The Digital Revolution

Promise and Peril for Global Prosperity, Democracy, and Sustainability

 

By Nick Sorrentino

Editor, Tech Planet Journal

A revolution is sweeping the world, transforming every aspect of our lives. The agent of this revolution is a new family of technologies – broadband, the Internet, microchips, and software – technologies that for the first time draw the world together into a single, coextensive whole.

There was a time, not all that long ago when life for the average person was, as Thomas Hobbes put it, “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” Life was spent in the fields, isolated from others and life giving communication and collaboration, with little hope for much more than another day. Such was life for most of the West until the Industrial Revolution. Sadly much of the world continues to live this way.

This is changing. The non-industrialized world, (along with the developed world), now finds itself in the grips of the next technological revolution, the digital revolution. Places such a Bangalore, Dubai, and Shenzhen which only a generation ago were dusty commercial backwaters at best, are now leading lights of commerce, thought, and art. A key factor in the emergence of these places has been the abundance of relatively inexpensive, but high quality communication technologies.

These cities represent only the leading edge of what is to come for the rest of the world. Things are changing, and quickly. Established orders are giving way to new ideas, new ways of governing, and new ways of doing business.

The digital revolution undermines repression in all its forms.

From abusive corporate factories that until recently operated without the benefit of scrutiny in China, to repressive governments across the Middle East and else ware, the ongoing technological revolution is unleashing powerful forces for democracy and freedom.

It empowers individuals

From the once-poor peasants of China and India who are joining the middle class at unprecedented rates largely because of access to new technologies, to the women and men advancing the Arab Spring in the streets of the Maghreb and beyond, to the kid in his basement in the Texas who at this very moment is building the next Facebook or Groupon on his laptop, the digital revolution puts power in the hands of the individual.

It decouples prosperity from 20th Century style consumption.

People want goods and services, and as the global middle class expands this will be increasingly the case. Thankfully technological advance usually increases efficiency. It allows us to get more from less. It is conceivable that even with the massive influx of new people into the world economy new technologies will help us deliver the vitals of middle class life in a way that makes more sense in a smaller and more crowded world.

The Digital Revolution holds with it also the potential to move beyond today’s fossil fuel dependent economy, and the increasing economic, military, and environmental costs that are incurred because of this dependence.

But this revolution, like all revolutions, holds both promise and peril. Whether the digital planet approaches these ideals, or advances their opposite, depends on people and institutions and how we, individually and in our communities, choose to use these technologies.

It unleashes democracy, but offers no guarantees that newly empowered people will be wise with their newfound power.

It undermines repressive institutions, but also challenges every nation, culture, and business to be more adaptive than ever.

It links every person on the planet, but virtually eliminates personal privacy, and challenges us to self-correct our tribal instincts, and to respect one another’s differences, even those we do not understand.

It empowers the individual to develop ideas for a better world, but extends this power also to the renegade hacker, the online criminal, and the suicide bomber.

It enables sustainable low-carbon prosperity, but also entices billions of us to consume the old-fashioned way, exploiting the planet’s natural systems beyond measure.

Opportunity or crisis, it is up to the world to choose. However, even with the new challenges the digital revolution presents us, the opportunities for the profound progress of humanity are what are most striking.

Communication technology is one of the core drivers of change. As its costs decline and its reach becomes global, it extends to even distant villages web-based life changing tools.

In places where once commerce was conducted in laborious ways, either due to red tape, a lack of banking, or any myriad of other reasons, now new options exist. People in places such as sub-Saharan Africa and rural Indonesia are using virtual wallets in the form of cell phones to do business, start businesses, and organize their lives.

Once indigenous peoples had no way of officially laying claim to land held by them for centuries. Now using Google Earth, and other virtual and non virtual tools, these peoples can survey their land at little to no cost and lay claim legally to what is theirs, including to vital mineral rights, long before a company sets it’s sites on a ridgeline or valley for a new mine or well.

In education the digital revolution is proving hugely disruptive also. Where once a course in electrical engineering from a professor at MIT was available only to a select few, now it is available for free, to anyone, at anytime via the MIT Open Software program.

A $120,000 education just doesn’t look as good as a free one for many even if the free one doesn’t come with a diploma. It is now possible in theory to go from basic arithmetic to Nobel Prize winning physicist without having ever set foot on a traditional university campus.

The times are changing quickly and the digital revolution brings with it huge opportunities which can not be denied.

There are three broad categories into which we believe such opportunities fall.

The first is prosperity. Digital technologies empower the poor and help preserve their communities and cultures. Nearly 800 million cell phones in China link village-based farmers with better-paying markets in the cities, and hundreds of millions of Internet connections enable the poor across Asia and Africa to access micro loans by UnitedProsperity.org and Kiva to begin or expand their small businesses, and sell their products into the global market.

Hundreds of millions, perhaps billions, of people will be brought into the world economy over the next decade with the help of such technology.

Additionally the power of communication technologies to deliver education and medical resources to areas now deprived is exciting. Imagine a virtual clinic in Rwanda, staffed by nurses on the ground and with a general practitioner in India. He reviews the results of a simple blood test online and sends a prescription to be filled by an NGO in Switzerland. A week later treatment is administered for a fraction of the cost of doing it the old fashioned way, which is to say not at all most likely.

More effective methods of farming can be taught using simple applications on a hand-held devices. Using GPS and other tools yields can be increased, and livestock tracked. This technology is just being embraced in the West. With the increased access to advanced communication technologies in less developed areas of the world that we will see over the next decade there is no reason why the same tools can’t be employed in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa to great effect.

This technology might also allow the same farmer to find a better price for his goods than at the local market. It might make more sense to go to the next town or even the next continent. Prosperity is increased, deprivation is lessoned, with the help of modern communication technology.

The second category is democracy. Digital technologies undermine repression and drive freedom. Ubiquitous consumer electronic products made possible Iran’s post-election Twitter revolution, blogger activism in Vietnam, and the monks’ uprising in Burma. Ushahidi.com maps text messages to visually track reports of ethnic violence in Kenya, document voter fraud in Sudan, and reveal labor abuses in China. FREEGATE enabled activists in Iran to organize protests against fraudulent elections, and labor organizers to quickly publicize supply chain violations in China. Virtually every digital communications advance makes repression more difficult, and liberates people to make their own choices.

Oppression only works when people cannot communicate with one another. This is why Guttenberg’s printing press was perceived as such a danger to the medieval establishment when it was introduced in the 1400s. A person who could read the Bible for his or herself was a dangerous agent of change.

In the end it was these agents of change that won out of course. The printing press, and the widespread literacy that followed it’s development created the climate necessary for the emergence of democracy 300 years later.

Now with the emergence of advanced communication technologies, such as broadband, we are witness to a new blossoming of democratic sentiment. Across the globe people who five years ago had little communication with one another are now talking, debating, and organizing in the name of democracy on a large scale. Societies that were once opaque are quickly becoming more transparent. Voices that were silent are now heard.

As communication networks become even more widespread and faster the opportunity to further human progress around the globe increases. For democrats everywhere the next decade will prove to be a wild ride and one filled with opportunities largely created by new communication technologies.

The last category of opportunities is sustainability. Digital technologies are fundamental to a low-carbon economy. For the 600 million affluent in the developed world, these technologies could profitably drive a 15% savings on emissions by 2020, without mandates or subsidies, according to Smart 2020, a study by the Global E-Sustainability Initiative. More importantly, advanced communication technologies will enable the world’s three billion poorest in China, India, and Africa to leapfrog pollution-intensive industrial technologies, and move into a more advanced, locally based, low-carbon future.

All of the increases in human wellbeing on the economic and political fronts that the digital revolution is increasingly facilitating will mean little if we trash the planet in the process. Thankfully advanced communication technologies could actually lesson the strain on the earth as standards of living increase.

For instance, as access to robust broadband increases so too does the ability of the global work force to work from home. No commute for some, less use of precious gasoline, and the elimination of a twice daily dose of car exhaust could make many of the world’s fastest growing cities much more pleasant places to live.

Likewise, with virtual meetings trips on airlines become fewer. Fewer people on airplanes means less pollution from airlines. The better the broadband, the better the meetings, the fewer the trips.

Imagine a workplace that is entirely virtual, with expertise in the area of the world that a firm needs it, not locked away in a home office somewhere. That person is on the ground, doing work. This person is more productive yet consumes fewer resources in his or her work.

With increased virtualization our reliance on the old transportation infrastructure lessons to a large degree. This will bring people off the roads, put money in the virtual commuter’s pocket, and reduces pollution all at the same time.

In places such as where I live, Washington DC, people are increasingly working this way. Instead of a two hour commute, many commute to their home office. One of the reasons this can be done is because of the high quality broadband network we have access to in and around the nation’s capital.

In the decade ahead cities such as Mexico City and Manila which suffer now from horrible traffic congestion and pollution may be transformed with high quality broadband.

The trend toward increasingly nimble businesses and more efficient lifestyles only becomes reality with high quality communication technologies. Without them we remain in the industrialized society that emerged 200 years ago.

With increased use of advanced communication technologies around the globe, humanity can begin the process of moving to the next level in it’s development. Not to one of austerity and diminished human actualization as some have predicted, but to one of increased commerce, knowledge, and democracy. This, while lessoning the overall strain on the planet.

The positive side of the digital revolution has only begun to be tapped. As industry and stakeholders gain more direct experience with the possibilities, they have the potential to combine forces to advance Sustainability, Prosperity, and Freedom. Those firms, and those governments which embrace these empowering technologies despite their disruptive nature will be the ones which will prosper in the decades to come.

In the 21st Century, doing more with less, should be the mantra. More prosperity, more freedom, more sustainable methods, less fuel, less carbon, less wasted energy. If the world is able to execute on this simple philosophy the 21st Century may be one of increased peace and collective human evolution. If it can not the next century will be one of increased strife and instability.

The digital revolution is here. Where it goes is up to us. Let us commit to a more sustainable, more prosperous, and freer world.

 

 

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