Disruptive technology can benefit our society
There are plenty of discussions concerning the various disruptions that are taking place; this not only effects industries and markets but also politics and in society in general.
Although technologies are key tools used by nearly all of us who are, willingly or unwillingly involved in creating disruption, however, the underlying elements of disruption have far more to do with our society in general – technologies are merely tools in this process, be it important ones.
However, since the changes driven by technology in business and industry – smartphones, internet, big data – are clearly recognisable we might start by looking at these disruptions first.
Technologies have the ability to assist in creating totally new markets. The emergence of these – albeit in rough contours – can often be evident quite early, but at that early stage the incumbent players (telecoms, utilities, Kodak, newspapers – to name a few are) generally unable to use them to their advantage; they are too busy protecting their existing markets. It is mostly entrepreneurs and innovators from the outside who grab the opportunity and develop these new markets. That is why these technologies are labelled as disruptive. Consequently incumbent industries and institutions than have to scramble top stay relevant and even survive in the new environment that is created through that disruption before they can regain their position here and some are doing better. As can be seen in the take-up of these new technologies, most of them are very well received by the majority of the population and as such people are becoming key drivers in shaping the new environments, be it in relation to the environment and sustainability, communication, entertainment, work, etc.
Disruptions along very similar lines are taking place in politics. The traditional political parties are unable to react to changes in society, and people from outside the political establishment are disrupting the traditional party system and in this process are challenging democratic values and institution, social morals and norms, economic structures and so on. In this respect the social media are playing a key role, be it for the good or the bad. This is used by individuals as well as by action groups and basically all of the different groups and sections of our society.
We see changes in society, where people are using the limitless advantages of low-cost communication, information and content provision to massively disrupt many of the traditional social structures. The new technology tools are allowing people to play a leading role in disrupting political and social structures. This again is not unique, it was the printing press that allowed ordinary people to communicate and receive independent information and this led to the Reformation and ultimately the period of Enlightenment.
Now on to our new technologies, the telephone allowed one-to-one communication, radio and TV one-to-many, the internet many-to-many – the latter importantly in relation to both communication and content production (group forming). Also, rather than using the traditional media, people are creating their own media around which they gather and communicate with each other and the outside world. In general this is what is called a democratisation of the economy and the society.
An emerging – and potentially the most important – development forced by political and social disruption is that large numbers of people who have never been involved in political and social discussions in the past are now becoming engaged. This is critical in making sure that the outcome of all these disruptions is positive for humanity. While it is clear that the incumbent system is shaking under all of these changes they most certainly have the potential to create a fairer and more equal society.
Some will argue that disruption will do more damage than good, as they expect the real solutions to come from the top, where proper structures and institutions are in place. They see grassroots developments ending in potential chaos (as indeed we have also seen in many of the historical revolutions). While that is true, I would argue that we have learned from the past and that we have the intellect and the power to make positive changes from the bottom up. As a matter of fact, within the current political situation empowered cities and communities could play a key role in ensuring that democratic principles and values are safeguarded. It is still very early days and the judges are still out on the ability of cities to instigate and manage these processes of change. The City of Barcelona is perhaps the best example of a local government trying to make changes – with the assistance of technologies – from a grassroots level. The City of Amsterdam is another pioneer in this respect, after first trying to engage its citizens through Town Hall meetings, they have now changed this to a far more targeted approach where interested community groups and individuals are engaged in those projects that they can contribute to through their expertise or direct involvement. In between meetings, online and email are providing for a continuous process of citizen involvement in these projects.This works best, if the individual see benefit for themselves as well as for the community they live in.
The good and the bad of disruption.
As already mentioned, while technology is often earmarked as the disrupter, in reality technologies are simply the tools. The underlying elements go much deeper. Especially since the end of WWII our citizens are increasingly better-educated; science has provided society with so much more knowledge and insights; there are many more democratic countries than ever before; and we have made significant progress in the fight against poverty, disease and inequality. Despite the terrible news that we get from our TVs, there are now also significant less wars and war dead than ever before.
What does make technology so important is that it wasn’t until new tools such as the internet arrived that people themselves could take better charge of their own lives, their environment and their communities. The use of these tools has also provided additional layers of transparency.
While the Enlightenment in the 17th century encouraged people to think for themselves, independent of political and religious dogmas, modern digital technologies now also allow us – individuals as well as groups – to act upon issues that are important to us.
These tools can equally be used by people for different purposes – especially fanatics such ISIS, Al Qaeda, Neo-Nazis, Ku Klux Klan and the like. International interference from non-democratic or hostile regimes is another worrying development made possible by modern technology.
In the many discussions regarding these new technological developments, there is a lot of focus on the social media, as they are blamed for many of the negative effects of disruption, and for the misuse of it by anti-democratic and rogue forces. And this misuse has been damaging to some of our democratic processes.
But we can learn from this, address the problems, and make sure that this kind of misuse is limited. It is clear that government organisations led by the European Union are very serious in ensuring that the (American) companies involved in social media will follow European laws. And there are good signs that people inside these companies are also willing to make the improvements that are needed to minimise those negative effects.
On the whole, the effects of social media can – and, in my opinion, will – be positive. They provide new avenues for bringing people together and they are contributing to grassroots democratic developments. Lessons from history can teach us that change will – at least in the first instance – be driven by society and not by politicians.
Technologies can assist to further advance the Enlightenment
In this respect, an interesting observation is that the new tools allow for the organisation of ‘movement strategies’ which are particularly useful to the more progressive forces in our society. We saw the same happening with the Enlightenment. It became a tool to oppose the previous autocratic and religious political and dogmatic structures. Enlightenment never really became the leading ideology for the ruling parties; it took a much greater hold within society and it were the people who demanded the changes that followed. This, in turn, caused changes in the incumbent political, economic and social structures – although often two steps forward and one step back.
We see a similar development happening now. Our society is being disrupted from within and the current political system is struggling to manage these situations. Instead governments often try to protect their established structures, and in so doing often attempt to return to illusory structures that they thought existed in the past with the promise to resurrect those so-called ‘good old days’.
The fact that they need to resort to this might be an indication that government has problems with providing a vision of the future and with leading its citizens towards that future. The new levels of transparency made possible by new digital technologies have also provided insight into the wheeling and dealing on the part of politicians and business people that are not necessarily seen by society as being to its benefit (as per revelations by Wikileaks, Snowden and other leaks). In the end the vision of the future has to be shared by all involved in order for it to work.
These revelations have added to increasing levels of mistrust in policies, information and statistics. The reality for large groups with our society is that the information that is thrown at them do not match the reality of their lives. It is not necessarily the case that they reject reason (or are less ‘enlightened’). They rebel because of the outcomes, or lack of them.
These worrying developments can, and should, be counteracted with facts and figures supported by the people. This requires much better local (big) data reflecting local situations and local circumstances. Smart or connected communities, towns and cities would be the preferred entities to produce, manage and use their own data, which they can use to improve the local environment for their own citizens. Many of these smart communities together will then start having an effect on the national situation.
In the end it is not technology or the internet that is threatening democracy. It is inequality that has crept into our society, supported by partisan politics and neo-capitalism both favouring in an unequal way the top layer of society. However, we also clearly see that these technologies are used by some in a way that is clearly threatening our democracy. It will be interesting to see if a revival of Enlightenment, driven by the broader society (individuals and communities in all shapes and forms) and this time using its new tools, will be able to call politicians to account and ensure that they protect our democratic principles, values and institutions; and that they act in the interest of the people, not party politics.
At the same time technology is already empowering people to take greater control of their own affairs, and this will assist the development of connected communities. Looking at how well the younger generations are adapting to the new world they live in, there is no way back.
If we can secure democracy at our grassroots level we will also be in a much better position over the longer term to protect the national democratic structures that generations before us have fought so hard for.