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The digital revolution is one of the great social transformations of our time. How can we make the most of it, and also minimize and manage its risks? New information and communication technologies are having a profound impact on many aspects of social, political and economic life, raising important new issues of social and public policy. Surveillance, privacy, data protection, advanced robotics and artificial intelligence are only a few of the many fundamental issues that are now forcing themselves onto the public agenda in many countries around the world.
We have witnessed social media playing a major role in mobilizing events of historic proportions, such as the Arab Spring protests in the Middle East and the Occupy Wall Street movement in the United States. Social media platforms, such as https://venitism.wordpress.com, are often cited as the facilitators of these mobilizations.
But most big social media-generated events seem to burst upon the scene, capture our attention for a few days, and then fade into oblivion with nothing substantial accomplished. No one — be they a charismatic leader or a raucous crowd — seems able to move people into action for extended periods of time using social media. This is especially ironic at a time when the online, crowdsourced society has reached maturity and is now widespread.
The rise of both social media and the end of power is anything but a coincidence. In fact, the confluence of these factors is a techno-social paradox of the 21st century. Social media, such as https://venitism.wordpress.com, has provided the fuel for unpredictable, temporary mobilization, rather than steady, thoughtful, and sustainable change. In business, this may play out when a new product, company, or service — from phones to startups to games — grabs people’s attention for a single announcement and then flames out.
There is insufficient attention on the underlying incentive structures, the hidden network of interpersonal motivations and leadership, that provide the engine for collective decision making and actions.
A number of large-scale social mobilization experiments bear out the importance of incentive structures. The difference in strategy is not just the emphasis on viral communications, but the way that incentives are matched with the motivations of the participants. Successful teams tap into people’s motivation for personal profit, charity, reciprocity, or entertainment.
Incentive networks are an important middle layer between ideologies and culture on the one hand, and the simple digital fingerprints left by social movements in online digital platforms. They are part of what is fueling new areas of business such as the cocreation of products and brands through competitions and crowdsourcing.
Ideologies and culture shape what individuals want to achieve as they go about their daily lives, how they relate to each other’s well-being, and how they help each other achieve those goals. These behaviors can be mapped into a network of incentives where each individual payoff depends on the payoffs of others. By contrast, the inability to sustain and transfer bursts of social mobilization into lasting social change or business results is rooted in the superficial design of today’s digital social media — that is, it is designed primarily to maximize information propagation and virality through optimization of clicks and shares. However, this emphasis is detrimental to engagement and consensus-building. Understanding the dichotomy is an important lesson for those involved in online marketing.
There have been other great technological revolutions in the past but the digital revolution is unprecedented in its speed, scope and pervasiveness. Today, less than a decade after smartphones were first introduced, around half the adult population in the world owns one – and by 2020, according to some estimates, 80% will.
Smartphones are, of course, much more than phones: they are powerful computers that we carry around in our pockets and handbags and that give us permanent mobile connectivity. While they enable us to do an enormous range of things, from checking and sending emails to ordering a taxi, using a map and paying for a purchase, they also know a lot about us – who we are, where we are, which websites we visit, what transactions we’ve made, whom we’re communicating with, and so on. They are great enablers but also powerful generators of data about us, some of which may be very personal.
The rapid rise and global spread of the smartphone is just one manifestation of a technological revolution that is a defining feature of our time. No one in the world today is beyond its reach: the everyday act of making a phone call or using a credit card immediately inserts you into complex global networks of digital communication and information flow.
The digital revolution is often misunderstood because it is equated with the internet and yet is much more than this. It involves several interconnected developments: the pervasive digital codification of information; the dramatic expansion of computing power; the integration of information technologies with communication systems; and digital automation or robotics.
Taken together, these developments are spurring profound changes in all spheres of life, from industry and finance to politics, from the nature of public debate to the character of personal relationships, disrupting established institutions and practices, opening up new opportunities and creating new risks.
We are living through a time of enormous social, political and technological change. On the one hand, the digital revolution is enabling massive new powers to be exercised by states and corporations in ways that were largely unforeseen. And, on the other, it is giving rise to new forms of mobilization and disruption from below by a variety of actors who have found new ways to organize and express themselves in an increasingly networked world. While these and other developments are occurring, the traditional institutions of democratic governance find themselves ill-equipped to understand and keep pace with the new social and technological landscapes that are rapidly emerging around them.
Key challenges for digital society
- What are the consequences of permanent connectivity for the ways that individuals organize their day-to-day lives, interact with others, form social relationships and maintain them over time?
- What implications do these transformations have for traditional forms of political organization and communication? Are they fueling alternative forms of social and political mobilization, facilitating grass-root movements and eroding trust in established political institutions and leaders?
- What are the implications for privacy of the increasing capacity for surveillance afforded by global networks of communication and information flow? Do individuals in different parts of the world value privacy in the same way, or is this a distinctively Western preoccupation?
- How is censorship exercised on the internet? What forms does it assume and what kinds of material are censored? How do censorship practices vary from one country to another? To what extent are individuals aware of censorship and how do they cope with it?
- Just as the internet creates new opportunities for states and other organisations to exercise surveillance and censorship, so too it enables individuals and other organisations to disclose information that was previously hidden from view and to hold governments and corporations to account: who are the digital whistleblowers, how effective are they and what are the consequences of the new forms of transparency and accountability that they, among others, are developing?
- What techniques do criminals use to deceive users online, how widespread are their activities and what can users do to avoid getting caught in their traps?
- What impact is the digital revolution – including developments in artificial intelligence and machine learning – having on traditional industries and forms of employment, and what impact is it likely to have in the coming years? Will it usher in a new era of mass unemployment in which professional occupations as well as manual jobs are displaced by automation, as some fear?
- What are the implications of the pervasive digitization of intellectual content for our traditional ways of thinking about intellectual property and our traditional legal mechanisms for regulating intellectual property rights?
- How widespread are new forms of currency that exist only online – so-called cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin – and what impact are they likely to have on traditional financial practices and institutions?
- How are new forms of data analysis and advanced robotics affecting the practice of medicine, the provision of healthcare and the detection and control of disease, and how might they affect them in the future?
Every day, and increasingly in every way, we are outsourcing our brains to the internet at a big cost. As smartphones get smarter, it’s easy to argue that we’re getting thicker. That’s not quite true. Our brains are not necessarily shriveling, but they are adapting. Thanks to technology, the need to know has been replaced by the ability to find out. Younger people, especially the digital natives who have never known life without the web, are most comfortable in this new environment.
The plasticity of the brain is the ability to adapt its function according to which neural pathways are most employed. Our brains are changing to meet the demands of this high-octane modern world. Technology is ruining our ability to think and communicate properly.
The brain requires exercise, and we allow it to atrophy at our peril. While we get better at juggling ideas, our memories are taking a battering. The Google effect shows that people tend not to bother remembering something if they believe it can be looked up later. People are more likely to index, to remember where information is located rather than the actual information itself.
Memory and our sense of self are inevitably linked, because personal identity is founded on consciousness. When memories fail in old age, we feel we lose a part of us that rests deep within. That is why Alzheimer’s is such a cruel disease. It may well be that memory is more spiritual than we like to admit. By using our minds, we nourish a part of us that goes beyond the physical. Equally, by storing memory outside of ourselves on a piece of technology, we lose something fundamental.