The Rise of Digitalism — The Digital Speaker series EP09

Hello netizens! Welcome to the Tech Journal. My name is Mark van Rijmenam, and I am The Digital Speaker. In these journals, I project my digital twin into cyberspace, bringing you the latest and greatest of the digital world from inside the digital world.

I cover all the latest digital news, from algorithms and crypto through to GPT-3 and neural networks.

Today, I am going to discuss the end of Liberalism and how Digitalism will replace it as the world’s first, true global political doctrine. Together, we will delve into and explore the positive aspects and the negative aspects of an economy run on data. Taking a closer look at some potential futures that are awaiting us depending on which direction we choose to go.

Sit back, relax, and let us start speaking digital.

You can either view the episode above or view it on Vimeo, YouTube or listen to it on Anchor.fm, Soundcloud or Spotify.

“Never let a good crisis go to waste”

Winston Churchill once said, “Never let a good crisis go to waste”, and he was right.

Throughout history, we see example after example of governments around the world using crises to introduce new emergency laws, laws which always seem to outlast the crisis.

And this crisis is no different.

We’ve seen Hungary introducing an ‘emergency law’ allowing Prime Minister Viktor Orbán to rule by decree without term limits. Essentially, claiming a blank cheque to stay in power for as long as he sees fit.

We see China using COVID as a justification to ramp up their already tight surveillance measures.

Chinese citizens are now required to scan a QR code when entering a workplace or any public space and to register their names, ID numbers and temperatures.

This enables the Chinese authorities to track their citizens’ precise movements.

Even George Orwell himself couldn’t have imagined this. The characters in his novel, “1984”, were at least able to walk around the city without being tracked.

We’ve also seen The European Commission and the US Government following China’s lead and introducing telecom and geolocation data tracking.

Despite its good intentions, the question is, what happens if, after the crisis, the EU and US continue to use these privacy-breaching surveillance tools?

We all know the saying, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

These new measures all have one central theme in common. Digitalism.

Post-Liberal Order

Over the past hundred years, we have seen various forms of social organizations and political philosophies rise and fall.

First ultranationalism, which saw its collapse after WWII.Then Communism, more accurately “State Capitalism” or “Stalinism”, collapsed in the Western world with the fall of the Berlin Wall.

In China, however, the Communist Party continues to thrive as they ditched the “State” part of “State Capitalism” and embraced the open market.

While in the Western world, Liberalism has flourished in the past decades, it seems that this global story of social organization is reaching its expiry date.

Yuval Noah Harari predicted that the rise of big data and artificial intelligence could mark the end of Liberalism and liberal democracy.

According to Harari, the international rule-based system is collapsing, and we’re on the lookout for a new post-liberal order.

Driven by emerging technologies that are drastically changing our lives, the current crisis seems the perfect catalyst for Digitalism to impose itself as the world’s new political philosophy.

The rise of Digitalism may well mark the end of Liberalism. Recently, many of Liberalism’s core principles, like free competition and self-regulating markets, are losing its dominance.

Due to the ever-increasing hunger for data, corporations consistently and deliberately breach consumers’ rights, trust, privacy and freedom as governments fail to control them.

Surveillance Society

Ever-intelligent AI, combined with constant data harvesting, means we are sleepwalking into a surveillance society. Governments around the world, from every ideological sphere, are starting to recognize the power of digitalization.

Depending on the country, this results in either a reduction of rights, protections and digital freedom or empowered and free citizens.

In the same way that many governments are failing to protect their citizens, many, if not almost all, companies are harvesting consumer data and are failing to protect their, or should I say “our”, data.

At the same time, the list of data breaches is endless, and businesses are expected to lose up to five trillion dollars to cybercrime by 2024. As a result, the consumer’s rights, privacy, and safety are rapidly diminishing.

Toxic Recommendation Algorithms

To make matters worse, recommendation algorithms are also limiting our freedom. These algorithms are designed to show you content based on your data and as such, only make recommendations that match your profile. The result is a dangerous feedback loop, essentially limiting your freedoms without you even knowing it.

These algorithms are not made to serve the individual but their creator. Their objective? Simple. Your time is worth money for commercial organizations. These recommendation engines are toxic, but they are everywhere. Even in governments, as politicians increasingly lean on them to make decisions.

Tech Titans Eating Startups

Finally, the tech titans of the West: Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon, and Microsoft, and the digital goliaths of the East: Baidu, Alibaba, and Tencent, are staging an all-out war on free competition by acquiring every potential-showing start-up and company that they can get their hands on — creating monopolies of tech giants ruling our world and our data.

The smaller start-ups and company founders love it because they get a fat paycheck, but in the bigger picture, the competition has been culled, and the free market is left to die.

The ideal solution would be to break up these monopolies, but due to their sheer size and their enormous lobbying power, this seems like a pipe dream. So, back to the subject:

The Rise of Digitalism

Since the exponential growth of the internet and data harvesting, a new story has been developing, a story which I define as Digitalism. It will be the first, true global political doctrine. It is already encouraged and accepted by most governments and companies and increasingly feared by most citizens.

This is a development that no citizen really wants because of its privacy impact, but no citizen can stop. While we can’t stop it, we might be able to limit its effects, but it would require an organized collective effort by the people.

The story of Digitalism paints a future where governments, companies and citizens battle for data.

Data is Gold and Citizens are the Mine

A future where data is gold and citizens are the mine — a future where data becomes the most precious commodity in society.

Digitalism can be a powerful tool for totalitarian regimes (both governmental and commercial) to limit the freedom of its citizens, but it can also act as a source of liberation to protect the privacy of the people.

Inevitably, machines and AI will increasingly play a bigger and more important role in society, forcing humans to adapt and digitally enhance themselves.

What will start as an augmented human-to-machine collaboration, will quickly result in machine-to-machine collaboration across all levels of society, significantly limiting the number of available jobs.

The New Normal

The current “new normal”, working from home, is already opening the door to digitalism. Companies are always looking for ways to increase productivity and reduce costs to increase profit.

Robots are the answer.

Robots do not get sick, do not talk back, do not have rights, don’t make mistakes, they produce 24 hours a day, 7 days a week and do not require union mandated breaks. In fact, they do not even have unions.

They are the perfect answer to late-stage capitalism in every domain.

The Imagination Age

A few years back, I wrote about how, in the Imagination Age, an age dominated by AI, creativity will be the only thing left to do for humans. Now, a few years later, I am no longer convinced.

AI has advanced so dramatically that I now doubt creativity will remain solely a human endeavour.

There are already stories of machines writing books, making music or painting pictures or writing an opinion piece for The Guardian. With computing power still increasing and quantum computing on the horizon, AI is likely to engulf and redefine creativity as such.

This leads us to a future where machines dominate the menial, scientific and creative spheres. A future where the masses are forced to find new meaning and redefine their purpose in life. A future where remote workers might just find that they no longer have jobs to return to.

Where the top of the economic pyramid has grown ever-narrower, an ever-smaller group of elites reap the benefits of this newly automated world.

What Will Digitalism Bring Us?

So, how will unconstrained Digitalism actually disrupt societies as we know them?

First, we will see more dark factories. Dark factories are factories that are equipped with fully automated systems. These factories will rely on robots and a skeleton human crew, limiting the need for lights and the pandemic has seen an increase in such factories, especially in China. While these factories will be expensive to build, once operational, they will reap huge financial returns for the elite owning these plants.

Second, hackers and security professionals will turn to AI. Autonomous artificial hackers will result in machines fighting against machines. This digital battle will be at unbelievable speeds, trying to steal and protect valuable data at the speed of light.

Third, with artificially created fake news, bad bots, and armies of online trolls, the online political discourse will be forever warped. Citizens will find it increasingly difficult to know which sources they can trust, and this will increasingly affect society going forward.

Four, more and more jobs will be outsourced to AI. However, since AI is created and trained with human biases, we run many risks of creating significant challenges.

Five, AI will not only be biased, many of them are also a black box, making society more opaque. Only those owning the AI, the elite, will have access to them. And the elite will be able to manipulate society to a level never seen before.

Whether free will exists has been debated for ages, but with the rise of such unrestricted Digitalism driven by ever-more advanced recommendation engines, free will could disappear and be replaced by an illusion, ending the debate for good.

These scenarios might scare you, and so they should.

A society organized by unrestricted Digitalism will result in a tiny elite with free rein over the digital tools controlling society. And although many citizens will experience the benefits of these digital tools, if Digitalism isn’t well managed and regulated, these same citizens will also become increasingly irrelevant as their lives, jobs, and futures, become uncertain.

However, there isn’t just one type of digitalism that needs regulating. As I mentioned before, depending on how society approaches digitalization, Digitalism can enslave or empower. In the coming decades, we will see three streams of Digitalism arise across the world.

Each depends on how governments allow organizations to deal with data and how citizens can respond to it.

1. State Digitalism

The first, State Digitalism. This will result in state surveillance at an unprecedented level.

We can already see the first signs of this in China, especially in the Xinjiang province where an AI-powered panopticon limits the Uyghurs’ movements.

A society organized according to state surveillance gives full accountability to the state, stripping citizens of their privacy and limiting or blocking the internet. The state knows everything about its citizens to a level that would make the Stasi or KGB blush.

Any misstep, mistake, or lapse in loyalty, is caught by the mass surveillance system and has immediate consequences.

2. Neo Digitalism

The second, Neo Digitalism. This results in extreme company surveillance far beyond what we see today.

Neo Digitalism is characterized by an extreme free-market, unlimited data harvesting and raging capitalism. Within a Neo Digital society, the likes of which we see slowly unfolding in the USA, there is limited online accountability.

The state has almost nothing to say about, nor has any control over people’s digital lives as this power lies entirely with the tech titans. A citizen’s privacy depends on a corporation’s interest to sell their personal data for profit.

Driven by libertarians, it results in unregulated companies, enacting extreme data harvesting. A tangible example being Cambridge Analytica. The result is that a small group of elite gain wealth at unprecedented levels, causing extreme inequality.

3. Modern Digitalism

The third, Modern Digitalism. This would be the best option for citizens as it combines the advantages of digital tools with strict privacy and security regulations.

Modern Digitalism means citizen empowerment, giving citizens more or even all control over their data. Here, a self-sovereign identity and decentralized networks are the way forward. This allows citizens to track and control their data by defining who they want to expose their data to and under which terms.

Online anonymous accountability will become the norm, securing citizens’ privacy and encouraging real-world ethics in the online sphere.

For example, the EU is already working on ethical AI guidelines, and the GDPR framework offers powerful protection for EU citizens’ privacy.

To conclude, it is pretty safe to say the future belongs to Digitalism one way or the other. Digitalism will replace Liberalism as the leading doctrine in the next few decades. If you live in a country governed by either State Digitalism or Neo Digitalism, it is not something to look forward to.

Digitalism Done Right

But Digitalism done right can help us solve some of today’s pressing issues. After all, technology is, in essence, neutral. What can be used for creating AI hackers or fake news, can in reverse also be used to combat these.

If Digitalism is constrained, its adverse effects can be limited or bent positively.

Regulating and fighting the monopolies of today, breaking them up and preventing them from becoming the new world dictators, will be crucial going forward.

For instance, blockchain can empower citizens to own their own data and adopt a self-sovereign identity to remain in control at all times. We can restore trust in online media using open source AI and the crowd to hold the media accountable, which would help in our fight against global problems.

We can also use digitalism to democratize the fight against climate change, polarisation, poverty and create an equal, inclusive and free society. We can empower citizens and give them control over recommendation engines so that users are not pulled into a rabbit hole every time they open YouTube.

Citizens Can Fight Algorithms

In democratic countries, citizens already have the right to fight the algorithms. We recently saw an example of this in the Netherlands, where a governmental algorithm was taken to court and lost. This landmark case ruled that using people’s data without consent violates their human rights. Even better, Amsterdam and Helsinki recently launched algorithm registries to bring transparency to public deployments of AI.

And while the rise of Digitalism is unstoppable, as citizens, we still stand a chance to build a society for us, for the citizens, not for corporations or the state.

We can not kid ourselves, though; it will require hard work, dedication, and need the involvement of all stakeholders, but it is certainly worth the effort. Let’s use Digitalism to our advantage, and let’s do this collectively.

If I managed to retain your attention to this point, please leave a comment or subscribe to my weekly newsletter to receive more of this content:

Dr Mark van Rijmenam is The Digital Speaker and he offers inspirational (virtual) keynotes on the future of work, either in-person, as an avatar or as a hologram, bringing your event to the next level:

I think about technology & the impact on business & society. Author of 3 mgt books. Founder of Datafloq.com & fighting fake news, bots and trolls with Mavin.org