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Digital Equality

The vision of a equally balanced world belongs to us all, the people who are at the moment either frustrated in certain contexts by not having enough of something (anything: rights, visibility, power), and/or in power positions in other contexts thus being the object of envy of frustration to others.

But what if in the future, thanks to the digitalization of life, a new, enhanced human being will not think along the axis of today? Extremes will thus disappear, and equality will not be anymore confused with power. The access all people will achieve to education, culture and other people's networks will support equality, because only by having all those exchanges and knowing much more, will we be able to empathise more and  see how mimimal our differences are compared with our commonalities.

The most compelling thing about Digital Equality in 2050 is our evolution toward singularity with technology and human "self-evolution," and the lack of clarity this creates.  What is equality then?  Equality for whom? Where the work done by/for women and under-represented segments of the population today is laying the groundwork for how we will deal with equality challenges of the future.  But isn't the battle for equal rights simply a struggle between the haves and the have-nots, after all, irrespective of to whom we are referring?  With increased digitisation it will become more difficult to define "who" (what?) deserves equal treatment, along with all the persistent challenges of power-balance that the struggle for equality entails.  And, no, those challenges are not going away.  They are going to become even more complex, rendered thus by digitisation itself.

Of course, digitisation is also the consummate equaliser.  Women and under-represented interests have a greater voice in a digitised world, in theory, due to digital media disturbing, democratising and distributing the power balance.  There are hundreds of examples of the Internet, including through the "long-tail" phenomenon, creating lower barriers to entry for some activities, shifting power and bargaining positions, and democratising the means of production, distribution and communication.  The Internet represents a more democratised, horizontal -- dare we say "feminine"? -- power structure, where all these means have become increasingly pluralised.  The Internet and our digitised world will only remain democratic with good, sound and forward-looking governance that protects this global, digital democratising force, and in so doing, protects our society's weakest members, regardless how we define them.

Instrumental to any vision  of equality is the ultra-connectivity that characterises human society by 2050. This has the potential to trigger greater empathy between social groups and to facilitate much higher levels of debate across dividing lines of locality, gender, class and nationality. The role of professional politicians is less significant than today as everyone is a politician.  The most difficult aspects en route are the transformation of democracy and the role of the state itself. By 2050, citizens have a much better sense of the public interest and are able to distinguish it from the clientelism that currently charaterises democracy in the West. Much of the impetus comes from the demos of networked communities that make up civil society. People reach into themselves as much as they expect "solidarity" from other groups, no longer anonymous, as they are now.  "The rich" are always someone else today, never ourselves.

By 2050, redistribution is targeted at achieving equality in a more focused way, rather than being manipulated in the interests of the electoral cycle. Improved policy-making through big data means that the success and failure of policies is much better known and publicised than today. The capture of the means of the provision of public goods such as health and education by producerist lobbies on the one hand and their over-provision or inefficient provision by politicians trapped in an electoral cycle gradually becomes less of a factor. Well-meaning, well-mediated policy outputs are no longer a substitute achieving impact.

Moving through the final stages of representative democracy - characterised by fragmented populism until the end of the 2020s - is the most challenging and messy stage. The existing system is slow to recognise the wish of the people to be heard and to move towards a more delegate-based model of democracy. Ultimately, greater certainty about the impact of policy interventions means a the fading of the left/right split on the meaning of equality.  By 2050, political scientists are analysing the increased level of legitimacy the new system provides compared with the early part of the 20th century. 

Trends and Weak Signals

  • Growth in internet access and digitization of social life:
    • According to the ITU, the percentage of individuals using the internet has grown from 15.8% in 2005 to an estimated 38.8% in 2013, while wired broadband subscriptions have grown from 220 million to 696 million over the same period.
    • The Pew Internet & American Life Project reports that the percentage of internet users in the United States that used social networking sites from 8% in 2005 to 67% in 2012. 
    • Globally, eMarketer estimates that 24% of the world’s population will use social networking sites in 2013, growing to 34% by 2017. 
  • Growth in online learning:
    • The Sloan Consortium report online learning in the United States, Changing Course, shows that 32% of higher education students were taking at least one online course as of 2011, up from 11.7% in 2003.
  • Digital technologies decentralizing and distributing the means of production and communication:
    • the emergence of marketplace sites like etsy and customized product sites like Spreadshirt and CafePress
    • experiments in crowdsourcing design and production with sites like 99designs and quirky
    • distributed processing offered by sites like Mechanical Turk and Microtask;
    • access to digital fabrication production chains through 3D printing resources and marketplaces like Ponoko and Robotshop
    • access to new sources of financial capital through social financing sites like Kickstarter and indiegogo.
  • Interest in “open government” and governmental “transparency”:
    • In 2011, eight countries signed the Open Government Partnership declaration to promote transparency, empower citizens, and harness new technologies to improve governance.  As of 2013 some 55 countries have joined the Partnership
    • EU adopted the PSI Directive (directive on the re-use of public sector information) in 2003; EC adopted the Open Data Strategy for Europe in 2011; the EC moved its European Open Data Portal into public beta

 

Note:
The results of all brainstormings undergone at the "Ground-breaking Policies for Future Societies" workshop, including this very vision, can be found here.

Challenges: 
  • Ensuring universal access and competency with emerging digital technologies
  • Negotiating competing or conflicting values with regard to the digitization of life
  • Controlling or mitigating unintended and undesirable effects of pervasive digitization of society
Opportunities: 
  • Expand education and learning to currently underserved populations
  • Tapping the creative and innovation potential of those communities and populations not currently connected to and participating in online activities
  • Mitigating or eliminating the importance of some power resources in current political economies (e.g. money)
Questions: 
What kinds of unprecedented social dynamics might emerge from an increasingly interconnected and interdependent global population?
What kinds of societal “push back” or counter-revolutions might occur in reaction to an emerging technological “Singularity?”
What aspects of modern “Western” life would be disrupted by true, society-wide equality? What impacts to worldview and philosophies? What impacts to the systems and institutions that we take for granted? What impacts to normal daily life?
Leading image courtesy of FreeDigitalPhotos.net.
Timeframe: 
2050
Desirability: 

Likelihood: 

Underpinning policy ideas

Supporting evidence