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Digital rights for the digital age: Andrew Keen and a new great transformation

 

Someone sees it as a quality, someone as a rather unpleasant personal trait that they’ll never admit not to like: a good dose of conscious confidence, though, always helps to convey your message effectively. At the Tallinn e-Governance Conference 2018, Andrew Keen (author, entrepreneur and tech commentator) lingers in the corridors in a black t-shirt tucked in a pair of jeans, carrying around a red and grey backpack, surrounded by government officials, professors and project managers in suit and tie.

Don’t expect particularly sensitive or diplomatic jokes: he’s all about the real thing, and most probably that’s why he’s not easy to believe the hype of the latest innovations at first sight – a Silicon Valley credo that he’s clearly quite distant from – without identifying, at the same time, critical aspects and potential implications of anything we’ve been talking about lately, from blockchain to Artificial Intelligence. Named one of the “100 Most Connected Man in Britain” in 2015 by GQ magazine, Andrew Keen is by now an internationally acclaimed author, entrepreneur and speaker: with four books published and a successful chat show on TechCrunch, he has become one of the most relevant voices in the debate on the impact of technological innovation on business, culture, education and society.

Karl Polanyi, Hungarian-American political economist, analysed in The Great Transformation (1944) the changes in democracies and society that industrial revolutions brought along with new disruptive – and more efficient – technologies. In his latest book, How To Fix The Future (2018), Andrew Keen follows the pattern outlined by Polanyi and sketches the forms and rules of a new social contract for the digital age: a discussion that, soon, we probably won’t be able to have any more without debating over consequences, rather than causes and drivers.

What is the great transformation taking place in the world today?

Karl Polanyi talked about the industrial revolution, and the book itself is about various kinds of great transformations, all driven by this sort of market utopianism: my critique, therefore, has always been about the market utopianism of the current digital transformation, which is been driven mostly by the Silicon Valley. Today, the great transformation is the shift from analogue to digital, the internet revolution, which is changing dramatically every aspect of society: from transportation to media, healthcare, government, banking. The most sort-of-dramatic element is still to come with AI; Blockchain will also change everything, augmented reality. All these technologies are dramatically altering the way we organize society and we see the world.

Has data become the key principle for the organizational basis of e-governance?

Everything is reduced to data in the digital revolution, so data seems to be the currency. James Gleick wrote a book called The Information (2011), saying that “we are information”: I think he’s referring to the digital age, where everything is reduced to 1s and 0s, and that becomes the driver, the value, the currency, the way in which we do business. Data has become everything. You see the way in which Uber, as a data company, is changing the transportation industry, or the way YouTube and Spotify are changing the entertainment industry, or the way in which cyber currencies are changing the banking industry: they’re all data-based products, they’re all driven by data.

Do we need to come up with a new social contract in the days of the digital society?

We do, and I think we need to rethink the way in which information about individuals drives the architecture of politics, and in particular of our democracy. The traditional view is that we can protect data about ourselves, we can protect privacy, and that we need to do it. I think the digital age makes this increasingly difficult. The challenge is to rethink the social contract around data: forcing governments to become more accountable, but also consumers and citizens to become more responsible too. The accountability is key, and accountability is also driven by trust: these are the keywords in this new social contract.

But trust, very often, is also generated by transparency. Do you think we can pair the two things?

Well, I think we live in a culture that has a sort of cult of transparency, where everyone is obsessed with transparency; and often when they are, or companies are, they tend to be rather opaque instead. Facebook and Google both claim to be very transparent companies, but they’re anything but transparent. But we do invent new technologies – particularly the blockchain, which is the essence of transparency, the public ledger which can’t be changed so that everything is transparent – and that’s the challenge and the opportunity to build a better kind of government. As I said in my speech the nightmare is China where governments have massive amounts of data about people and citizens, and then reward them or punish them according to their political liability. What we need to do is build a much more reciprocal political system: there must be a degree of transparency, governments will have access to our records because they’re in the business of putting everything online, making government more efficient, more transparent; but at the same time, power needs to be given back to the user, the citizen, in terms of knowing who access his/her data. There needs to be a sort of mutual transparency. The problem with transparency is often, particularly on the internet and in commercial terms, that it goes one-way.

In your speech, you explained that there are different models of governing data. As you set China on the bad end, what is the place of Estonia on the same spectrum?

I think Estonia is at the other end, in my view. What’s in the middle are then the muddled governments that are not really reforming, that don’t really understand the profound disruptive nature of our times – they just assume they can hang onto their old laws and old social contracts. I think Estonia is at the other end. But think of it like a circle: in a sense, Estonia and China are next to one another, and in a sense, they’re at the other end of the circle.

Do you think there are countries with answers to establish a fairer and more equal digital future?

I think the word is reciprocal, more than fairer or equal, where governments need to be as accountable as citizens. Data is ubiquitous, and the great challenge to build the 21st-century democracy is doing so in a way that companies and governments don’t have so much data about us that are our essence – then our individualism is done away with because we’re turned inside out. Governments themselves need to be accountable, much more transparent, and we need to understand, when they’re going to look at our data, why they’re doing it, how they’re doing it, and we need to be given rights. What Estonia is doing is giving digital rights to citizens.

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