Our Virtual World: seven hot topics

I’ve been “teaching” this year’s Executive MBA class at the UCT Graduate School of Business. Teaching is with scare marks because, with a group like this, you rather convene, and learn.

Putting 45 motivated, mid-career people from a wide range of private and public sector organizations together in one room for six hours makes for a torrent of ideas. Our focus was on our digital world – on the speed, intensity and scope of digital innovation and its contradictions; conflicts of interests, unanticipated consequences and opportunities.

Here are seven hot topics that shaped our deep dive into this digital ocean.

Power and Politics. In some countries, elections are now made or lost in the Virtual World. In others, access to the Internet and social media has been claimed as the rise of a new form of democracy in which peer-to-peer networks can bring down dictators and repressive regimes. In politics, information is power. How are digital systems of communication reshaping government? Is the Internet the answer to the freedom of the press, or a hostage to the destruction of media independence?

Net Neutrality. The Internet was conceptualized as a virtual commons; the World Wide Web was designed as an open protocol that would facilitate equality of access. But a great deal of the development of the Internet has been driven by private sector investment and by the sale of digital services. Here, speed and priority are a premium, creating a demand for a “fast lane” on the Internet. This contentious issue hinges on the recent decision by the US Federal Communications Commission and will be determined by complex legal challenges currently before the US courts. How will this work out?

Data Ownership: Everyone expects a right of privacy over their tangible data: their medical records; bank accounts; family photographs; personal correspondence. And yet virtual data is collected about all of us, most of the time, often without our knowledge. Does digital privacy matter? If it does, how do we achieve a balance between the public benefits of shared information and the need for protective restrictions? Should there be a right to be forgotten, for personal digital data to be erased at our request?

Disruptive Innovations: New ideas are stimulated by the success of others but result in their destruction. Shumpeter’s concept of “creative destruction” is now widely accepted as driving innovation and creating economic and social value. Our Virtual World has seen more creative destruction than ever before. But what is the downside and the value of what will be lost? Will there be more consumer choices, or will the end result be new global monopolies that are able to prevent their own creative disruption, and kill off future innovation?

Cyber security. Cyber security is a real and growing concern and effective cyber security is now high on the agenda of many organizations, from universities to commercial firms to government departments. Many of the most effective defences are pre-emptive, collecting intelligence and nipping assaults in the bud; most police and security services across the world now have specialist services that fight all their battles on-line. But how far should this go? How do we get the balance right? Security services should not be sequestering cell phone records without due cause. But none of us wants to be a victim of the digitally-enabled terrorism that may make travel and big city living a question of survival.

New Inequalities. In many respects, digital devices have been the great equalizers of our age. There will soon be over 2 billion smart phones in the world – one for every four people, everywhere. But at the same time this digital world is driving new levels and forms of inequality. There is a a new digital proletariat: low-paid knowledge workers in call centres; service staff on minimum wage contracts; factory workers in Asia who work long hours to meet the insatiable demand for phones and tablets. Should we be concerned, or will the market sort this all out and establish a new economic equilibrium?

Cyborgs. Some of the most significant advances in digital technology have been in Health and in Medicine. Increasingly, digitally intelligent devices save or prolong life: digitally-enabled pacemakers, intelligent stents, cochlear implants that restore hearingBut at the same time, the convergence of digital technology with the life and living of the human body has more complex implications. Location-intelligent chips are now being embedded beneath the skin as a convenience (to substitute a sweep of the wrist for a bunch of keys) or a requirement (tagging offenders on parole). Such advances in our Digital World may well render our children as cyborgs; part human, part machine. Does this matter?

Did we reach any conclusions? Of course not; if any of us could predict the digital future we would already be living in the new Xanadu. But we did realize that we spend too little time out of the whirlpool of daily digital life to get a critical perspective on what these innovations mean for us.

For some in the room, letting Google trawl e-mails for retailing data or Facebook tag our every photo on-line was of little consequence, repaid with the conventience of the services these companies provide. For others, these invasions of privacy are creepy, unacceptable; few of us had actually read Facebook or Google’s privacy policies before.

The issue of net neutrality came out as equally complex. The principles of openness and equality of service are good – the virtual commons that inspired the Internet pioneers of the early 1990s. But the utilities of the virtual world depend on massive, transcontinental investments in infrastructure, and these have mostly been made by global corporations with investors’ capital. From this point of view, the Federal Communications Commissions ruling can look like a form of nationalisation.

And looking ahead to a world of cyborgs split us down the middle. While we all agreed that we’d willingly accept an intelligent, connected, implant to save our lives, we were at distinct odds when it came to SIM cards embedded beneath our collar bones, or RFID chips under the skin of our wrists to open doors, or miniture cameras in the skin of our necks, to see behind us. But then again, we probably wont get to choose, since we are launching our children into a world where digital technologies and their uses are everwhere.


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