Friday 26 July 2019

Imagining a world that goes against the grain: let us build a political and post-silicolonial digital era

Nowadays, everyone seems to agree that the future of our society and the economy will be digital. Every day, we are inundated with techno-economic newspeak, with people entreating us to cast off the burdensome legacy of our industrial decline and embrace “creative destruction”, much like such companies as Google, Amazon, Uber, or AirBnB have already done in Silicon Valley. Do you need an example?

We must leave our comfort zone and take control of our own destiny. We have plenty of talent in our country, and must help them develop, in innovative and agile ecosystems, to enable bold new start-ups in Industry 4.0 to boost their creativity and capture the spirit of digital disruption”.

While this is a fictional example, any stakeholder might be tempted to pronounce this solemn and dehumanising speech about innovation, with words that ring hollow. There is a lot of talk about a train you need to get on board of before it is too late, at the risk of becoming a digital colony, a territory that has been left behind and does not enjoy the advantages of the global innovation economy.

There is no alternative, or so it seems. Today, digital technology and its powerful consequences, namely algorithms and artificial intelligence, form the core of a collective project that is supposed to give meaning and direction to political programmes and communities. Unfortunately, the terms for creating this meaning and the challenges it poses raise questions that manage to avoid any critical examination and withstand any real democratic control. There is a broad social-liberal consensus that reindustrialisation must be founded on the digital start-up model, a feeling that is echoed in the media. The force of this conviction that we should build our society and our economy on this foundation is in fact so great that it effectively snuffs out any opposition.

This type of universal call gives rise to innovation policies that are based on what Eric Sadin calls the “Silicolonisation of the world”. Unlike colonisation, which is synonymous of violence that is inflicted on populations, silicolonisation implies an ardent wish on behalf of those who voluntarily want to undergo it, to establish a new economic and cultural order and a society that is shaped by digital innovation.

The fantasy of Silicon Valley is used as a reference and a political resource to define a community that shares a common (and let’s hope, better) future, that is being achieved through digital innovation. But what kind of future are we talking about? Bring about creative destruction, they say, but what will be destroyed and what will be created? And to whose detriment or benefit? Will we be aware of the kind of world that we will live in if in the future every one of our movements is captured and exploited by computer systems, or if a growing number of actions are performed autonomously by machines? And above all, is this the future we want?

We urgently need plural innovation policies, that are less saturated with this unique model and that are more open to alternative approaches to the digital future in which we want to live. The combination of forces to achieve this is largely unfavourable today, as the promises of competitiveness and more jobs justify a discourse that dictates that we must set aside our differences if we want to achieve a successful digital transition. There are those who go against these received ideas, believing that digital innovation must be the subject of a political debate, an occasion to take advantage of our differences to imagine other digital futures. These debates must transcend the closed circles of ministerial cabinets, to which they are currently confined, and take place in Parliaments, which have not yet claimed this debate, as well as more widely in civil society as whole. Social movements should not ignore the issue of digital innovation in their attempt to change the social and economic order. It has already instigated changes on several levels, clashing with our subjective experience of accumulation, citizenship, valorisation, dispossession, identity and even humanity. Collectively working to enrich the hegemonic standard set by Silicon Valley to make it fairer, more socially robust, more economically equitable, and more environmentally sustainable. That is the major political issue that we will need to tackle in the coming decades.

Pierre Delvenne
Politologue, Professeur en Science, Technologie et Société à l' Université de Liège (Ulg)
Chercheur Qualifié FNRS , Co-Directeur du Spiral