PARIS — The revelations of data harvesting. The first fatal accident involving one of Uber's self-driving cars. European taxation of digital giants. Resistance against the digital revolution is growing, as evidenced most poignantly, perhaps, by reactions to the recent Cambridge Analytica and Facebook scandal.
The digital revolution is already changing tides. Initially, it had promised a better world, where knowledge and education would be free and accessible to all and the consumer would have an infinite range of choices. Businesses, for their part, would have the liberty to organize themselves as they see fit, and individuals would become better informed, better organized and better cared for. While this image is still true to a certain extent, the downsides of the revolution are looking increasingly grim.
Tomorrow, it could choose to kill you.
The circulation and processing of data at a historical scale is not only a sign of immense progress but also a source of major concern. As the digital revolution advances, we discover not only the progress it can make, but also the damage it can cause — well beyond what the best science fiction writers had anticipated.
"Big brother is watching you," George Orwell wrote 70 years ago. Today, Big Brother creeps further into personal affairs and looms over your online purchases and votes. Tomorrow, it could choose to kill you, by deciding, for example, that you are too old to receive medical care, or that it would be better to direct your car into a ravine than into the school bus bearing down on you.
A big data warning from a pole in Lyon, France — Photo: ev
This year at the World Economic Forum, which has long been passionate about information technology, the digital industry was compared to that of the... tobacco industry. The aversion is only made stronger by the vast breadth that digital technology covers and its impact on society as a whole on both an intimate and global scale.
Our personal data is manipulated to convince us to buy and even vote, putting our identities at stake. Algorithms make choices that are so opaque that they inevitably trigger suspicious discrimination, threatening principles of justice. Competition is jostled by the emergence of new players. Digital giants have designed their architecture to legally minimize their taxes, thus weakening the state. In the meantime, automation is advancing and will displace tens of millions of jobs. Ultimately, it is the social contract that risks being swept away.
The digital revolution goes much further than the automobile revolution.
It remains to be seen how exactly a digital revolt will play out. Perhaps companies will be knocked off their pedestals or disappear in a storm. It's tempting to draw parallels to the way people oppose globalization. After all, both have had similar effects. Employment rates, for example, have been affected so much that economists often find it difficult to distinguish which revolution to blame.
Politically, though, they are two different beasts. A candidate can win an election by promising to close the borders, but she will struggle to do so by promising to ban the iPhone.
In many ways, the path of the digital industry seems to resemble that of the auto industry. At first, the auto industry's rise was a tremendous lever of progress and freedom, but gradually we discovered its negative effects. More than a million men, women and children die every year on the road and tens of millions more lives are shortened by vehicle emissions. In fact, the increasing concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is threatening the entire planet.
Although automobile manufacturers have worked to improve the safety of their vehicles, they haven't shown much interest in limiting the damage caused by their products. It was the government that imposed laws requiring seat belts, setting speed limits, creating standards for greenhouse gas emission, and limiting access to city centers.
In the end, the digital revolution goes much further than the automobile revolution. It is nothing less than the most powerful economic engine of the 21st century. And so it will be even more difficult to contain. Get ready to duck, because the fight is just getting started.
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