The road to hell is known to be paved with good intentions. Although digitalisation isn’t devil’s work, it does remind one of this idiom. Not too many years ago the digital world was celebrated. The internet, many believed, would be the key to a brighter future. Technology companies from California became the world’s problem-solvers.
The initial euphoria has passed. Indeed, digital technologies have opened up completely new possibilities. But at the same time their darker sides came to the fore: cyberattacks, fake news, manipulated elections, filter bubbles, a polarised and aggressive public discourse, a collapse in the privacy sphere, massive upheavals in the economy and world of work. The list goes on.
And what about politics? Authoritarian regimes used the digital revolution to advance their interest while in Europe and America, the political arena didn’t do much about. The digital world was, at least in the early years, treated as a mere technological question, a non-political issue. But it ain’t merely a technical matter. Digitalisation is a question of power and is thus deeply political.
Who controls whom? This Leninist Leitmotiv is at the heart of digitalisation ranging from individual users to geopolitics. It runs through all levels, because the digital revolution leaves no stone unturned.
Russia’s President Putin already declared — he who dominates artificial intelligence, controls the world. He’s not wrong. Geopolitical domination was also always based on the control of a significant informational infrastructure. Knowledge is power. The Roman Empire controlled the streets, Great Britain the naval routes. Whoever controls the digital technologies and data flows, can shape the world order. Data is king.
We are already finding ourselves in a technological cold war. The US and China are competing over technological leadership. Numerous nation-states are walling off their digital markets in order to secure their data sovereignty. Laws are enacted to prevent the flow of data into other countries. The Internet is becoming a Splinternet.
Economically, digitalisation is challenging the old, analogue economic order. Especially Europe is affected. Europe is strong in the industries of the 20th century. It’s not certain, whether they will survive. In the 21st century, software dominates hardware. European companies could quickly be degraded to mere hardware parts suppliers for technology companies.
And the world’s biggest companies are young technology players from the US and China. Data is their fuel. And with their platform economies and network effects, they are expanding. China’s Tencent is not only a social media platform, it’s also a travel agency, a search engine, a computer games developer, a music company, an insurance company, and so on. The technology titans are conquering new markets, creating new dependencies and shaping powerful monopoly structures. If Europe does not develop its own strong digital industry, then it will have to decide whether to be a cyber colony of Silicon Valley or Shenzhen, says Germany’s former Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer.
The digital world is also changing the balance of power in the labour market. The pressure on the qualifications of workers is increasing. Digitalisation puts traditional jobs into question. To what extent new jobs will be created is still unclear. Employees are also put under pressure with any rise in wage costs possibly leading to a substitution via robots. Some studies already highlight that a rise in the minimum wage can lead to increased automation. New forms of precarious work are increasing. Risks are being dumped on digital subcontractors. The digital world of work also challenges the modern social state. If workers are replaced by robots, who will finance the social security system?
And of course digitalisation is having a pronounced societal effect. Similar to the invention of the printing press in the 15th century it is radically changing the information landscape. The printing press made information more accessible creating a new public sphere. This promoted reflection, doubt and criticism. This, so Henry Kissinger, provided the base for the age of Enlightenment. Digitalisation, however, puts this into the extreme. Information spreads at breath-taking speed. There is no time for reflection. Everything can be put into doubt. Fake news sweeps through the internet and ever more people are living in a digital echo chamber only being confronted with their very own views and opinions. Artificial intelligence can also lead to more advanced deep fakes, with fake videos and imitated voices. Manipulated information is then spread via bots and reaches millions of people.
This threatens the most basic essential element of society: trust. Trust is the invincible glue that keeps a society together. But trust is dwindling if you can’t trust anything anymore. And Facebook and Cambridge Analytica have shown how some actors are trying to undermine elections and other forms of participation. This creates power. Because power isn’t just the “storm of the Bastille”. It is, according to Gramscis understanding of hegemony, also the battle over ideas and narratives that define a society.
Digitalisation brings us into a systemic conflict. China uses digital technologies to strengthen its authoritarian regime. Beijing has the best facial recognition software and employs a social credit system that rates people according to their actions. Total surveillance and social credit system — Big Brother meets Pavlov’s dog.
In the United States on the other hand, there is a largely unregulated hyper data capitalism. The private sphere is sold on the marketplace. This allows anyone — also unknown entities from Russia — to buy and use data. That’s how democratic elections get influenced.
Several years ago the digital world threatened autocratic regimes. Digital technologies seemed to be a tool for greater democratisation. Social Media accelerated the Arab Spring. But the tables have turned. Now it seems the digital world is threatening democracy.
Digital technologies give power and take power away. They empower and disempower. That’s how it is with many technologies. They contain germs of freedom and of suppression. Digital prophets such as Mark Zuckerberg only saw the potential for freedom. They were, in the words of Reinhold Niebuhr, the “stupid children of light” who were all naïve about the power of self-interest and domination, which made them “inept at defending democracy”.
Digital technologies aren’t created in a vacuum and they aren’t neutral. They are what you make of them. In this context, liberal democracies have to actively shape and regulate the digital world. Lest others do it for us.