The end of the year is a time for contemplation. In this Retroscope, we look back and reflect on the ideas and insights we have published in The Macroscope throughout 2018. We have covered a wide range of events and developments in technology, global politics and society. The Macroscope is marked by our team’s diversity of perspectives, ranging from philosophy, economics, history, sociology, political sciences to engineering. Combining this interdisciplinary approach with scenario thinking and cyclical thinking, we aim to assess current affairs from a comprehensive and long-term perspective. Our retrospect of 2018 is therefore about how this year’s events tie in with or deviate from larger trends in technological, hegemonic or socio-cultural cycles. Our mission is to unlock society’s potential by decoding the future.
The hyperlinks in this Retroscope refer to the underlying Macroscope publications of 2018.
We hope you enjoy our reflection!
Technological Cycle 2018
We, like so many others, have tried to make sense of everything that happened in the digital sphere in 2018. According to Carlota Perez’ model of technological revolutions, digital technology finds itself in a golden age and, according to the valuation of global tech companies, this is quite right. However, 2018 was also the year in which criticism of Big Tech became mainstream and societies visibly struggled with the negative side effects of digital technology. Have we seen the beginning of the end of this digital era?
1. The beginning of the end for digital technology as we know it?
From a quantitative perspective, Big Tech is doing fine: these companies sit on top of a pile of cash, investing in new technology development or acquiring promising startups and mature businesses in other verticals such as health, finance, and even more health. In doing so, Alphabet, Facebook, Amazon and others are building digital conglomerates that span a multitude of sectors for which they hope synergies in data collection and analysis will yield even bigger profits. Interestingly, they also invest heavily in physical assets; to create real-world barriers to entry for digital newcomers and to make sure they have direct access to consumers and control over the sensors that will fill our lifeworld.
At the same time, 2018 has also shown growing concerns over the power of Big Tech and the ways in which these companies have failed to address interests of consumers and society as a whole. Arguably, Facebook has taken most hits this year with the Cambridge Analytica scandal and uproar among some of its major acquisitions. Perhaps because of this, the social media mogul is forced to take its first steps into the realm of blockchain technology.
Facebook and others have continued to struggle with fake news. Although some of the talk about fake news and filter bubbles is somewhat overstated, the future is bound to bring much more sophisticated forms of fake news, such as deepfakes, and even lead to an infocalypse in which all trust in public media is gone. In the meantime, social media platforms are struggling to regain trust from (mainstream) users and governments by upping their moderating efforts. YouTube even tried to hide behind Wikipedia, which, so far, has managed to retain a Red Cross-like position in the fake news wars. If they don’t succeed, they may either be held (legally) accountable for whatever content they harbor or governments will take more active control over their pages. Not everybody is happy with these efforts though, several platforms have emerged to provide refuge to nonconformists who are no longer tolerated by Big Tech.
Still, whether or not we “like” Big Tech, we still perceive these companies as the inevitable rulers of the digital sphere. Moreover, most of us remain avid users of the products and services they offer in exchange for our data. And, despite growing momentum for legislative action against the digital conglomerates, for now, actual antitrust enforcement seems unlikely to come about in the U.S. However, Europe could be more willing, if only because it still lacks its own digital champions.
Perhaps there’s more than meets the eye here. As we have discussed over the year, the end of the current techno-economic paradigm is in sight and a new one is already in the making. Technologically, this will consist of advanced A.I., 5G, quantum computing, ubiquitous (and self-powered) sensors, new interfaces and decentralized (i.e. blockchain) network architectures.
Institutionally, the “rules of the game” that come with these technologies, could even include elements of Marxism. These technologies may even lead to a Second Deep Transition that repairs some of the (social and environmental) 200 years of industrial modernization that shaped the first deep transition. For one, broader definitions of welfare (beyond GDP alone) will almost certainly be central to policy making in the future.
2. The ongoing struggle with digital technology in our everyday lives
Regardless of the role and faith of tech companies, digital technology is getting a firm grip on our everyday lives. Digital technology is changing the way we live (and shop) and is turning our homes into multi-functional hubs. At the same time, our cities (e.g. through living maps) and shops are becoming ever-smarter and this raises questions pertaining to data ownership and the desirable and undesirable effects of collecting ever more data in the public space. The very fact that digital products receive constant updates and new features means that we will continue to struggle with questions of how to use them and how to curb their undesired side effects.
That is because data has a will of its own and the far-reaching consequences of data collection are already visible in China’s social credit system. Partly because it’s the stuff of some of our worst digital nightmares, but also because it may nevertheless provide some inspiration for Western societies as well. In the same vein, growing international tensions and fears of terrorism are also fueling interest in all sorts of surveillance systems and these are becoming increasingly significant export products.
The debate on the use of consumer products continued throughout the year. France drew a lot of attention with its (more or less pre-existing) ban on smartphones in classrooms. We have also written about how technology messes with our natural rhythms and digital detox is becoming a necessity for the body as well as for the mind. The short burst of attention for the toxic nerds of the incel movement showed, again, that the internet can also bring out the worst in humans.
This does not mean that everything about digital technology is wrong. The availability of data can still empower oppressed or otherwise powerless groups and individuals, as even cybercrime has a bright side and, when care is taken, digital technology can be a vector for norms and values to benefit society.
3. Let’s not forget the atomic layer
As far as technology is concerned, most of our writings this year dealt with digital technology and various forms of computing. Indeed, as with any techno-economic paradigm, most of us only have eyes for the dominant “technology du jour”; ICTs. However, there is more to technology than the digital and even the digital has a very physical dimension. Hence, instead of trying to understand all the various manifestations of digital technology – such as smart cities, data storage, artificial intelligence, living maps, next-generation biological and computer interfaces, digital design, cloud computing, open-source software, API protocols – as different species or genres of computing, we are better off treating them as layers of a larger integrated system. Following the work of Benjamin Bratton, we refer to this as the Stack: the layered organization that constitutes the architecture of our digital economies and societies. Within this Stack, we should not forget about the atomic substrate on which it all rests. That is, the physical matter on which all digital goods and services rely (e.g. silicon, but also the infrastructures of cables, buildings and antennae). Hence, scarcity on this (literally) fundamental layer means that the dynamics upwards in the Stack are changing. This past year, for example, urban construction became more expensive because we are running out of sand, the global manufacturing industry was hurt by global water stress, and new ecosystems emerged because of undersea resource construction. Accounting for this layer’s capital in a proper way might even lead us to find new economies of welfare and value, such as the ocean or energy economics and (geopolitics). These material inputs provide the power to computation itself, to data storage and servers, network connectivity infrastructure, as well as the smart cities we build. This mash between virtual and physical networks redefines sovereignty and hegemony, and a new logic how companies compete with each other.