This edition focuses on the digital revolution. The term revolution evokes images of peoples’ uprisings against the powers that be. What strikes me these days, is that the most ardent supporters of the digital revolution are multinational companies that invest heavily in new technologies such as artificial intelligence. That leaves one to think. Is it progressive these days to be critical of the digital revolution? It depends. I do think digital technology brought us a lot and has a lot more to offer, but we need to make sure it serves our citizens. This is far from given in the current political and economic circumstances. But it is something for which we should fight.
Let me give an example. I have now lived two and a half decades with the ‘Internet’. I remember creating my first email account, and the experimentation and anarchic abundance of the web back in the 90s. But when I go online today, things are different. I visit only a handful of websites, and communicate using social media, which are essentially advertisement companies. They track where I go, control what I see, and influence what I do, in order to make a profit. This taught me a lesson: in the absence of democratic intervention, the bottom-up community approach of the 90s lost out in favour of big commercial interests.
Now, this is bad enough. But imagine we continue like this with the next wave of digital technologies. The combination of massive amounts of data that will be collected by ‘Internet of Things’ devices, stored in the ‘Cloud’, and analysed with ‘big data’ applications, is a much more potent technological mix than the ‘Internet’ we have today. If we allow this new space to be dominated as much by commercial interest as the current web, then I would end up with a smart fridge manipulating what I buy and from whom. Luckily, the infrastructure for this ‘Next Internet’ is not yet fully in place, and we should think carefully about how we want this new environment to look like, and act together to shape it.
We need a similar approach to the future of work. Here as well, the prevailing line of thought is that people should adapt to technology, instead of the reverse. Obviously, we should help our workers to gain the skills to use new technologies to their advantage. But the idea that the increasing precarity among large parts of our workforce is an inevitable result of technology, instead of a lack of political willingness, is simply not true. That is why I am proud that progressive forces are pushing for a new law on transparent and predictable working conditions that will improve the lot of workers in the ‘gig’ economy and beyond. Change is possible.
Looking at history, I see that revolutions are won by those who are best organised. I do not see why it would be any different for the digital revolution. So, let’s get organised. Let’s use our democratic institutions to take control of our future, by shaping and using technology in ways that serve our citizens and society.