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The Digital Revolution: How Will It Impact Democracy, Prosperity, and Power?

By Bill Shireman

A revolution is sweeping the world, transforming nations, corporations, cultures, and markets, and creating new opportunities as well as new risks for individuals.

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.

This revolution, like all revolutions, holds both promise and peril.

The Promise

On the positive side, it undermines repression in all its forms – from abusive corporate factories in China to repressive governments across the Middle East – and unleashes powerful forces for democracy.

It empowers individuals – from the once-poor peasants of China and India who are joining the middle class in the tens or hundreds of millions per year, to the brave women and men who advanced the Arab Spring and its fruits, some ripe and some not so.

It decouples prosperity from consumerism – enabling billions to achieve economic abundance, potentially using a fraction of the resources we consume today in the west.

It enables sustainability – holding the promise to move beyond today’s fossil fuel dependent economy, and the increasing economic, military, and environmental costs.

But we all know these ideals do not flow automatically from this emergent revolution. 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.

The Challenges

That is because the digital planet also imposes huge new challenges:

It unleashes democracy – but offers no guarantees that every mob will be a smart mob, a wise mob, or a virtuous mob.

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 – 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.

Changing the Nation and the Corporation

From Washington to Beijing, Damascus to Cairo, the central powers of the industrial world, weary giants both public and private, are gradually ceding their power to the individual, and the self-arising group.

There is no longer a fixed locus of power in the world, no center from which to govern.

Yesterday saw the disintegration of the empires of eastern Europe. Today sees the continued change of central governments in the Middle East. Tomorrow the west too will be transformed. The path of change, and the ease of transition, will depend on how adaptive we are to the currents swelling beneath us.

Corporations too will be transformed. Today 51 of the 100 largest economic entities on the planet are not nations at all, but corporations. Some worry (or hope) that we are entering an era when corporate power outstrips that of government. Yet big government and big corporations tend to be twins, both parented by industrial-era imperatives. The erosion of central government power may well lessen corporate power as well, and open up whole new opportunities for people to organize individually and in self-chosen communities.

In fact, rather than fixed nations and corporations with clear borders, the world may begin to see fuzzy institutions that emerge to serve particular needs, and morph into other forms or disappear altogether. The new social contract may be more emergent and implicit, and less formal and explicit. Governance may arise according to the conditions facing small or dispersed groups, locally or across the world.

Scarcity and Abundance

Scarcity – the physical reality that industrial society both relieved and perpetuated – is largely undermined in a digital world. The chief catalyst for growth is no longer physical – not pig iron, not coal, not oil. Today it is knowledge and the carriers of knowledge, including broadband.

“We still model the broadband spectrum as if it is like real estate. That is the wrong metaphor. Broadband is more like the aurora borealis – infinitely expandable,” says technology futurist John Perry Barlow. “When we relied on crystal transmitters and receivers, it looked limited, like real estate. But now, we can hop into and out of spectra at lightning speed, and open up vast stretches of white space, where people can create.”

Companies that understand this future, like AT&T, are betting on this abundance model of broadband, figuring that by opening up more and more virtual territory to more people, they will reap more business opportunities there, says Barlow. Others, like Verizon and much of the telecommunications sector, are clinging to the scarcity model, believing their lawyers or the government can control access to their assets and others, he says.

Definitions of property may change in the process. Property rights are fundamental to capitalism. But what happens to capitalism – and socialism – when the most valuable resources are super-abundant and extremely hard to own and control? The economic ideologies of the industrial age are in for a revision.

Transparency and Privacy

One newly-scarce resource will be privacy. The populist ideal is to enjoy personal privacy and institutional transparency – to own and control information about ourselves, yet know everything about the companies and governments that impact us.

Neither of those ideals is likely in the digital age, but the second will be approached more than the first.
As technology makes all things transparent, privacy may become less expected, and individuality more accepted.

Transparency will help to hold in check individual abuses of power. Simple and harmless differences between people, at first fascinating novelties masquerading as shocking revelations, may gradually be accepted as trivial idiosyncrasies.

Personal privacy will be hard to hold on to. “Not on my watch” is every politician’s brave-faced rationale for penetrating more deeply into the private lives of everyday citizens, to stop the one bad-guy-with-a-bomb that always seems about to leave a suitcase in the middle of Grand Central Station, or anywhere.

Privacy laws used to be enforced by government, a fox-in-henhouse problem that is today undeniable. Tomorrow, privacy, if possible at all, will more likely be a result of flooding the Internet with information and disinformation, rather than ridding it of embarrassing truths.

But institutional privacy may also be a relic of the past. Names like Snowden and Assange generate widely disparate opinions on both the left and right, and even within the intelligence community, where debaters quietly argue about whether leaks are examples of virtue or vice.

Either way, their actions won’t be the last cases where sensitive information is released en masse to the public, without much thought to the consequences. Institutions may well have to find more contemporary ways to collaborate and compete – intellectual property may be owned, but it won’t likely be controlled.

Ethics Inside?

In the new ecosystem of power, ethics may be increasingly chosen, not imposed. The individual, as the new hegemon, may be in a position to choose whether to act only in the interest of the self, or also in the interest of the whole.

That makes personal ethics increasingly important, though not necessarily more abundant – at least until the consequences of its lack are widely felt.

Self-consciousness of one’s power, and personal responsibility for how we use our power, will become an increasingly important cultural choice, embraced and enforced, if it is, informally by the individual and the culture.

The rising power of the individual calls for rising humility as well.

The consent to govern, once fixed and formalized, is increasingly emergent and informal. Power now flows, sometimes quickly, from one center to another, and sometimes to none. Governments will no longer rule multi-generationally, but temporarily, always dependent on the daily consent of the governed.

This cyber-revolution will be democracy’s greatest triumph, and its greatest test.

Prosperity, Wealth, and Equality

Prosperity in the new economy may no longer be defined strictly by financial wealth, dictated by control of fossil fuels or physical resources, or held immutably by rigid class. Prosperity is increasingly in the eye of the beholder. It is often immaterial in form, a form of art, knowledge, or agreement, conveyed in transactions, relationships, and thought itself, deployed across the web of our communications.

In a world where prosperity takes multiple forms, income inequalities may become greater, but not necessarily more inequitable. Make no mistake – inequity will be vast. But many will find that they choose to pursue different forms of prosperity, some taking financial form, and some not.

Wealth for a time may be held in more concentrated forms than ever, yet it could become increasingly transitory, especially if unused or abused. Those who hold nominal wealth could find that, in cyber-finance, it can and will vanish quickly.

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