This document was produced as an input to the European Commission (via the European Internet Foundation) to suggest a review and renewal of policies in the field of digital technology and digital media. It is a contribution to a discussion at a European level, and readers are invited to provide their comments on those subjects that they consider as important for shaping the future of Europe.
Technology Centric World View
When it comes to the discussion of our digital future the world-view of the European Commission is too much centred on technology and does not take sufficiently into account the human factor. Europe could differentiate itself in the international debate and in the strategies it develops by linking to the European humanistic tradition. In the face of exponential digital technologies the human factor is fundamental: the ability of human beings using these technologies to make informed choices and judgements, avoiding to follow blindly recommendations coming from analytics tools based on big data. Applying common sense and cross-discipline knowledge will be vital. Hence, liberal arts education will be more important than ever and Europe has a great tradition and strength in this field. This does not discount the fact that e-skills and STEM education will be of extreme importance. But the point is that we need more than highly specialized technocrats, namely accomplished and better educated human beings who can see the broader context, if we want to apply these technologies in an informed and responsible way.
Mass collaboration seems to be a bit of a fashionable term these days. Effective collaboration needs a small and committed core team. Real collaboration does not happen on a massive scale. This has always been the case and will not change. What is changing is the ability to access experts and knowledge outside the core team in real time. This can increase the effectiveness of the team and should result in better outcomes. Open platforms, social media and collaboration tools can be perfect levers to enhance the team performance. Yet we should not underestimate the importance of physical proximity to achieve breakthrough results in the field of innovation and entrepreneurship including in the social sphere. There are good reasons why it is physical places where collaborative ecosystems for innovation thrive; think of Silicon Valley or Haifa.
Black Swans in the making
Peter Drucker has often remarked that we cannot predict the future, but we can see the future that has already arrived – if we try hard and step out of our preconceived notions of what we believe it should be. There is increasing evidence that the open internet shows tendencies to disintegrate into smaller entities – at a geographic level and in terms of the deeper layers it comprises. Autocratic regimes have the tendency to control the content that citizen can access, and recently even democratic nations such as Brazil, Germany and France discuss the building of their own protected space. They have been scared by the Snowden revelations and by the collusion between large social media players and the US Government to provide access to personal user data. If these trends persist, the days of the global, open and free internet may be counted. If we take this scenario into account it is also clear that we must think through as to what the consequences would be and how they can be managed. There is also a question of whether the open internet can be saved by establishing some regulation and moving beyond the open jungle paradigm. We have learned over long periods that defending free markets does not mean no framework and no regulation. The same should be true for the Internet.
The web-layers under the surface web (the latter is the virtual space that we know) should also be evaluated. The dark web and deep web (however we may call these layers) seem to be much larger than the surface web and has become the place for unbridled criminal and terrorist “collaboration”. See recent NZZ Article about the “End of the Internet” http://www.nzz.ch/nzzas/nzz-am-sonntag/das-ende-des-internets-1.18239023.
Use of personal data that are under control of a few dominating US based players becomes an issue for 21st century Democracy
This point is related to the previous as it may drive the need for state-controlled internets. A new type of market dominance has emerged during the last 10 years or so, i.e. market dominance in ownership and control over personal data of hundred millions of users. These data represent an inestimable value for media and advertising. Market dominance in this field has a different connotation than market dominance in traditional industries. This type of markets are not being covered by the existing antitrust laws and competition rules , and the current data and privacy protection laws seem to be totally inefficient to deal with these new phenomena.
However, due to the winner-takes-it-all situations, the market and the personal data which are held by social media players are concentrated in a few big server farms and they are being used in ways that are not transparent to the users. The recent publications about the new algorithmic prisons and the profiling that already happens in the US at a large scale give an avant-gout of what is in store – see the excellent article by Bill Davidow on the Atlantic blog http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2014/02/welcome-to-algorithmic-prison/283985/
Traditional policy generating approaches seem to be far too slow – hence the internet age will require a transformation of how policies are being built to protect individuals and to re-establish transparency.
The huge opportunity for the future – leveraging digital technology to make Europe a leading entrepreneurial region in the world and to create meaningful work for the young generation
While the first and second industrial revolutions levelled off after an initial steep increase in growth, the digital technology revolution is on an exponential development since the invention of the microprocessor. There has been no precedent in history for this type of continued exponential increase in technology performance. Hence, automation is progressing in all sectors of society. The world runs increasingly on SW. A new generation of robots will eliminate even more factory and services jobs.
In the social sphere a shift from an employee society towards an entrepreneurial society is in the making (another example for the future that has already arrived but is not seen by most). This development has huge policy implications for the European Union. The entrepreneurial society does not replace the employee society but it complements and extends it. It can be taken for granted that traditional employment contracts will not take the place in the future that they had in the last century. Since there will be less full time jobs offered by existing organizations the new challenge will be to create one’s own job. Self-employment, portfolio work (as coined by Charles Handy some 30 years ago) and entrepreneurship is becoming the new normal.
Our western societies are full of barriers for those who want to create their own work portfolio or enterprise. Everything seems to be geared toward traditional employment. We are far from the empowered individual as touted by so many policy papers. However, there are huge new opportunities provided by digital technology to accelerate this move towards an entrepreneurial society as an answer to the structural issues for traditional employment. Capacity building for the entrepreneurial society should be enabled and enhanced by MOOCs, social media (communities), new funding schemes (e.g. Crowd-sourcing), new open innovation methods (living labs, co-creation platforms) etc. Innovation and entrepreneurial ecosystems can be built more effectively with support of digital technology.
Many large organizations and institutions have developed Kafkaesque characteristics during the last 30-40 years. Employees increasingly feel to be held in straight jackets under high pressure for short-term results. Hence many large organizations have become worse during the past decades as to leveraging the motivation, creativity and innovativeness of their employees. Engagement levels are at a historic low (see the recent Gallup survey http://www.gallup.com/poll/165269/worldwide-employees-engaged-work.aspx).
Yet, if an increasing number of knowledge workers (or rather knowledge-entrepreneurs) will operate outside these constraining settings as a self-employed workforce their capability to use and develop their knowledge capital and their own creative potential will inevitably grow. This might become a Black Swan in the positive sense i.e. increasing the creative potential in modern societies by magnitudes. However, in order to make this happen it needs to become a central policy focus – not an addendum to all measures that are based on conventional wisdom. It requires a fundamental reorientation of policies. It means brushing aside the numerous obstacles that hold back the entrepreneurial dynamics in Europe by penalizing self-employed and entrepreneurial activities, be it on the tax and social security side, be it with financing and support for R&D, be it by an education system that does not value sufficiently the managerial and entrepreneurial roles as key pillars of our society. Policy makers are called upon to move from administrators and regulators (focussing on limiting and constraining economic activities) to enablers and innovators, who understand the wider context and who venture into new territories to create adequate policies to accompany major social trends.
Dr. Richard Straub
President Peter Drucker Society Europe
February 25, 2013