The Rise of Digitalism

Image by Markus Spiske

“Don’t waste a crisis” — M.F. Weiner, 1976

A famous quote that has often been linked to Winston Churchill in the form “Never let a good crisis go to waste”. Whoever said it, there is a truth to it, and also now we see governments around the world using the crisis to make changes which could outlast the current crisis:

We live in challenging times, and once this crisis is over, the world will be a different place.

A few months ago, I started thinking about the rise of Digitalism. I believe that the Corona crisis will be a catalyst for the rise of Digitalism and that we will have to be very careful as to what this will mean for citizens. Let me explain.

Digitalism as the World’s Political Philosophy

After Nationalism, Communism and Liberalism, it is now time for the era of Digitalism as the leading, global, system of social organisation. Whether we like it or not.

In the past hundred years, we have seen various forms of social organisations, and political philosophies come and go in various parts of the world. First collapsed (extreme) nationalism after WWII. Then communism collapsed in the Western world with the collapse of the iron curtain. In China, however, communism survived and even thrived by welcoming capitalism into the system, allowing the people of China to grow their wealth significantly. In the Western, democratic, world, Liberalism became the accepted political and moral philosophy.

Although Liberalism has thrived in the past decades, it seems that this global story of social organisation is reaching its expiry date. As Yuval Noah Harari has written in his books, 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 need a new post-liberal order now. I believe this new order is upon us, driven by emerging technologies that will change our lives drastically in the coming decades, and the current Corona crisis is a catalyst for it to make Digitalism the new world’s political philosophy.

The End of Liberalism

Liberalism is a political doctrine where the protection and freedom of the individual is the core driver. It is the task of the government to protect individuals, although it happens that governments abuse this power, as we now see happening in Hungary. Liberalism is based on free competition and a self-regulating market. Unfortunately, many of these core principles are disappearing in the world. Organisations are becoming so powerful, due to an ever-increasing hunger for data, that governments are failing to break the power of those companies that deliberately and consistently breach consumers’ trust, privacy and freedom.

Emerging technologies such as big data analytics and artificial intelligence, combined with the constant data harvesting thanks to the Internet of Things and social media, have created a surveillance society managed either by private companies or by the state.

Governments from around the world, including Western democracies, recognise the power of data and AI. Depending on the country you live in, this results in a further reduction of citizen protection and (digital) freedom. With more processes being outsourced to machines, also job protection is on the line.

Furthermore, many, almost all, companies harvesting consumer data fail to protect their data and governments fail to protect the citizens. Although there are still exceptions such as the investigation by the New York Attorney General into Zoom’s privacy problems, the really big companies such as Google or Facebook can continue their processes without any problem. As a result, individuals’ privacy and safety are rapidly diminishing. The list of data breaches is endless, and businesses are expected to lose up to $5 trillion by 2024 due to cybercrime, directly impacting consumers’ privacy.

To make matters worse, recommendation algorithms are rapidly limiting an individual’s freedom, although many might not perceive it that way. Recommendation engines already run the world. These algorithms base recommendations on data collected and often only provide recommendations that match your profile, resulting in a feedback loop that limits your freedom. They do not serve the individual, but the company that created them with the objective to sell more or have you stay around longer. Recommendation engines are toxic, but they are everywhere. Unfortunately, also governments increasingly lean on such algorithms to make decisions.

Finally, free competition is also quickly disappearing in the online world we now live in. The big tech companies, including GAFAM (Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft) and BAT (Baidu, Alibaba, Tencent) are seriously limiting free competition by acquiring every startup/company that could become a threat to them. Founders love it because they go home with a massive paycheck, but it seriously limits competition. Breaking them up would be a good idea, but due to their sheer size and their enormous lobbying power, nothing has happened so far. So, what is next?

The Rise of Digitalism

Since the exponential growth of the internet and the explosive growth of data harvesting, a new story has slowly been developing. It is the story of, which I like to call, Digitalism. It will be the first truly globally adopted political doctrine, encouraged and accepted by all governments, all companies and increasingly feared by most citizens. A political doctrine that no citizen really wants, but that will become the main story, nevertheless. We might be able to limit its effects, but that would require collective action as citizens.

The story of Digitalism explains the future as a struggle for data among companies and (certain) governments trying to collect as much data as possible and citizens trying to protect their data and privacy. Digitalism envisions a world where data is the most important resource in society. It thrives on capitalism and depending on the role of the government either enables mass surveillance (whether state or company surveillance) or aims to empower its citizens. Regardless of the direction, it enables a winner takes all mentality resulting in increased inequality. Those citizens that cannot keep up will lose out.

Digitalism is a form of social organisation where the artificial is taking its place in society. It will require humans to adapt as machines will increasingly play an important role in society. What will start with human-to-machine collaboration and an augmented workforce will quickly result in predominantly machine-to-machine collaboration across all levels of society, significantly limiting the number of jobs available. The current requirement by many governments to work from home (no matter the good intentions behind it, will probably accelerate this as companies will start to look for different ways to keep up productions. Robots, after all, cannot get sick and produce 24/7).

A few years ago, I wrote about the Imagination Age, where creativity is the only thing left to do in an age dominated by AI. However, in the few years that passed since I wrote that, AI has advanced so dramatically that I am no longer convinced that creativity will remain the sole domain of humans. Already, there are plenty of stories about machines writing books, making music or painting pictures. With computing power still on the rise, and the upcoming quantum computing era, AI is likely to redefine creativity as well.

Consequently, the future of work and creativity are performed predominantly by machines. With intelligent machines and AI becoming more prominent in society, taking over more and more jobs and directing more money to an ever-smaller group of elites, the masses will have to find new meaning in their lives. When we come out of this crisis, depending on how long it lasts, remote works might find out that they no longer have to return to the office.

Say Hello to the Artificial

In my latest book — The Organisation of Tomorrow — I describe in-depth the rise of the Artificial and how it will require organisations to adapt. Artificial agents, which include digital agents as well as robots, will increasingly have the power to change their behaviour, collaborate, strategise and make decisions independently and autonomously, thereby altering context without being subject to further human action. As such, the artificial will change how we organise activity and how we run our societies.

With AI increasingly becoming pervasive in organising activities, the balance that exists between humans and machines seems to be slowly shifting, in favour of the artificial.

Advanced computer-assisted information processing technologies (AI) will result in a reduction of human nodes in an information network. Even more, when AI is combined with smart contracts and distributed ledger technology, the possibility appears of developing organisations that are entirely built up with code, without management or employees involved — so-called Decentralised Autonomous Organisations or DAOs — where artificial agents act completely autonomously with intentionality.

The appearance of the artificial intelligent agent within organisations and society will change how organisations and societies work. Yes, in today’s world, data-driven organisations cannot, yet, function without humans as organisations and societies remain social entities. Still, the more technology takes over and turns organisations into a DAO; the more jobs will be taken over by AI and robots. These automated companies will be owned by a small group of individuals, or companies, but can amass great fortunes due to the lack of expensive human capital.

What Will Digitalism Bring Us?

Digitalism will disrupt societies. Let’s look at a few scenarios of how the rise of unconstrained digitalism will affect our society:

These scenarios might scare you, and so they should. A society organised based on digitalism will result in a tiny elite who will control the digital tools while the vast majority will be subservient to them. Nevertheless, although many citizens will experience the benefits from these digital tools, they will also feel increasingly irrelevant. How irrelevant they will become depends on if Digitalism will be constrained, or not

Three Streams of Digitalism across the Globe

There is not one stream of Digitalism. Depending on how a society will approach the digital revolution, Digitalism can empower or enslave people. What we will see in the coming decades is a division across the world in three streams of Digitalism depending on how governments allow organisations to deal with the data at hand and how citizens will respond to it:

The Future Belongs to Digitalism

Digitalism will replace Liberalism as the leading doctrine in the coming decades. If you live in a country organised according to State Digitalism or Neo Digitalism, it is not something to look forward to. Within such states, digitalism will look irresistible to business leaders and governments. However, the mass (state or company) surveillance of citizens, where recommendations algorithms drive citizens into certain corners, reveals the struggle of the 21st century.

However, in a society where Digitalism is constrained, the adverse effects can be limited. Regulations and fighting the monopolies of today, breaking them up and preventing them from becoming the new world dictators could help. We should use blockchain to let citizens own their data and adopt a self-sovereign identity to remain in control. In democratic countries, citizens can also fight the algorithms, as recently happened in The Netherlands; an algorithm was taken to court and lost. The landmark case ruled that using people’s data without consent violates their human rights.

The rise of digitalism is unstoppable, and the current Corona pandemic can be a catalyst for Digitalism. However, as citizens, we still stand a chance to build a society that is there for its citizens and not for corporations or dictatorial leaders. Companies such as IBM and Microsoft backing the Pope’s pledge for ethical AI is a good step in the right direction. It will require hard work and involve all stakeholders, but anything is better than becoming enslaved to technology and losing our freedom and free will. This is a battle we cannot lose, or we will lose everything.

This article originally appeared on

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Dr Mark van Rijmenam is the founder of Datafloq and Mavin, he is a globally recognised speaker on big data, blockchain, AI and the Future of Work. He is a strategist and author of 3 management books: Think Bigger, Blockchain and The Organisation of Tomorrow.

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:



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Dr Mark van Rijmenam

Strategic futurist, speaker & 5x author — I think about technology and its impact on business, society and the metaverse —