheless, although many citizens will experience the benefits from these digital tools, they will also feel increasingly irrelevant. How irrelevant they will become depends on if Digitalism will be constrained, or not
Three Streams of Digitalism across the Globe
There is not one stream of Digitalism. Depending on how a society will approach the digital revolution, Digitalism can empower or enslave people. What we will see in the coming decades is a division across the world in three streams of Digitalism depending on how governments allow organisations to deal with the data at hand and how citizens will respond to it:
- State Digitalism will result in state surveillance at an unprecedented level. We already can see the first signs of this China, especially in the Xinjiang province where an AI-powered panopticon limits the Uyghurs in their movements. Also, the current surveillance measurements in place in China to stop the Coronavirus show what will lie ahead in such a society. Within a society organised according to state surveillance, there is full accountability to the state, zero privacy and a closed internet. The state will know everything about its citizens to a level that the Stasi or KGB could only dream of. Local tech companies are loyal to the state and citizens have minimal freedom. As long as they behave according to the strict rules and regulations set out by the government, they are fine. Still, because of mass surveillance, any misstep is immediately known and will have direct consequences.
- Neo Digitalism will result in company surveillance far beyond the surveillance Google and Facebook show today. Neo Digitalism will be characterised by an extreme free-market, unlimited data harvesting and raging capitalism. Within such a society, the likes of which we see slowly unfolding in the USA, there is limited accountability online. The state has less to say about people’s digital lives than the big behemoth companies. Even more, the state is not capable of controlling the corporations, and there is privacy up to the level that companies are willing not to sell the data for profit (which to be honest, will only be a very small group of companies). Neo Digitalism will cause a great divide within society. Driven by libertarians, it will result in companies that can decide and do whatever they want, resulting in extreme data harvesting. There will be a small elite who will gain wealth at unprecedented levels resulting in extreme inequality.
- Modern Digitalism would be the best option for citizens as it combines the advantages of digital tools with strict privacy and security regulations. Citizen empowerment will give citizens more and more control over their data. It is in this scenario that a Self-Sovereign Identity and decentralised networks stand the most chance to succeed. It will allow citizens to store and control all the data they create while interacting online. Online accountability will become normal, but citizens privacy will be secured (this is the anonymous accountability we are working on with Mavin). Modern Digitalism likely stands the best chance to succeed in Europe, although we should prevent the EU from harvesting our telecom data to monitor the spread of COVID-19; once we unleash the beast, it will be difficult to restrain it. Fortunately, the EU is already working on ethical AI guidelines, and the GDPR offers at least some protection of EU citizens. The EU is separating themselves from the data-hungry AI states China and the USA.
The Future Belongs to Digitalism
Digitalism will replace Liberalism as the leading doctrine in the coming decades. If you live in a country organised according to State Digitalism or Neo Digitalism, it is not something to look forward to. Within such states, Digitalism will look irresistible to business leaders and governments. However, the mass (state or company) surveillance of citizens, where recommendations algorithms drive citizens into certain corners, reveals the struggle of the 21st century.
However, in a society where Digitalism is constrained, the adverse effects can be limited. Regulations and fighting the monopolies of today, breaking them up and preventing them from becoming the new world dictators could help. We should use blockchain to let citizens own their data and adopt a self-sovereign identity to remain in control. In democratic countries, citizens can also fight the algorithms, as recently happened in The Netherlands; an algorithm was taken to court and lost. The landmark case ruled that using people’s data without consent violates their human rights.
The rise of Digitalism is unstoppable, and the current Corona pandemic can be a catalyst for Digitalism. However, as citizens, we still stand a chance to build a society that is there for its citizens and not for corporations or dictatorial leaders. Companies such as IBM and Microsoft backing the Pope’s pledge for ethical AI is a good step in the right direction. It will require hard work and involve all stakeholders, but anything is better than becoming enslaved to technology and losing our freedom and free will. This is a battle we cannot lose, or we will lose everything.
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