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Information Technology: The Dystopian Decade

Information Technology: The Dystopian Decade
 Gilles Babinet
Former Advisor on Digital Issues

Rarely in the entire industrial age will technology have taken such disturbing contours as in the past decade. In 2011, following an Arab Spring largely considered to have emerged on social networks, the spirit of freedom seemed to float on the Internet. But the start of the decade also saw many personalities calling for reduced collaboration between major platforms and the US military system. These voices had remained marginal until June 5, 2013, when The Guardian published the first article of what would become the Snowden affair: the defection of a National Security Agency (NSA) analyst and his revelation of a global scandal. The world discovered at the time with astonishment how the NSA was spying not only on millions of foreign nationals, but also on those from allied countries as well as on American players.

A few years later, it was the scandals linked to Cambridge Analytica – the extent of which we are still discovering – that demonstrated the fragility of democracies in the face of digital bias. The decade ended in 2019 with revelations of details about the authoritarian nature of the Chinese Internet: social rating, the "Great Firewall" and widespread espionage, one consequence of which is the internment of millions of Uighurs with "deviant opinions", according to the very expression used by the central government. These are just a few events symptomatic of the decade's most visible abuses.

Technology is therefore shaping the nature of the world more than ever before. Admittedly, the last decade has shaped this orientation in a way that is radically opposed to the peaceful and slightly libertarian world that the Internet’s founding fathers had envisioned: countering the world’s military powers that they considered too centralized and homogeneous.

Government strategies: mass surveillance and control

Admittedly, the last decade has shaped this orientation in a way that is radically opposed to the peaceful and slightly libertarian world that the Internet’s founding fathers had envisioned.

The hypothesis of a reversal of this dystopian curve remains unlikely in the immediate future: Chinese technologies, more ambiguous than any others because of their lack of transparency and possibility of citizen control, are spreading at high speed. This is taking place through the immense Belt and Road Initiative or BRI strategy), technological standards that are more flexible than those in place in the Western world, or through the Alibaba marketplace, whose distribution power is confirmed every day. On the other side of the Atlantic, California's innovation and technology ecosystem now seems to be trusting the Pentagon more than the Trump administration – which is in itself a good way of summing up the state of decay of the debate on technological freedoms.

Could the technological "End of History", in the Fukuyamian sense, end in a totalitarian posture? If we have not reached that point yet, the fact remains that the NSA scandal, more so than the Chinese social rating, brings us back to Thucydides' assertion that "every man [or organisation] is destined to reach the end of his power". Since this power is potentially very high, we should be particularly attentive. In this respect, reading Edward Snowden's Permanent Record is chilling, as the book shows how little weight the American institutional counter-powers have in the face of the Orwellian will of the NSA. Let us note that the NSA’s annual budget is $47 billion - that of French national defense in the 2019 Draft Finance Bill being €35.9 billion - to be mostly invested in technological areas. To complete the picture, it should be recalled that one of the largest contracts in the history of information technology is the recent $10 billion contract between the Pentagon and Microsoft. Given the scale of this contract, many analysts pointed out that its purpose would most likely be the development of new mass intelligence technologies.

Social benefits still not visible enough

Regarding the social innovation field, the other side of the Schumpeterian valley, which predicts mass social externalities after a phase of destructive descent and innovation, is still out of reach. While the technological revolution has enabled a small number of people to become immensely wealthy, it has not, on the other hand, created mass qualitative jobs, nor has it demonstrated its ability to resolve the major challenges facing our planet – the environment, health and education – although the game is far from over in these areas.

Today, making this observation, many coders, data scientists and experts in artificial intelligence have gone from technophiles to technophobes, meaning they no longer see any progress whatsoever in start-ups or the interconnection of humanity. Some even go as far as only working on new devices that would isolate and defend us from technology, rather than bringing us closer to it. It would be a mistake to believe that this principle of anti-technology pre-insurgency is limited to a small elite. From Hong Kong demonstrators to Google employees, Facebook employees, and even platform workers, all are considering, if not already initiating some form of open struggle against technology, a struggle that will soon become inevitable if this new decade were to confirm the dystopian meaning of information technology.

While the technological revolution has enabled a small number of people to become immensely wealthy, it has not, on the other hand, created mass qualitative jobs, nor has it demonstrated its ability to resolve the major challenges facing our planet.

Plan B

Nonetheless, the hypothesis of another future remains on the table; it is even so painstakingly obvious that it is discouraging not to see Europe making it a central political issue. While its representatives are quick to claim their attachment to European humanism, they are too often unable to formulate what this may mean for Europe in the 21st century. Thus, the disenchantment with Europe has also arisen from its inability to propose a political project that inspires and binds European citizens together.

The digital revolution represents an unprecedented opportunity to create a different Europe, where technologies would be used for and by citizens and help tackle this century’s most pressing social and environmental challenges. A Europe, too, where institutions and businesses would not abuse the potential of technologies but rather, develop them in the spirit of respecting a common good. This can only be achieved through a bold articulation between regulation and public institutions – largely to be rethought – on the one hand, and innovators on the other.

Europe facing its limits

For Europe, this pas de deux has proved particularly difficult to implement: the absence of a real "federal" budget integrating military and research issues considerably limits the opportunities for long-term investment. At the same time, GDPR is proving, over time, to be limited in its capacity to allow citizens to re-appropriate themselves their data. On this subject, see the study by François Godement for Institut Montaigne, Digital Privacy: How Can We Win the Battle?. Above all, it is proving to be a battle course for small and medium-sized enterprises with weak legal capacities. However, the key to our future lies in unleashing the potential of innovators; a liberation that is all the more complex to manage as it should be carried out in a framework that avoids the shortcomings seen in other parts of the world.

Europe has also become a prisoner of the financial compliance rules it imposes on Member States and the financial system. But in times of historical accelerations, investment is a necessity in order not to get out of it – a fact already well understood by the Americans and the Chinese. As Emmanuel Macron recently expressed it, one may wonder whether our financial orthodoxy will not ultimately result in participating in the financing of US deficits. The cost of running French public institutions is also a barrier that will necessarily have to be overcome.

Will the 2020 decade be dystopian or utopian as far as technology is concerned? For the time being, it is difficult to bet on a utopian reversal, but as the late Michel Serres observed, "the hallmark of history is to be made up of more rupture than continuity".

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