Disruptive Technology Can Benefit Our Society
There are plenty of discussions concerning the various disruptions that are taking place all around us. But it is not only industries and markets that are being disrupted; it is also happening in both politics and society in general.
Although technologies are key tools used by nearly all of us who are, willingly or unwillingly, involved in the disruption, the underlying elements of disruption have far more to do with politics, economics, and society in general – technologies are merely tools in this process, though important ones.
However, since the changes driven by technology in business and industry – such as smartphones, internet, and big data – are highly impactful to the majority of us, we might start by looking at these disruptions first.
Technologies have the ability to assist in creating totally new markets. The emergence of these – albeit in rough contours – can often be evident quite early, but the incumbent players (telecoms, utilities, Kodak, newspapers, to name a few) are generally unable to use them to their advantage. They are too busy protecting their existing markets. It is mostly entrepreneurs and innovators from the outside who grab the opportunity and develop these new markets. That is why these technologies are labeled as “disruptive”.
Disruptions along very similar lines are taking place in politics. The traditional political parties are unable to react to changes in society, and people from outside the political establishment are disrupting the traditional party system. In this process, the public is challenging democratic values and institution, social morals and norms, economic structures and so on.
We see changes in society, where people are using the limitless advantages of low-cost communication, information and content provision to massively disrupt many of the traditional social structures. New technology tools are allowing people to play a leading role in disrupting political and social structures. This again is not unique; it was the printing press that allowed ordinary people to communicate and receive independent information and this led to the Reformation and ultimately the period of Enlightenment.
Now, moving on to our new technologies, the telephone allowed one-to-one communication, radio and TV one-to-many, the internet many-to-many, with the latter being important for both communication and content production (group forming). Also, rather than using the traditional media, people are creating their own media around which they gather and communicate with each other and the outside world.
An emerging – and potentially the most important – development forced by political and social disruption is that large numbers of people who have never been involved in political and social discussions in the past are now becoming engaged. This is critical in making sure that the outcome of all these disruptions is positive for humanity.
Some will argue that disruption will do more damage than good, as they expect the real solutions to come from the top. Some see grassroots developments ending in potential chaos (as indeed we have also seen in many of the historical revolutions). I would argue that we have learned from the past and that we have the intellect and the power to make positive changes from the bottom up. As a matter of fact, within the current political situation, empowered cities and communities could play a key role in ensuring that democratic principles and values are safeguarded.
The good and the bad of disruption
While technology is often earmarked as the disrupter, in reality, technologies are simply the tools. The underlying elements go much deeper. Especially since the end of WWII, our citizens are increasingly better-educated; science has provided society with so much more knowledge and insights; there are many more democratic countries than ever before; and we have made significant progress in the fight against poverty, disease, and inequality. Despite the terrible news that we often receive from our TVs, there are now also significant fewer wars and war dead than ever before.
What does makes technology so important is that it wasn’t until new tools such as the internet arrived that people themselves could take better charge of their own lives, their environment and their communities. The use of these tools has also provided additional layers of transparency.
While the Enlightenment in the 17th century encouraged people to think for themselves, independent of political and religious dogmas, modern digital technologies also allow us to act upon issues that are important to us.
These tools can equally be used by people for different purposes – especially fanatics such as ISIS, Al Qaeda, Neo-Nazis, Ku Klux Klan and the like. International interference from non-democratic or hostile regimes is another worrying development made possible by modern technology.
In the many discussions regarding these new technological developments, there is a lot of focus on social media, as it is blamed for many of the negative effects of disruption and for the misuse of it by anti-democratic and rogue forces. This misuse has been damaging to some of our democratic processes.
But we can learn from this, address the problems and make sure that this kind of misuse is limited. It is clear that government organisations led by the European Union are very serious about ensuring that the (American) companies involved in social media will follow European laws. There are good signs that people in these companies are also willing to make the improvements that are needed to minimise those negative effects.
On the whole, the effects of social media can – and, in my opinion, will – be positive. It provides new avenues for bringing people together and contributes to grassroots democratic developments. Lessons from history can teach us that change will – at least in the first instance – be driven by society and not by politicians.
Technologies can assist to further advance the Enlightenment
In this respect, an interesting observation is that the new tools allow for the organisation of ‘movement strategies’ which are particularly useful to the more progressive forces in our society. We saw the same happening with the Enlightenment. It became a tool to oppose the previous autocratic and religious political and dogmatic structures. Enlightenment never really became the leading ideology for the ruling parties; it took a much greater hold within society and it was the people who demanded the changes that followed. This, in turn, caused changes in the incumbent political, economic and social structures – although often moving two steps forward and one step back.
We see a similar development happening now. Our society is being disrupted from within and the current political system is struggling to manage these situations. Instead, governments often try to protect their established structures and in doing so attempt to return to illusory structures that they thought existed in the past with the promise to resurrect those so-called ‘good old days’.
The fact that they need to resort to this might be an indication that the government is losing its grip on society. The new levels of transparency made possible by new digital technologies have also provided insight into the wheeling and dealing on the part of politicians and business people that are not necessarily seen by society as being to its benefit (as per revelations by Wikileaks, Edward Snowden and other leaks).
These revelations have added to increasing levels of mistrust in policies, information and statistics. The reality for large groups within our society is that the information that is thrown at them does not match the reality of their lives. It is not necessarily the case that they reject reason (or are less ‘enlightened’). They rebel because of the outcomes, or lack of them.
These worrying developments can, and should, be counteracted with facts and figures supported by the people. This requires much better local (big) data reflecting local situations and local circumstances. Smart or connected communities, towns, and cities would be the preferred entities to produce, manage and use their own data, which they can use to improve the local environment for their own citizens. Many of these smart communities together will then start having an effect on the national situation.
In the end, it is not technology or the internet that is threatening democracy. It is inequality that has crept into our society, supported by partisan politics and neo-capitalism both favouring in an unequal way the top layer of society. It will be interesting to see if a revival of Enlightenment, driven by society, this time using its new tools, will be able to call politicians to account and ensure that they protect our democratic principles, values and institutions; and that they act in the interest of the people, not party politics.
At the same time technology empowers people to take greater control of their own affairs, and this will assist the development of connected communities.
If we can secure democracy at our grassroots level we will also be in a much better position over the long term to protect the national democratic structures that generations before us have fought so hard for.
Global Seven News