I recently chaired a discussion at Chatham House, the international affairs think tank, on how digitization is revolutionising our world. It started with an interview with Heather Brooke, the journalist and free speech campaigner, promoting her new book. The discussion (on the record – no Chatham House rule applying to this event) concluded that digital technology was breaking down geographic, class and political structures. Wikileaks was as much about power as about free speech. One man suggested it would mean the end of the nation state in due course.
There has been a spate of books making similar arguments. Joe Nye, from Harvard, argues in The Future of Power that the very meaning of power and politics is changed by distributed information, social media and mobile data. Former British diplomat Carne Ross in The Leaderless Revolution suggests that many people feel powerless over the issues that affect them directly and governments incresingly are losing influence over global problems.
Like Heather Brooke, he suggests we might be headed towards some kind of pan-national networked democracy (which sounds a little too much like the Paris Commune to me.)
Evgeny Morozov in The Net Delusion reaffirms his place as the leading cyber-skeptic suggesting the web may strengthen repressive regimes as much as undermine them and that many in the west are too optimistic about the web’s potential to achieve good.
There are others. The point is, there is a growing recognition of how fundamentally our structures of power and society are being changed by technology – that digital opportunity is running ahead of our ability to assimilate it.
It is more than simply cool ways to communicate with friends and colleagues – it goes the the foundations of how we organise ourselves and our expectations of social, corporate and political life. But as another in the audience at Chatham House pointed out – it was probably the same as people went through the industrial revolution and the agricultural revolution. It just takes time to adjust to the new.