Five debates on our digital future

Published by: Forum Agenda, September 10, 2014

Progress in science and technology always evokes hope and fear in society. Science fiction, by combining the rigour of science with the imagination of fiction, plays a big role in expressing these feelings. Dystopian novels like A Brave New World or 1984 have captivated readers for decades.

One of the most enticing aspects of this fiction is the premise that one could be living in a dystopia and not know it. More recent examples, like Spike Jonze’s film Her, further blur the lines and force us to ask where technology is taking us – and where we want to take technology.

At its core good science fiction rests on good science. This is why it often is surprisingly accurate: Jules Verne envisioned in the early 19th century a propeller-driven aircraft when hot-air balloons were the best aviation had to offer. In the 1960s, Arthur C. Clarke envisioned the iPad, Isaac Asimov predicted online education, and Ray Bradbury the Mars landing. It is just a matter of time until “Samantha”, the seductive computer voice of Her, will also be real. Although we don’t have flying cars yet, it pays to listen.

Today’s great technological advances and especially those in the digital space – ubiquitous connectivity, big data analytics, artificial intelligence – spark hope in an otherwise gloomy global environment; yet they also raise concerns about employment, inequality, education, privacy, democracy and more. Hope and fear, utopia and dystopia, the lines are blurred. Here five big debates on what the future will hold:


Triggered by street protests around the world as well as spectacular data leaks, the past years have seen an unprecedented empowerment by the individual through digital networks. Technology drastically increased the access to information and the ability of citizens to publicize and organize. Already in 2006, five years before the Arab Spring, Time magazine famously recognized this shift by making “you” its person of the year. In The End of Power, Moises Naim argued that power now is easier to get, harder to use and easier to lose than ever before. Our world is not about power shifting from A to B, it is about hierarchies losing out against networks.

As exciting as this sounds, our experiences seem less radical. Plotting the next revolution or participating in flash mobs is not the principal use of digital networks – it is commerce and consumption. Also, research has shown that digital activism, with the notable exception of the Arab Spring, is achieving surprisingly little. If thousands “like” a cause, nothing is achieved, but everyone feels that something has been done. In digital jargon, this is slacktivism. And lastly, the Snowden leaks show how successfully traditional powers rebuilt positions of dominance in cyberspace.

Are we really witnessing the dawn of a new era of free and equal netizens fearlessly speaking truth to power? Or, to paraphrase Putnam, are we still “bowling alone” while exercising our democratic rights by evaluating our latest online shopping experience?


“We are at the brink of another Industrial Revolution”, argue Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee in The Second Machine Age. If the first Industrial Revolution was about creating more effective power systems, such as the steam engine, the new generation of machines will also assume cognitive tasks.

Could that mean John Maynard Keynes was right? As Elizabeth Kolbert recounts in The New Yorker, his book, Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren, published shortly after the Great Depression, predicted that technological progress would lift our “standard of life” so high that by 2028 money would be of secondary concern. “Our grandchildren,” he mused, would work about three hours a day, “and even this reduced schedule would represent more labour than was actually necessary.”

Today, shortly after the “Second Great Depression”, the discourse is decisively more dystopian. Pundit after pundit discusses how the second machine age could destroy jobserode the middle class, create a new “digital social Darwinism” and deepen inequality. To counter this, Brynjolfsson and McAfee suggest we should learn to race with rather than against the machines. If we learn fast and work hard, progress will make us more productive, not less busy. But why not aim for the utopia of Keynes?


A new catchphrase found its way into the business vocabulary: the sharing economy or, as Jeremy Rifkin likes to call it, the “rise of anti-capitalism”. In the digital era, Rifkin explains, people can connect to the network and use big data, analytics and algorithms to produce and share a wide range of products and services at near-zero cost. And it is not only people; often it is objects with intelligent and connected sensors that form an “internet of things” which links the digital and the physical world. This, he believes, will trigger the shift from a capitalist to a collaborative form of economic exchange, one that favours access over ownership. Already today more than 1.7 million people are using car-sharing services.

Will the sharing economy finally do away with the throwaway mind-set of the modern consumer society? Byung-Chul Han at the University of Berlin offers a more dystopian view: it is a mistake to believe the sharing economy takes societies from capitalism to collectivism. Those who don’t own have nothing to share. The sharing economy, he asserts, should rather be seen as the apex of capitalism, the total commercialization of life through rating systems which even turn friendliness and hospitality into tradable goods. Utopia or dystopia, will the sharing economy save us or sell us?


From self-driving cars to delivery drones, robots are leaving the factory floor. Compared to the size of the industrial robotics market, service robots are still niche, but rapid advances in machine vision, tactile sensors, autonomous navigation and other technologies make them better and better at dealing with unpredictable environments where they have to respond, react and collaborate. Of course, handing over critical decisions to machines comes with its own challenges, but potential benefits loom large: modern cars are safer than ever, but still more than 1 million people die in car accidents every year and more than 50 million are injured. Why? Because one perilous element in the mechanics of driving is hard to fix: the human being.

However, when it comes to robots dystopian visions are also not far. Most of us, at least those over the age of 30, still remember Skynet, the evil intelligent computer system in Terminator. The iconic movie fell into a time when artificial intelligence seemed to be at its breakthrough. Yet only now has its time really come, thanks to faster computers, mobile and cloud technology. Autonomous drones already are a core component of warfare; other robots will soon leave the labs and enter the battlefield. Will they reduce the number of victims or are they quicker on the trigger? How can autonomous machines be trained to act ethically? When considering the future of robotics, dystopia and utopia are closer and more tangible than anywhere else.


To the Silicon Valley venture capitalist Marc Andreessen, really disruptive technologies come from the fringe. No big company thought the internet was important – until it was. Bitcoin, in Andreessen’s mind, is a classic instance of that. Neither Visa nor Citibank or the Fed invented it, but still – or exactly because of that – it might disrupt all three. Bitcoin, he predicts, is the next trillion dollar industry with thousands of applications and companies built on top, creating digital stocks, digital equities, digital fundraising, digital bonds, digital contracts, digital keys – you get the idea.

And the story does not end here. Since ancient times, writes the historian Niall Ferguson, states have exploited their ability to issue currency. If transnational networks are able to create an alternative form of money, such as bitcoin purports to be, “then perhaps the time-honoured state privilege to debase the currency is at risk”. Will bitcoin only defeat the leather wallet or will it one day end the “exorbitant privilege” of the United States to own the world’s dominant reserve and transaction currency? And, would you consider the latter dystopian or utopian?

What if, what now?

Some of the debates above are about futures which have already arrived. Hence the question is, “what now?” How do we ensure that the internet is a shared global resource? How do we deal with the fact that the digital era cuts the need for human labour in large parts of the value chain? Other debates tackle futures which are still fuzzy, raising the question, “what if?” What if we need to interact with robots daily? What if digital currencies not only disrupt commerce but also financial systems?

What’s for sure, progress in science and technology has, and always will have, a deep impact on society. Predictions of future outcomes, no matter if cast in the prose of pundits or the worlds of science fiction writers, typically follow one of two threads: they bring to life how progress sets us free from old constraints, be they economic, societal or technological, or they illustrate how progress reinforces old or establishes new configurations of power in a way that leaves us worse off than before.

Recognizing this duality, Ferguson frames the course of history as the epic struggle between hierarchies and networks. Networks, he writes, are the main source of innovation, but they also are chaotic and vulnerable. Hierarchies provide order as well as economies of scale and scope. Hierarchies nurture networks for they cannot force into being all the clever things they do. But they also fear networks for their power to disrupt and reshape hierarchies. How economies and societies handle this tension will determine where technologies will take us – and where we will take our technologies.

Image: REUTERS/Edgar Su

About Sebastian Buckup