We need to grow up

By Martin Recke

Remember Web 2.0? In those good old days, things seemed to be remarkably easy. Give everyone a voice and an identity on the web, and a thousand flowers could bloom. That was the mood in 2006, when we started the NEXT Conference. A mere twelve years later, and we are discussing how to fix the digital mess we have created.

How could this happen?

In some respect, it is the aftermath of Web 2.0's own success. The second iteration of the web, combined with the mobile platforms that emerged after the iPhone launch in 2007, propelled all things digital right into the center of our lives, thus changing almost all aspects of our societies: politics, economy, culture, education, even sports.

In this process, ginormous value has been created. And the stock markets expect that this value creation will continue in the foreseeable future, propelling the GAFA crowd to the top of all publicly listed companies. The downside of this can be summarised in one word: disruption. More and more things got disrupted – not only outdated business models, but also the fabric of our societies.

That's why we suddenly talk about such a broad range of topics at a tech conference like NEXT (which was not your typical tech event from the beginning). In economic terms, disruption is called negative externalities. A negative externality is a cost that is suffered by a third party as a result of an economic transaction.

Innovation creates negative externalities almost by its nature. Some new thing not only replaces the old, it also consumes scarce resources that cannot be used otherwise and produces waste, in many cases even toxic. Value is exploited in new ways. Innovation takes out more than it puts back into society, the environment, and the global economy.

This is, by the way, why venture capitalists invest in innovation: to reap the surplus value it creates.

This needs to be fixed, and typically that's the aim of regulation. Regulators step in to fight negative externalities through policies that internalise them, so that only the parties involved in a given transaction are affected. To an extent, this it what GDPR did. Companies extracting value from data had to deal with some of the negative side effects caused by their business.

Regulation is of course never perfect, but it is an important step towards mitigation of these problems. Done well, regulation can contribute to a net positive effect, with companies putting more back into society, the environment, and the global economy than they take out. That's how it should be.

In his opening keynote of NEXT18, Andrew Keen reminded us that while regulation is important, we still need innovation, consumer power, citizenship and education to fix the future. Watch the video. Since digital now affects all aspects of our lives, we must rely on non-digital means to fix digital. This has broadened the debate significantly.

The good thing is: A lot of useful concepts are already there, some of them quite ancient. Andrew Keen quotes Thomas More, who published his notable work Utopia 500 years ago. Amber Case evangelises the concept of calm technology developed by Mark Weiser and John Seely Brown more than 20 years ago. The Copenhagen Catalog presented by Thomas Madsen-Mygdal is a more recent example, but stands on the shoulders of giants as well.

Digital innovation is different, hence the need for different fixes. (We are publishing a book about this.) Disruption needs to be counterbalanced with a conservative approach to protect things that shouldn’t be disrupted. Which of course needs to be discussed, but I would put society, culture, democracy, mental and physical health, or the environment on that list. This does not mean these should be immunised against digital change, quite the contrary, but damage and exploitation should be avoided.

Since the digital revolution has made things abundant that once were scarce (basically everything that can be scaled through software), new scarcities have arrived: first of all our attention. We can no longer afford the big guys to cut our attention into tiny slices they then sell to the highest bidder. Our relationship with these companies has become exploitative and detrimental to our health. The toxic waste of digital is the damage it does to our heads.

Digital is now woven into all aspects of our live, hence the interconnectedness of things. We can no longer afford to play with our digital tools in a sandbox, waiting for mommy to call us for dinner. We need to grow up.

Are we building a society that unleashes our humanity, or that makes us into bad robots?

–Indy Johar, closing keynote of NEXT18