How do we distil a good narrative from 2020?

Written by Pim Korsten
January 14, 2021

2020 was the year of the coronavirus crisis and in 2021, we’ll hopefully be able to leave this crisis behind. How we do that depends on the story we create about it, and the language, metaphors, narratives we want to use. From the perspective of philosophical hermeneutics, we can consider the structure of this story, and how we can actively build a post-corona future.

Our observations

  • In his book Epidemics and Society: From the Black Death to the Present (2020), historian Frank Snowden writes that epidemics have led to large public investments. The plague, for instance, led to the beginnings of public healthcare, as the temporary agencies and emergency ordnances gradually changed into permanent institutions. In his book Epidemics and the Modern World (2020), Mitchell Hammond writes that such initiatives and the first iterations of public administration were therefore of great importance to the modern state.
  • According to French philosopher Michel Foucault, the Enlightenment and modernity were both a curse and a blessing. On the one hand, modernity has brought us much prosperity, in the form of disposable income, better healthcare, better social and physical infrastructure, and new innovations that make our daily lives better and more enjoyable. At the same time, Foucault contends modernity and the Enlightenment have also brought us a new form of power and discipline, “biopower”, and he viewed the new forms and institutions of public healthcare as laboratories for experimenting with new forms of social control.
  • In their book Metaphors We Live By (2003), George Lakoff and Mark Johnson pose that the metaphors we use in our language also influence our direct physical and social experiences. According to them, the conceptual framework from which we interpret and approach reality is metaphorical by nature, and thus subconsciously influences our thinking and actions. Metaphors aren’t fully rational but integrate feelings, thought structures and our imagination into a figurative “image of thought”.
  • Many contemporary thinkers emphasize that humans are a “story-telling being”, and that narratives are a fundamental determinant of how we relate to reality and are able to shape the future. Think of Yuval Harari in Sapiens, Alex Rosenberg in How History Gets Things Wrong, Jordan Peterson in Maps of Meaning, Jeremy Lent in The Patterning Instinct. The base unit of a narrative is a “narreme”, comparable to the “phoneme” (a unit of sound) in phonology (the linguistic study of sound). A narreme relates to the state of affairs in the world and the positioning of story development and events within a certain wider narrative framework.
  • In his magnus opus Truth and Method (1960), Hans Georg Gadamer poses that different domains of life and various sciences have a different understanding of truth and method from a merely scientific one. The humanities have their method of hermeneutics – the art of interpretation – in which meaning is sought. In his final chapter “Language as horizon of a hermeneutic ontology”, Gadamer contends that meaning is always linguistic in nature as man has always interpreted reality and himself from the perspective of a historical and cultural tradition.

Connecting the dots

In our Retroscope, in which we looked back on 2020, we wrote about the term “crisis”: a moment of truth when we must make decisive judgments on what is actually important and what isn’t. A crisis also always forces us to make a political and ethical choice to transform the current situation into a brighter, more positive future. This makes the coronavirus crisis a real crisis, which has set in motion important choices and developments in the domains of geopolitics, technology and culture. The question now is: how do we interpret the events of 2020, and how will we develop a narrative? This is a matter of how the coronavirus crisis can lead to a new consciousness and how we should understand ourselves. Firstly, we could characterize the coronavirus crisis as a “formative experience”, as a consequence of which a new generation will adopt a new set of values, norms and ideas. This is apparent in our scenarios from the Resilient World in the domains of technology, culture and geopolitics. The coronavirus crisis could also leave an imprint on our political, technical and social systems (just as the Second World War left an imprint on our socio-technical systems). “Imprint” is a term from biology and psychology, which refers to changing behavioral processes of humans (and animals) as a consequence of being exposed to external stimuli (e.g. imprinting in genetics and developmental psychology). The coronavirus crisis will also leave such an imprint on our subjective and objective consciousness.

It’s important how we formulate and understand this in language and concepts, express it in metaphors, media and stories. For example, think of the long-term consequences of pandemics on the development of modern institutions and public government services such as healthcare, and how we should understand and assess these new forms of “biopower”. What’s crucial in this is the narreme we develop; the wider framework from which we consider and position the coronavirus crisis and its consequences within a narrative axis. Northrop Frye (1912-1991) was an important thinker in the comparative narratology in literature. In his masterpiece Anatomy of Criticism (1957), Frye analyzes the narrative categories and patterns in different literary traditions, and devises an “anatomy” of historical modes, ethical symbols and archetypical myths and rhetorical genres.  How does this relate to the coronavirus crisis? And what can we expect from the so-called “post-corona narratives”?

The coronavirus crisis is best perceived from the tragic mode. The Ancient tragedy is about how people relate to their fate and ill-fortune, which serves to inspire pity and fear in the audience in order to achieve “catharsis”: emotional purification. The comedy, by contrast, is marked by protagonists making blunders and mistakes, while still ending happily, thus achieving catharsis in the audience through laughter, humor and enjoyment. The coronavirus crisis caught many people off guard, and is often seen as a manifestation of Fate (e.g. as a religious reprimand or nature’s pushback against the hubris of modern man). In this tragedy, we may apply the framework from Frye’s first essay to distinguish various tropes, such as the highly mimetic coronavirus tragedy (marked by the sacrifices people such as nurses make to fight the coronavirus) or the ironic tragedy (man’s weakness in the face of nature or other lifeforms). When we consider different types of “coronavirus symbols”, the first one we notice is the descriptive symbol of the virus that’s bringing humankind, and even entire “superorganisms” such as economic systems (e.g. healthcare or the economy) to their knees.

The visual symbol ties in closely with the use of metaphors, such as the prison as a metaphor for working from home, or the desert for the empty cities during lockdown. The mythical symbol displays the relationship to other symbols of our time that, as we’ve argued before, are metamodern in nature. The anagogic symbol represents the spiritual value of the coronavirus crisis, and whether it will lead to a better, more enlightened future or not. The mental side of the experience of the coronavirus crisis is also considered, such as the moods inspired by the coronavirus or our ideals in this post-corona world.

This brings us to the archetypical myths: which original images, figures and ideas emerge in our visualization of the coronavirus crisis? Describing these moods, ideals, experiences, in short: the mental side of the coronavirus, isn’t about explaining or categorizing various psychological phenomena – the cognitive and neurosciences are much better equipped to do this – but helps reveal the meaning of our world and existence in society. This means we can expect new media that – implicitly or explicitly – are a result of the moods of the coronavirus crisis and quarantine, in the same vein as the “post-9/11 media” or the “atomic culture” that arose after the bombings in Japan and the critical philosophy (e.g. the Frankfurter Schule) that came into being in response to the Second World War.

This shows that our visualization of the coronavirus crisis and the narrative we create about it is ultimately the product of how we interpret the historicity of the coronavirus crisis: is it the end of the world as we know it, thus an epoch of decay, or in fact the beginning of a better world and thus of spiritual reassessment? It’s interesting to see that “cyclical theories” such as the generational dynamics of Strauss and Howe, the theory concerning technological revolutions and hegemonic cycles and economic paradigm shifts point to such a turning point. They highlight that a post-corona world might look radically different, and that such a narrative might be constitutive or even performative in creating a better future.

Implications

  • The coronavirus crisis could become a new “grand narrative” with which rifts could be closed. This will probably be utopian in content, as a response to postmodern skepticism and modern naiveté. For this narrative to be told, it’s crucial that creative artists can get to work on this. Especially now that many of us are in social isolation, stuck at home without the possibility of seeing friends and family, it’s conceivable that the coronavirus crisis may lead to a period of enormous creativity and invention. Film makers, for example, now have the time to consider new formats and pieces. We’ve written before that the Zeitgeist and a “structure of feeling” are manifesting in art, media and popular culture.

  • Another important aspect of this visualization is speculative design. Precisely because the coronavirus crisis is a real crisis that’s changing the course of the world and humankind, we can’t extrapolate the past and have to experiment with new images and forms of visualization. What scenario thinking is to theoretical thinking, speculative design is to visualization.

Does the future belong to Keynes and Mazzucato?

Written by Sebastiaan Crul
January 14, 2021

In the past year, Keynes made a comeback into the soul of European economic policy. First intended to keep the economy going, then with a view to establish a sustainable and inclusive economy in the future. In order to facilitate the latter, Keynes was modernized with the mission-oriented innovation policy of economist Mariana Mazzucato. Together, they provide a substantial economic policy framework for governments to combat the “wicked problems” of the 21st century.

Our observations

  • Because of the coronavirus crisis, for the first time in twenty years, poverty is on the rise again. Depending on the severity of the economic crisis, an estimated 150 million people will join the ranks of those living below the poverty line, making the sum total nearly 10% of the global population. A wealthy continent such as Europe, despite there being more social security than elsewhere, is no exception to this trend.
  • In the past, crises have sometimes been great equalizers: In wartime, equity and capital evaporated more quickly than gunpowder. This does not apply to the coronavirus crisis, which has only exacerbated social and economic inequality in several ways.
  • CO2 emissions decreased by 8% in the past year and we’re unlikely to ever again reach the global peak levels of 2019. The main concern is now whether emission levels will be reduced fast enough, and which part of the population will “bear the brunt” of the decreased emission rates.
  • With the coronavirus as a tipping point, governments are now striving for a more active role in the economy to deal with the abovementioned “wicked problems”. In the course of the year, aid packages came to be accompanied by recovery packages meant to correct the unbridled neoliberalism of the past years. These recovery packages are largely made up of investment funds with a lot of reference to mission-oriented innovation policy, which gradually seems to be gaining ground in Europe.
  • The recovery plans and investment funds are crystal clear in one respect: sustainability is the main goal. The German government devised a green recovery plan of 130 billion euros which focuses mainly on hydrogen. The French government, unwilling to lag behind, presented a 100 billion euro plan soon after, of which 30 billion is reserved for the ecological transition. And recently, regulations on spending the European recovery fund of 672.5 billion euros were tightened, so that a significant percentage of the subsidies and loans would have to be used for sustainability purposes. The same applies to the Dutch growth fund of 20 billion euros, which initially incurred much criticism for the gray and traditional economic set-up of the investment fund, but has now become much greener.

Connecting the dots

Economists generally disagree. Put two economists in a room and you’ll get three opinions, the old economic saying goes. The consensus among economists about the global aid policy of governments was therefore surprising. Economists have rarely been this unanimous in their agreement on the necessity of government intervention. Moreover, with the financial crisis still fresh in our memories, central banks are asking governments not to start phasing out financial aid too soon. The rising government debt has been taken for granted so far; the fear of long-lasting economic stagnation unequivocally takes precedence over the fear of inflation. Initially, the emphasis was on keeping the economy going. Now, we’re becoming concerned about the future. The government wants to stimulate economic growth as well as realize societal goals such as reaching sustainability and social justice at the same time.

This will be one hell of a job. Classical Keynesian undifferentiated innovation policy is no longer the solution, as not all innovation is good and not all consumption is wanted. Keynes needs an update. The neoclassical economic idea that innovation is ultimately best judged by the market, is abandoned in the innovation policy of economist Mariana Mazzucato. Her ideas include a preceding process of elimination by civilians and the government, who join hands in formulating ambitious societal goals, or “moonshots” as Mazzucato likes to call them.

In Europe, in part because of the coronavirus crisis, Mazzucato’s ideas have gained much momentum. Following the Green Deal, governmental aid packages often contain clear references to mission-oriented policy, with social justice and sustainability as the most prevalent missions. These societal missions are ambitious and this is precisely the point, according to Mazzucato, so that passion will return to government policy, which otherwise is at risk of becoming uninspired and providing a culture with little direction. Yet, the economic reality presents a challenge for European policy makers. Mission-oriented innovation policy is a three-fold struggle in which crises from the past, present and future influence each other.

The legacy of the past is a financial system in which capital is (too) profitable. Indeed, private savings abound: in the year of the coronavirus, European savings accounts and nest eggs were amply stocked. Moreover, central banks are copiously adding to the money supply with their extensive buy-back programs. Because of this, collecting money isn’t the problem, but, eventually, this money should be flowing into the real economy, which has been an issue for over a decade. The way the financial system is organized ensures that returns on stocks and capital are often more interesting than risky innovation. It speaks volumes that in the year of the coronavirus, more young people opened a private investment account than ever before, and house prices merrily kept on rising during the crisis. Speculation counters innovation and discourages companies from making daring long-term investments.

The legacy of the present is simply the economic damage of the current crisis. Inequality has increased in many domains. The crisis greatly divides society, resulting in clear winners and losers. Consequently, we’re witnessing increasing resistance against some forms of public spending, especially where climate policy is concerned. Economists therefore advocate a joint approach to reaching sustainability and economic equality. Their approach boils down to higher (environmental) taxes for the upper class, and tax exemptions or financial compensation (e.g. for road pricing) for the lower and middle classes to restore their disposable income. According to economist Dirk Bezemer, tax and wage measures should be in one and the same package as sustainability laws, otherwise, the intended acceleration of the green transition in Europe would be completely unrealistic.

Our “legacy” for the future is the advance we’ve taken on this future and the necessity of growth to be able to pay this back. With sufficient economic growth, government debt becomes lower in relative terms and tax income rises, so that it becomes easier to pay interest charges without this affecting other expenses. And it’s not just government debt that makes economic growth desirable. The future pension costs and increasing healthcare costs of an ageing population, make economic growth essential to Europe.

Economic growth is thus very desirable, but to what extent are economic growth and societal missions reconcilable? This is a controversial question, especially as regards sustainability. Too much emphasis on quick recovery in the form of a single-minded focus on economic growth would have disastrous effects on, among other things, absolute emission rates. Yet, an economic downturn, is not the time to experiment with economic paradigms that do not center around growth. The fact that societal missions are still mostly framed as interesting investment opportunities for growth is exemplary of the dilemma governments face. Innovation, it is still felt, is mostly meant to be interesting economically, and only to benefit society by derivation.

Thus are government policy-makers forced to struggle with the legacy of a financial system marked by perverse incentives, with the economic downturn of the current crisis, and, finally, with the considerable loan we’ve taken out from future generations. If Mazzucato’s ambitious mission-oriented innovation policy is to have any chance of success, this threefold legacy will have to be taken deathly seriously.

Implications

  • There are risks involved in a more active role for government. If we fixate too much on the promises made, we’ll lose sight of the fact that in the past decade, many companies have become too dependent on the government, with dire effects on innovation. Economic renewal requires the creative destruction of old and lumbering companies that should not be able to keep getting handouts from the government or obtaining debt obligations at extremely low cost. Economists have long feared the rise of zombie companies, that are all too eager to look to the government for bailouts. Like unbridled neoliberalism, this “sunflower capitalism” (i.e. these companies turn to the government as a sunflower turns to the sun) creates the wrong conditions for innovation.

Food security will have its moment on the world stage

Written by Julia Rijssenbeek
January 14, 2021

In the year when the World Food Program unexpectedly received the Nobel prize, the fight against hunger faced major setbacks. The COVID-19 crisis laid bare the vulnerabilities in the global food supply chains, causing food insecurity to triple in almost every part of the world, along with the number of people suffering from hunger. The pandemic further made clear that the way we grow food increases the risk of zoonotic outbreaks. Agriculture makes ecosystems more vulnerable and destroys habitats, thus creating the perfect conditions for viruses to emerge.

A third direct link between COVID-19 and our global food system is the undeniable fact that being overweight – a problem for more than a third of all adults globally – makes people more prone to suffering from the virus. To confront global food security issues, international cooperation is needed to set global goals and standards that integrally address the health of people and of our planet. In 2021, the global Food Systems Summit will take place, an event that might induce the establishment of an intergovernmental panel like the one on climate change (IPCC) or a treaty like the Paris Agreement.

The Retroscope 2020

Written by Freedomlab Thinktank

2020 was a year in which society and the economy were hit hard. At the same time, it was also an interesting year in which many issues that had already arisen in the previous years were brought into much sharper focus. Last summer, we explored all of these issues in our scenario study “The Resilient World”, in which we reflected on the different worlds that could emerge from this crisis. In this Retroscope, we look back on the past year and consider the current state of affairs regarding the most significant uncertainties we formulated in our study.

Technological cycle 

The corona crisis has profoundly affected the technoscientific self-confidence of modern societies. First and foremost, the crisis has taught us that our modern technology is still not able to tame nature to the full. Yet, it may also open our eyes to the fact that we have failed to make the best of our technological capabilities. So, could the coronavirus crisis indeed lead toa different perspective on technology? Will it trigger us to solve our structural problems and thus prevent another crisis?

The tech-fix illusion is nearing its end

Overnight, the world came to a standstill because of a virus, as our technological solutions only worked to a moderate extent in combating the pandemic. The strongly intertwined global network society is even identified as one of the most important causes of the rapid spread of the virus. In addition, even before the pandemic, large technology companies were under immense societal pressure, which does not appear to have abated. Many believe they are partly responsible for societal unrest, caused in part by floods of disinformation, and polarization. After another excellent year on the stock market, their innovation is perceived to mainly benefit shareholders.

The partial loss of confidence in technology and its makers does not contribute to the development of possible forms of technological prevention. For example, in the past year, we’ve seen how prevention often coincides with different forms of surveillance. Especially in the West, citizens tend to be wary of the use of technology because of an expanding and monitoring government. Especially the collection of data by governments or private companies worries citizens. Although we acknowledge the potential advantages of a data-driven economy, when it comes down to it, we are reluctant, as has also become clear with the coronavirus app. Despite high expectations and long ethical deliberations, too few citizens have turned out to be willing to install the app. In addition, due to ethical concerns, the app has been modified to such an extent that its potential contribution to containing the pandemic has become minimal.

In the public debate of the past year, technocratic ideals and civil liberties were posited as opposites, difficult to unite. This is not wholly surprising in a year when we were mainly told not to do certain things. The tension we all experienced in the first lockdown, consisting mainly of fear and a certain degree of excitement, has given way to the fragmented fatigue and frustration of the second, current lockdown. While technology (partly) enables us tocontinue working, shopping and enjoying ourselves, we are now harshly confronted with the limitations of the current technological solutions. As the crisis unfolded, the emphasis in speeches began to shift increasingly to human behavior. Ultimately, technology cannot be thesole answer and humans need to adapt their behavior as well, according to scientists and most government leaders. A such it seems as if the tech-fix illusion is nearing its end.

Technoscientific culture will prevail

Yet, there is another possibility. Taiwan and Singapore are continually cited as examples of countries where strong trust in technology has in fact paid off. China too, in addition to strict non-technological measures, has relied strongly on technological means to fight the pandemic, and successfully so. Even though these countries have different models of governance and other cosmotechnics than we do in the West, they could still show us how a different, arguably more determined, perspective on technology could help to prevent new crises in the future.

Indeed, there is no reason to be shy about our technological prowess. The record-breaking development of multiple vaccines may indeed provide us with the necessary level of confidence. In the coming months, the (prosperous part of the) world will be vaccinated and we will be able to continue our old lives. Thus, the development of the vaccines will probably go down in history as the absolute turning point of the crisis and modern technoscience will profit from this success for years to come. Criticism of technology will become less vehement and technoscientific culture will prevail (again).

In the same vein, Big Tech, despite the growing resistance against their power and behavior, and our digital infrastructure, kept the economy up and running during the lockdown. This stay-at-home economy will prove to have lasting, partly positive, consequences in our daily lives in the coming years.

A new technological order

All in all, we possess all the technological ingredients to make work of a new technological order that is geared towards preventing new crises in the future. Indeed, governments have been seriously contemplating how to deal with the vulnerabilities of the international traffic of humans and goods and fragmented value chains. The current market system is too efficiently and cost-effectively organized, which makes us vulnerable to shocks such as this. Resilience, reshoring and redundancy are the political and economic key words of the year. In short: we’re in the early stages of a truly thriving enlightened technocracy, aimed for the common and long-term good. As such, the corona crisis may end up putting us on the right track with respect to our perspective on technology. With the right technological changes and political determination, which have now been set in motion, crises will be more easily prevented in the future.

Hegemonic cycle 

The past year raises questions about the fate of globalization. The president of the United Sates blamed China for the global COVID-19 pandemic, after attempting to sabotage economic relations between the two countries in several different ways. Meanwhile, internal relations in Europe remained high-strung, with Poland and Hungary turning against the European course increasingly often. How should these developments be understood in a wider context? Is globalization as we’ve known it in the past decades coming to an end, as the stagnating growth of world trade seems to indicate? Will we have stronger borders between countries or are we merely on the brink of a phase of globalization in a new form?

The strategic reorientation of the West

The era of Atlantic hegemony, the hegemonic cycle of the past five centuries, is nearing its end. But it’s too early to determine whether a new hegemon will rise, or, with the end of this cycle, a new order will come into existence in which no country is dominant. Before we can answer that question, the current power relations will continue to change, causing the world to move towards a new order in several domains (e.g. finance, technical standards, strategic technology).

In the Western world, 2020 was a moment of strategic reorientation. The United States is renouncing the Trump model of exerting strategic pressure on rivals and partners alike. The Biden administration will attempt to breathe new life into American alliances, though this will be arduous in many places because of conflicting interests. In addition, Europe broke free from its geopolitical paralysis. In the past year, the European Commission and EU member states created more momentum for the ideas of strategic autonomy and European sovereignty, though it’s as yet unclear how this will take shape. Both Western superpowers are thus facing a moment of strategic reorientation. Furthermore, we’re in the midst of a period of “Westlessness”, lacking a clear idea of the West.

Thus the economic center is shifting east, and so the complexity of globalization will only become clear when we truly understand what is currently happening in, among other countries, China and Russia.

A different path of globalization

In the West, China is often perceived as a “challenger” of the world order, but in many areas, China is as supportive of international norms, rules and treaties as Western countries are, if not more so. Meanwhile, in the past year we saw investments in the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative project decline. Not because China is weakening, or other countries are less willing to cooperate with China, but precisely because China is becoming a mature global power. The country now more strategically and responsibly considers foreign investment, as the U.S., Europe and Japan have done for decades. During the coronavirus crisis too, the stability of the Chinese global power has become apparent. In fact, the rapid recovery of the Chinese economy soon turned out to be a vital driving force of the global economy. In addition, in 2020 China was the largest economy to sign the RCEP trade deal of 15 countries, the biggest trade deal in the world. While the Western world is skeptical about accelerated integration with the global economy, Eastern countries actually embrace further economic globalization.

In 2020, Russia stayed in the background, but it’s precisely this that shows Russia is notably changing its course. It’s becoming a geo-economic power that leans less on military capacity than we think and is creating more influence with strategic economic policy. The Eurasian Economic Union is an important Russian initiative to strengthen economic ties with Eastern countries, so that Russia gains a stronger position than the West in respect to Europe. Russia’s biggest ambition is to create “technology transfer” – to import high-grade technology from Europe, Japan and South Korea to revive its own economy. With its new, remarkable course, Russia is laying the groundwork for this strategic move.

Thus, the complexity of globalization will become apparent in the coming years. The first responses to the coronavirus crisis, containing phrases such as “reshoring” and “the end of globalization”, seem to have been based on false hope. There has not been a fundamental reappraisal of efficiency in value chains either. Globalization will continue, but in a different way. There will be different types of globalization, as there are different elements to the world order. Many non-Western countries still embrace economic globalization, while Western countries, under the influence of certain political groups, are becoming more skeptical. Because of these dynamics, political globalization, in the form of multilateralism and the protection of human rights, is becoming more difficult rising countries such as China are less active in this area. Furthermore, new domains of globalization are emerging, such as the digital domain, where countries will be in direct opposition to each other with different digital models, projects and strategies, such as the Chinese New IP internet protocols, the Russian Runetand the European internet and data strategy and the GAIA-X platform. All of these projects gained momentum in 2020 and will take shape in the coming years.

Hence, in 2020, two major implications of the new complexity of globalization became clear.

First, there are stronger borders between the superpowers. The alliance between the U.S. and Europe is no longer a given. The stakes are getting higher because of the rise of other Eurasian countries and the cooperation between Western superpowers will become more opportunistic. The conflict between the U.S. and China will outlast Trump. 2020 also saw India and China butt heads with military clashes in the border region and mutual economic sanctions. The borders between superpowers are becoming harder in these times of hegemonic shift. Second, an opportunity is arising for a new model of globalization, in which Europe could play an important role. Efficient value chains will remain the driving force of economic growth and most developing countries will stay amenable to the model of economic globalization.

Precisely in this world, where the conflict between the U.S. and China is threatening the current model of globalization, an opportunity is arising for Europe to break new ground. With regulation, digital models and multilateral strategy, Europe may come to lead the world increasingly often in its own way, a way that would allow for a new phase of globalization.

Socio-cultural cycle 

Prior to this crisis, several contrasts in societies were becoming starker: between left and right, young and old, progressive and conservative, city and countryside, rich and poor, center and periphery, culture and nature. Individualization of citizens and countries is often identified as the cause of this development, but during the coronavirus crisis, collectivist initiatives among countries and citizens have also come into existence. Will this collectivist development persist or will the coronavirus crisis in fact accelerate individualization in the end, if cooperation proves too arduous?

Time to decide

In order to answer this question, we must first better understand the term “coronavirus crisis”. The word “crisis” is etymologically derived from the Greek krinein, which means to distinguish or decide. This makes a period of crisis a moment of truth: a decisive moment when we’re obliged to make judgments on what’s really important and what isn’t, what’s right and what’s wrong. A crisis always forces us to make a political and ethical choice to transform the current situation into a better and brighter future. At the same time, the coronavirus crisis is not a clear-cut phenomenon as it pertains to themes such as ecological degradation, our ideas on sickness and health and the fact that Wuhan changed from a small village to a city of millions in the course of a few decades and China has become integrated in international economic, political and tourist flows. In other words, the coronavirus crisis is a highly complex phenomenon, with different “aspects of crisis” that require us to make political and ethical choices for the future. If we follow this dialectic now, what will arise in the sociocultural domain?

First, the issues we’re faced with now are not easy-to-solve “puzzles” but wicked problems. The question how long bars should stay closed so that enough hospital beds will be available for covid patients, suggests a conflict between healthcare and the economy, but ultimately makes us realize how deeply healthcare and the economy are intertwined. Another wicked problem is the question how many civil liberties we’re prepared to sacrifice to restore our society to health.
Because of the uncertainty and complexity of the issues, it’s no wonder that countries with a capable institutional structure have done relatively well in this crisis. The same structural problems that are at the root of the pandemic will cause more of these complex issues in the future. The first example that comes to mind is of course the climate crisis, of which the coronavirus crisis has just been a small preview. Similar to the coronavirus pandemic, it’s not easy to tell whether the climate crisis is a fully man-made or natural phenomenon, and solutions to it require a new understanding of humankind and our relationship to nature. Another issue is the rise of “uncontrollable technology”, including synthetic biology and AI, the outcomes of which aren’t fully predictable by humans, and which will eventually fundamentally change our ideas of life and being human. In the same way that the coronavirus – the smallest lifeform to shut down human superorganisms such as our healthcare and education system – has forced us to reconsider our relationship to our fellow humans and society.

The coronavirus crisis has made many of us aware of the fact that, as humans, we’re embedded in wider social, technological and ecological structures, and that we depend on other people and countries. And yet, it’s unclear whether this insight will inspire a more collectivist attitude in citizens and bring countries closer together, as the failure of joint efforts could in fact lead to further individualization. For example, economic inequality translates to medical inequality and the debate on ethnic inequality and racism has reached boiling point during this crisis. Both themes are high on the agendas of policy-makers; during the U.S. presidential elections, for example, or in discussions on the future of the financial system. In addition, younger and older generations are affected differently by the economic and health crisis, and as such, respond to and reflect on it differently as well. There is also no consensus as yet about the future of work after the coronavirus crisis. Neither is there an answer to the questions whether virtual practices are a desirable and viable substitute for physical and social interaction, and whether coronavirus-related mental problems (e.g. loneliness, anxiety) require more, or less technologization of our living worlds. In fact, even our collective faith in established institutes and structures of knowledge and truth is under severe pressure.

The “moods” of metamodernism 

In other words, in the past year, we saw a high degree of ambivalence around sociocultural issues and possible solutions, with which we are confronted by different aspects of the coronavirus crisis. But what does this mean for us, our society and the wider sociocultural developments following the coronavirus crisis? In any case, the coronavirus crisis shows us a specific palette of “moods”. These moods bring aspects of reality to light which, in ordinary times, would have remained obscured from theoretical, abstract thought. Specific moods thus lead to new ways of relating to the world, pertaining to globalization and sustainability (stress versus hope), political initiatives (insecurity versus confusion), spirituality (boredom versus fear).

These moods aren’t purely subjective, not “all in our heads”, but are in fact intersubjective: they arise when we relate to and interact with the world and other people around us. The fact that(almost) all of us act like a “superorganism” that is focused on a single phenomenon and acts accordingly (e.g. developing a vaccine, staying in quarantine) also makes the coronavirus crisis a metamodern concept. And with the adoption of the metamodern perspective, new sociocultural transitions are made possible. We no longer revert to modern objectivism and naiveté, but neither do we succumb to postmodern pessimism or irony. In other words, the metamodern coronavirus crisis could thus form the idealistic foundation for the new metarules of new societal, economic and political systems.

So from the subjective mind (moods), we are now arriving at the objective mind and reality (metamodernism) of the corona crisis. We’ve known for over a hundred years that God is dead, but we’re still living with the nihilistic base mood in which there are no grand narratives anymore. The coronavirus crisis confronts us with a harsh reality from which we can no longer escape: that we are mortal, finite beings, that sickness and death are a part of life. Like Trumpism, which should also be understood as a complex and metamodern phenomenon, the coronavirus crisis has created an enormous “memeplex”. This is a new, metamodern way of dealing with such phenomena. Memes and other forms of culture help us to find meaning, ethics, politics, a relationship between the community and the individual. There’s a reason the coronavirus crisis is seized upon by artists and scientists, politicians and conspiracy theorists alike to reflect further on this theme and incorporate it in art, culture and a new structure of feeling.

Disinformation and the false believe we are autonomous in our search for knowledge

Written by Jessica van der Schalk
December 18, 2020

It’s often attributed to the advent of social media, algorithms that secretly use our preferences to prioritize certain information, but also to the rise of deep fakes: disinformation. Online, an argument can be found for every possible notion, our own ideas are easily confirmed and disinformation appears to spread more rapidly and widely than reliable information
Some say that we now live in a time where we experience autonomy when, in reality, we are being manipulated. Is this a new phenomenon and how worried should we be?

Our observations

  • In 2016, “post-truth” was nominated for word of the year by Oxford dictionaries, defined as “circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief”.
  • In general, disinformation refers to the intentional spreading of manipulative or even untrue information to convince the public of a certain viewpoint and/or influence their behavior. Disinformation differs from misinformation in the underlying motive: the spreading of erroneous information is intentional. There are different types of disinformation, such as false information (think of deep fakes, or simply made-up stories), “cherry-picked” information (certain parts of the truth are intentionally left out or highlighted), unproven links (true facts are wrongly linked to each other, leading to a false conclusion) or authentic information that is potentially harmful to a person or community (e.g. hate speech or private information that is leaked). In the report by the European Commission Technology and Democracy – Understanding the influence of online technologies on political behaviour and decision-making (2020), one conclusion arrived at is that people behave differently online from offline. The web offers a cognitively unique environment, resulting in specific psychological reactions. The online environment can, for example, influence the way individuals process information and communicate with each other. Importantly, there is scientific evidence that suggests that social media change people’s offline political behavior; this includes inciting dangerous behavior such as committing hate crimes, which could, if proved, be a valid reason to impose restrictions. “Establishing causality is crucial because it offers opportunity for intervention and control. If social media were found to cause social ills, then it would be legitimate to expect that a change in platform architecture might influence society’s well-being.”
  • Professors Dutilh Novaes and De Ridder claim that the tactics used in the spreading of disinformation to influence the public’s viewpoints or behavior are not new, rather the technical knowledge and means are. They have led us into a potentially dangerous situation in which it may become impossible for reliable parties to abide by the democratic maxim “should they go low, then we go high” any longer.

Connecting the dots

Disinformation is a global, public concern threatening democratic societies. After all, a well-functioning democracy depends on the ability of citizens to make informed choices. And it is precisely reliable information that seems to be having more difficulty reaching citizens. According to the report by the European Commission, the circumstances nowadays are perfect for the large-scale spread of disinformation, because of the interplay of the attention economy with human psychology. The attention economy is driven by algorithms that select and subsequently promote attractive, fascinating content on an individual level.

Furthermore, people are naturally strongly inclined to focus on negative news, and most disinformation inspires negative emotions such as fear, rage and indignation. Disinformation thus spreads more quickly and widely than reliable information. Moreover, this causes individuals to be exposed less to different opinions, which are crucial to identifying the best arguments, exchanging viewpoints and reaching consensus. Scientific research corroborates the concerns over this phenomenon, but we are still in the early stages of policy-making on this theme.And yet, the intentional manipulation of the public is not a new phenomenon.

According to Professors Dutilh Novaes and De Ridder, there are three tactics for manipulating the public that were already used before the internet era. First, pleasing and seducing the audience. By playing into deeply rooted sentiments by means of misleading but attractive information, the public is tempted to take on a certain standpoint or change their behavior. If this form of manipulation is exclusively applied, other information will still be available, and all parties can employ the same method, so that different stances can be heard.

The second tactic is that of propaganda and censorship. Information is communicated by one party only and dissenting voices are suppressed. For practical reasons, this tactic is mainly used by political figures who have the means to censor.

The final tactic is knowledge pollution. Traditional sources of information (science, government, media) are discredited by a stream of alternative information of such proportions that the public does not know which information is reliable anymore. Experts are depicted as subjective sources with their own views and those spreading disinformation as having equally valuable but different views. Due to this tactic, the public is threatening to fragment and individuals tend to narrow their focus to those sources they consider credible and which confirm their worldview.

However, the technical aspects of how (dis)information is produced, spread and consumed, are new. Besides knowledge of human psychology, technological knowledge is also needed nowadays both to make disinformation effective as well as to combat it. In addition, these technological developments make it possible to reach prodigious numbers of people at low cost, whereas heretofore this would have required expensive means such as printing texts or employing persons. The technologies used in this context include the above-mentioned recommendation systems, dark patterns, fake news websites, fake social accounts, troll farms and bots.

Implications

  • Most people would characterize themselves as critical thinkers, capable of forming judgments and acquiring knowledge autonomously. However, when we investigate more thoroughly what it means to be a critical thinker, human beings in general appear to be poor critical thinkers but nevertheless see themselves as such. Professors Dutilh Novaes and De Ridder hold that the danger of knowledge pollution is that citizens still appear to be autonomous, when in fact they are not. This makes it very difficult for reliable information to reach citizens without the deployment of so-called “counter-manipulation”.

  • According to famous contemporary philosopher Latour, the reason that some people cling to information that denies problems has to do with the desire to deny global problems such as the coronavirus and climate change. This way, it is possible to live in a world without these problems.

  • The company WordProof has received 1 million euros to combat fake news, fraud and privacy problems with blockchain technology. His solutions try to transport some of the ‘rules’ of our physical world to the digital world that help make knowledge sharing more reliable. One example is the connection between someones identity and the extent to which information can spread on the internet. This way, he separates freedom of speech from freedom of reach.

The coronavirus is creating momentum for fiscal diet policy

Written by Pim Korsten
December 4, 2020

Of course, it wasn’t the coronavirus that put obesity on the agenda, but the pandemic could influence policy to reduce it. In most Western countries, the current approach is mainly geared towards education, creating awareness with campaigns or labels meant to stimulate self-regulation in the supermarket. According to the World Bank, this has been moderately effective, but it’s doubtful whether that is enough in a world where both wealth and inequality are on the rise. The WHO therefore pleads for a more fiscal policy, since ultimately, our wallets remain a crucial factor: unhealthy food is (too) cheap, healthy food is (too) expensive.

That’s why more than forty countries have introduced a sugar tax and the coronavirus appears to have resulted in an increased sense of urgency and support for this measure. However, in a world afflicted by COVID-19, where inequality is rapidly growing, the most effective fiscal policy is (wage) subsidy, aimed at making healthy food more affordable, especially for poorer families. Because of the costs, subsidies are not as widely supported as tax measures like the sugar tax, which at least create revenue. Seattle has found a happy medium between the two: “circular” fiscal policy, meaning the revenue generated by the sugar tax is used to cover the costs of the health subsidies.

Biden: neither friend nor foe to big tech

Obama’s presidency was paradise for big tech. After that, Trump was a gift from the gods, tax-wise, but caused some rocky and restless years in Silicon Valley nonetheless. Biden will partly restore peace in the Valley, but we shouldn’t expect a return to the heyday of the Obama administration. During Biden’s first term, we will see a relationship with big tech that is less than clear-cut in terms of amity or enmity. Big tech and Biden need each other and don’t appear to want to make life difficult for each other, but the tension between big tech and society and Silicon Valley and Europe won’t be easily resolved.

Our observations

  • For tech companies, there will be a large contrast between Trump’s fiscal policy and that of his successor Biden. Trump’s tax reforms were a present to big tech, which was able to withdraw money from abroad at low cost and drive up its own share price by buying back shares with this money. Biden wants to tax large companies more heavily by raising corporate taxes to 28%. In addition, he may want to make it more difficult to deposit money on offshore accounts untaxed or to transfer it to tax havens.
  • As a consequence of Trump’s immigration policy, tech companies struggled to attract foreign talent. Biden is a proponent of a friendlier immigration policy and has promised that, during his presidency, it will become easier to apply for a permanent visa again.
  • Under Biden, we can also expect a reintroduction of net neutrality. He has repeatedly expressed approval of net neutrality, which was instated by Obama but subsequently repealed by Trump. Without net neutrality, telecom providers are able to discriminate between content providers and slow down access to certain websites or platforms or charge differentiated fees.
  • Trump and Biden are different in many respects but both of them want big tech to take more responsibility for content moderation. The debate centers around Section 230. In the early years of the internet, Section 230 was devised to give digital platforms legal immunity regarding the content posted on the platform. The law is widely criticized now, though it’s helpful to understand it in the context of the rise of the internet as a free public space.
  • The left flanks of the Democrats have long advocated the forced sale of business units to tackle market concentration and big tech monopolies. Biden is less eager to break up tech companies and has indicated that it’s still too early to discuss this.

Connecting the dots

During the Obama presidency, big tech companies were given a free hand regarding growth and the president frequently sang the sector’s praises. Obama was (too) friendly with big tech. Under Trump, things became a bit more ambivalent, leaning towards hostility. Trump often expressed criticism of tech platforms. Moreover, he became the key player and catalyst in the societal problems that currently characterize the industry (e.g. misinformation, polarization, foreign interference, etc.). At the same time, it’s mostly tech companies who seem to have reaped the benefits of Trump’s fiscal policy (e.g. cheap repatriation of foreign cash and lower taxes). Societal criticism became immensely widespread, but the share price rose with it. With Biden, we’re starting a new chapter that’s more difficult to define in terms of amity or enmity towards big tech. The consensus is (see observations) that Biden will implement stricter regulation of big tech and higher taxes, so it would appear as though there’s some hostility. But in other respects, Biden and big tech are completely on the same page and mutually dependent.

First, to expect that big tech has some rough years ahead because of the extra regulation would be misguided.  After all the (internal) unrest and increasing societal criticism, more regulation, even if it affects companies’ profitability, may even be desirable within the sector. The fact that big tech, despite Biden’s campaign promises of fiscal reform, made prodigious donations to the Biden campaign, supports this theory. Moreover, Biden and Harris have close ties with the tech sector, so there might be an assumption that in (a divided) Congress, the lobby will have enough room to water down propositions. And perhaps regulation might benefit big tech anyway: the GDPR is widely held to serve the big players, who are far better able than their smaller competitors to build the necessary infrastructure. For smaller companies, this is likely to be very expensive and time-consuming.

Big tech welcomes Biden but the reverse is true as well. Among other things, Biden plans to rejoin the Paris climate deal and seems to be of a mind to revive multilateral institutions. But in other domains, he will want to continue Trump’s protectionism and protect big tech. Commentators all agree that stricter regulation of big tech will play into the hands of Chinese competitors, and this will certainly be taken into consideration by the Biden administration. It looks like Biden is aiming for a softer, more differentiated version of Trump’s America First policy, so the trade-off between protective industry policy and restrictive competition policy could work in big tech’s favor.

There is, then, enough amity and/or mutual dependence in the relationship between big tech and Biden, but under the surface, hostility and tension remain. Breaking up big tech is one of the most radical plans of the Democrats and was a spearhead in the campaign of other candidates, such as Elizabeth Warren. Because Biden has never made any such extreme statements and there was no “blue wave”, this plan doesn’t seem to be a priority. Nonetheless, CEOs will not rest easily after their recent hearings with the House Judiciary Committee’s antitrust subcommittee. In a lengthy report, the latter considers the monopolies or market forces of big tech proven and urges the forced sale of business units or subsidiaries. It will be difficult to get this through Congress, but the battle for the Senate is not over yet, as a new voting round in Georgia will decide who gets the last two seats in the Senate. It should be noted here that not all big tech companies are the same. Especially Mark Zuckerberg will have sleepless nights, because Biden and his tweeting deputy communications director seem to have set their sights on Facebook in particular.

Ultimately, we shouldn’t set too much store by Biden’s current intentions and campaign promises and stay attuned to what happens societally and ideologically. Societally, in his close-to-victory speech, Biden presented himself to the world as the president of reconciliation. But in the unfortunate case that the power concentration, misinformation, polarization and societal tensions in the digital realm continue to increase, so will the pressure to act on this. Finally, we are in the midst of an ideological reappraisal of the internet itself. Among academics, politicians, organizations and platforms, there’s a growing push for an overhaul of the digital economy, with the foundation of a decentral and open infrastructure of the internet. At its core, this ideology criticizes the way tech companies have been able to privatize the open space of the internet in the past decades and seeks technological alternatives. The strength of this new ideology could have more severe consequences for the revenue model of big tech than Biden’s policy.

At this point, it’s not easy to draw any straightforward conclusion about the consequences of Biden’s first term for big tech. Despite stricter regulation, big tech seems to be headed for a period of amity under Biden, but with subterranean long-term insecurities that could result in some heavy blows for companies.

Implications

  • Compared to Trump, Biden will undoubtedly be more eager to cooperate with Europe, but this doesn’t pertain to tech policy. In this regard, the EU and U.S. have drifted apart in the past years, among other issues because of privacy and data regulation, and Biden apparently doesn’t intend to change much about that.

  • In addition, though at first glance Biden seems tougher on big tech fiscally and appears to comply with Europe’s desire to tax American tech companies more fairly abroad, when we look closely, it’s clear that he plans to give big tech free rein in certain fiscal areas to remain a strong competitor of foreign counterparts. European countries, for instance, have been pressing for years for a tax on digital services that would affect mainly American tech companies, but Biden – like his predecessors – isn’t likely to respond to this call. Biden, it seems, wants to limit the power of big tech somewhat, without inordinately weakening Silicon Valley economically.

  • Nevertheless, there is still agreement and room for mutual inspiration. Europe is able to indirectly exert influence with its own tech policy. The European model of internet and the local legislation that’s derived from it could inspire other democratic countries (e.g. GDPR, Digital Services Act, etc.), including the U.S. In 2018 the GDPR, for example, led to similar privacy legislation in California, which, in one fell swoop, gave forty million Americans the right to request their data, correct it if necessary and prohibit its sale to third parties.

The future of Trumpism

After four years, it seems Donald Trump will be leaving the White House. But his influence on American politics and society will remain undiminished, even after his electoral defeat. When we distinguish between Donald Trump as a person and reflect on “Trumpism” as a movement, a number of important sociocultural developments and tensions come to light.

Our observations

  • Trump was invaluable to the memeconomy with his utterances, facial expressions, narcissistic personality, and the occasional mysterious post. Memes played an important part in the Trump campaigns of both 2016 and 2020, and Trump was even proclaimed “meme God” for proving that the power of memes is real.
  • In the nearly four years of Trump’s presidency, many structural wrongs have come to light and specific interest groups have explicitly spoken out on behalf of their cause. Examples are #MeToo, since October 2017 (sexual abuse), Extinction Rebellion and Friday for Future (climate change), both initiated in 2018, Black Lives Matter (racial inequality) since 2018 and gaining growing support, feminist groups against “toxic masculinity” (gender equality), but also conspiracy theorists such as QAnon and increasingly popular militias and anti-government groups such as Proud Boys and Boogaloo, and the Oath Keepers and American Contingency.
  • Our values, norms and customs, traditions and historical consciousness, as well as our technology are changing increasingly fast because of the information revolution and digitalization. On the one hand, this has given our modern societies and economies more cultural freedom than ever before, but on the other, the relatively stable sociocultural equilibrium of our society is disrupted by it. On a societal level, this results in movements that resist this (e.g. populism, escapism), while on a phenomenological level, more and more people suffer from psychological problems, because the natural “rhythm” of their experience of reality is disrupted. This manifests itself in an altered “structure of feeling” characteristic of our time, which is expressed, for example, in new forms of art and the cultural evolution of film genres (e.g. horror or humor), video games and
  • Lawrence Grossberg opens his recent book Under the Cover of Chaos (2019) with “The most obvious and pervasive feature of Trump’s highly visible and almost entertaining … if also terrifying performance, is the normalization of a frenetic chaos and hyperactivism” (p.3). The consequence of this, according to Grossberg, is that support for anti-reactionary (i.e. the New Right) groups with an authoritarian, conservative agenda, is growing amidst this chaos and confusion. In the past years, there have been more books of this kind that posit that Trump actively creates chaos and disorder around him, such as with his daily working method regarding political files, his staff choices at the State Department, the strategic deployment of fake news and misinformation, and the history of his own business empire.
  • Three years ago, we wrote about the historical repetition of periods of “crisis” and that we’re in the midst of a twenty-year crisis period that began with the financial crisis of 2007 and would change into a wider socio-political crisis in the coming years. The book The Fourth Turning: An American Prophecy – What the Cycles of History Tell Us About America’s Next Rendezvous with Destiny (1997) by William Strauss and Neil Howe shows that the history of the U.S. knows several periods of crisis in which social and political systems were criticized, followed by a “high” period of growing trust in public institutions and a feeling of collective consciousness and recognition of the value of societal goals. In a recent book, George Friedman writes that the U.S. will experience both a transition of the socio-economic as well as the institutional cycle in the coming decade. The title of the book is The Storm Before the Calm: America’s Discord, the Coming Crisis of the 2020s, and the Triumph Beyond (2020), because the transition from such a cycle to another is always accompanied by enormous social and political disruption, followed by a new period of stability.

Connecting the dots

In the coming months, Donald Trump will be leaving the White House (or not?) and it appears as though the U.S. will change direction under Joe Biden. Nonetheless, it remains to be seen whether and if so, how, the U.S. will rid itself of Trump’s legacy. Because when we set aside the person Donald Trump and reflect on the underlying Trumpism, if we consider Donald Trump a junction at which underlying trends meet that form the Trumpian paradigm, we are better able to see the fundamental forcefield that led to the rise of Trump. Here, we reflect on the sociocultural domain so as to better understand what Trumpism represents.

First, Trumpism definitively ushered in a post-truth era. From the perspective of cultural history, we’ve seen strong criticism since the 1960s of the idea of an objective, universal truth, as propagated by modern philosophy with an emphasis on deconstruction, perspectivism and relativism. Trumpism builds on this by giving this epistemological transition a concrete, political reality. On the one hand, this is happening because Trumpism effectively uses new modes of expression and epistemic strategies made possible by the internet and social media, such as fake news, filter bubbles, zone flooding and information overload. Due to fragmentation, our shared, collective reality with set standards is increasingly declining, and it’s becoming less and less clear how to act in it, what we should believe and how to position ourselves, though the number of perspectives on this has multiplied. As a consequence, a lot of people have become more critical of the process of arriving at the truth and acquiring knowledge, and the postmodern, critical mind has now become a social and political reality and the previously purely theoretical epistemological issues have gained societal relevance since the sixties.

On the other hand, Trumpism is also part of the ocular democracy of the past years that is facilitated by social media, where the performance or “spectacle” is deemed more important than the substance of whatever claim is made. Trump himself is a showman, who cares more about his own performance than the truth of his claims and has caused the fragmentation of truth to now also be a societal and political phenomenon. But in addition to undermining the modern idea of truth with postmodern irony and deconstruction, Trumpism also brings a new perspective on knowledge and our experience of the truth: Trumpism can be understood as a complex, metamodern phenomenon. We’ve written before that this applies to the coronavirus as well: the coronavirus is a complex phenomenon that we can understand and view from different perspectives, analyses and solutions have a high degree of moral ambivalence, and it’s a constitutive element of the Earth or the world population as a superorganism because all means and attention are directed towards it. This also applies to Trumpism: the rise and attraction of Trumpism should be understood from different perspectives (e.g. economy, media, geopolitics), debates concerning Trumpism inspire spirited moral discussions, and, far more so than with other American presidents, everyone has an opinion about Trump and what he stands for. So, underneath Trumpism, we see the tension between ideology and irony, and with that, the tension between modernism and postmodernism in political manifestation. That’s why “authenticity” is such an important value of Trumpism, meaning that politicians should be concerned with concrete problems people have, so as not to become alienated from citizens, and leaders should embody and convey a truly experienced sense of life.

But what is this sense of life? We’ve now known for more than a hundred years that God is dead, but we’re still burdened by a nihilistic base mood and there are no Grand Narratives anymore. Trumpism is the nihilistic wrecking ball or “sledgehammer” pur sang, killing all sacred cows and challenging everyone and everything. With this, it also activates all interest groups to participate and raise their voice in the societal debate: from sustainability advocates to those that address structural wrongs to groups previously living on the fringe of society. This is how Trump facilitates an enormous memeplex of groups with certain narratives in search of meaning and recognition of their ideas and interests. It’s no coincidence then, that Black Lives Matter, climate movements, feminist groups, but also the far-left and far-right have reared their heads in the past four years under Trump. Precisely because Trump has such aggressive and provoking methods, everyone is forced to relate to this somehow, which brings up for discussion more and more social and cultural themes. Now that this critical societal genie is out of the bottle, it won’t be easy to put it back. This begs the important question how we can still organize a substantial, societal discourse in which we seek common ground.

Finally, Trumpism also represents a forcefield that feeds and thrives on chaos and disruption. On the one hand, this is a reaction to the disruptive impact of globalization and digitalization on our daily lives and societies. In a state of flux and immense transition, it’s appealing to resort to the familiar (e.g. Trump’s nostalgic Make America Great Again) as well as cling to strong, authoritarian leaders in these times of great change. On the other hand, Trumpism in fact responds to this by actively propagating and exacerbating chaos and confusion. We’ve written before that in our late-modern society, there’s a deep, latent desire for collapse. This stems from the belief that the current social, economic and political systems are so stuck or corrupt that it’s better if they perish entirely than for us to improve them incrementally. This makes Trumpism a manifestation of accelerationism, that would have us accelerate societal, economic and technological changes to ensure creative social destruction. This theme has always played a role in American history, as the work of Friedman and that of Strauss and Howe shows.

In the context of these four trends, Trumpism is the necessary negative force that wants to alert us to the shortcomings and structural flaws of social and cultural systems but is unable to formulate an answer to this itself. At the same time, completely ignoring Trumpism is not the answer either, neither is concealing, outlawing or criticizing it as a whole. In the ongoing dialectic of historical and cultural development, new paradigms and solutions will therefore relate positively to it. Only when the positive aspects of Trumpism are erased (e.g. cultivating a critical mind regarding knowledge and truth, complexity thinking, the search for authenticity in the midst of accelerating and systemic change) can a robust and politically innovative socio-cultural narrative for the future be formulated.

Implications

  • In this note, we focus on the sociocultural domain of Trumpism, but there are other domains where Trumpism has arisen as a coherent paradigm. Geopolitically, Trumpism represents a retreating movement of countries from the world, with a stronger emphasis on national and global interests. In Trump’s own words: “The future does not belong to globalists. The future belongs to patriots”. Trumpism is therefore compatible with a shifting world order and new hegemonic cycle, and facilitates international “communicative action”, with which other, non-Western countries can highlight their own “narratives” (e.g. political-economic ideas, ideas about ethics, nature and being human).

  • Economically, since the financial crisis of 2008, we’ve been seeing fewer signs of the process of globalization. Trump both accelerates the process of de-globalization, with his protectionist measures and the trade war with China, for instance, but he also represents a new phase in the continuous historical evolution of globalization in which geopolitical, demographic and economic relations can change to such an extent that countries can no longer determine the rules of play of globalization and international economy. Trumpism is thus also a form of selfishness, as countries no longer seek win-win situations, but view the world as a Hobbesian state of nature with a zero-sum battle of all against all.

Are we sharing enough data?

Written by Sjoerd Bakker
October 22, 2020

The world is rapidly digitalizing, and the deployment of data offers many opportunities for economic development, achieving sustainability and a better quality of life. There are, however, considerable concerns about the misuse of (personal) data and undesirable outcomes of unbridled use of data. These concerns are legitimate, but we’re also running the risk of becoming too defensive when it comes to data, missing out on big opportunities and, more importantly, our selective opposition to data sharing may have undesirable effects.

Our observations

  • The implementation of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) has, according to an evaluation by the European Commission, worked well when it comes to “empowering” consumers and giving them more insight into and control over the use of their personal data. At the same time, this regulation is expressly targeted at minimizing risks, and with that could lead to an all too defensive attitude on the part of governments and citizens that could, for instance, stand in the way of innovation.
  • The so-called privacy paradox plays a large role in this. We consider privacy to be highly important but time and again show willingness to exchange data for access to information or services. This applies most when the reward we receive is immediate and beneficial to us as individuals. It’s therefore likely that a more defensive attitude towards data sharing will lead to lower willingness to share data for collective purposes (e.g. relating to public health).
  • The recently launched Dutch coronavirus app was long-awaited, partly because of a painstaking approach to the privacy risks. The chosen solution, as developed by Apple and Google, minimizes the storing of privacy-sensitive data, but also limits the possibilities for researchers and policymakers to ascertain matters such as where contaminations took place (when location data is lacking). Ironically, some governments therefore actually asked for less protection of privacy than the tech parties were willing to offer.
  • When only or mostly contextual data is used, the risk of bias increases, along with the risk of undesirable consequences such as discrimination and the reinforcement of socio-economic inequality. This happens, for example, when predictive policing leads to higher deployment of police services in neighborhoods with above average crime rates, which then almost unavoidably leads to higher rates of reported crime. Another example is that theft insurance costs more in neighborhoods or cities with a bad (statistical) reputation, even when the individual takes all the necessary precautions to secure their belongings.

Connecting the dots

Like the great technologies of our past, digital technology enables us to increase our wealth and, more importantly, actually improve our well-being. On the one hand, technology can have direct financial benefits, such as cheaper services or more efficient use of energy and resources. On the other hand, and perhaps more crucially, technology enables us to improve our quality of life by facilitating matters such as better healthcare or a cleaner living environment. Opportunities are arising in our own daily lives as citizens and consumers, as well as in the public space, where we can organize matters more intelligently, better, more honestly and in a cleaner way. Data is the most vital resource in this, as data and the knowledge and insights it yields can help us to make existing processes more efficient or otherwise smarter and better. Along with all these promising prospects the datafied society offers, the other side of the coin is that there are great concerns over the use of (personal) data and the possible violation of our right to privacy and, worse, our civil rights. The societal and political knee-jerk reaction to this is to limit data sharing as much as possible in hopes of eliminating as many risks as possible. It’s questionable, however, whether this is the right and most productive approach.

First, this is causing us to miss out on great opportunities, for individuals and society as a whole. This can never be a valid argument for releasing all possible data to solve any problem that needs fixing. We have to be more fastidious about this issue and ask ourselves to what purposes we’re willing to allow the use of our data. At the moment, there seems to be an imbalance, in that we are willing to offer up our data to various (relatively anonymous) tech companies without asking any questions or setting conditions. Though this yields clear “rewards”, these rewards are often not related to the data we release or generate. In fact, we often don’t even know what they (can) do with our data, outside of personalizing the ads we see. We’re much more cautious with parties closer to us (such as the government or health insurers) and with applications in which the purpose of using our data is clear, visible and more concrete (such as the coronavirus app). In other words, the clearer and more concrete the value of our data is, the more reluctant we are to release it. That might make sense, because it’s easier for use to imagine our data being misused (e.g. resulting in higher health insurance premiums), but it should also be clear how this, most valuable, data could work to our own or collective advantage.

Second, we’re running the risk that, in the absence of reliable and/or individual data, inaccurate, incomplete or contextual data will be used, potentially resulting in disadvantageous decisions. That is, the role of data will certainly expand because of the promise it holds and the ubiquitous tendency to ascribe importance to anything that’s measurable. Conversely, we also have the tendency to reduce “problems” to what is easily scaled and solved by means of (digital) technology (which Evgeni Morozov calls solutionism). This implies that it’s clearly in our best interest to make sure that data about ourselves is in fact complete and accurate. If it’s not, we will be subject to judgment and treatment based on non-specific data that’s publicly accessible (e.g. features of the neighborhood we live in).

As mentioned, the promise of the datafied society is now at odds with concerns over the use of personal data. The only possible way to reconcile these two will be to develop systems that enable citizens to explicitly release data to parties that will use it for something of value, without relinquishing all control of their data. It’s also imperative that it becomes much clearer what these parties use the data for exactly and how this benefits the citizen or society as a whole. Many initiatives have already attempted to develop this kind of system and fix the internet, but there hasn’t been any real breakthrough as of yet. Hopefully, our (selectively) defensive attitude towards data sharing will eventually make way for a more wholehearted embrace of these systems that enable us to get the best out of our data.

Implications

  • There is a growing need for data management systems with which citizens can govern the use of their personal data and the data they produce through their everyday practices. Governing should not necessarily imply a strong focus on privacy or not-sharing of data. Individuals and society as a whole have a lot to gain from sharing data with others and allowing third parties to cooperate on the basis of such (possibly anonymized or aggregated data)

  • Developing and managing such a system is not necessarily a task for private companies or governments; there are good reasons not to trust either of them to the full. Both may be involved to maintain a balance between interests, but solutions fully owned by users (e.g. using a decentralized infrastructure) may also emerge.

The sharing economy is dead, long live the rental economy

Written by Sjoerd Bakker
October 22, 2020

After hearing a lot about the sharing economy in the past ten years, the craze now seems to have passed. Society is more critical of the use of the term and the actual added value of platforms that offer these services. However, this doesn’t mean that the as-a-service-model has become any less popular. In fact, the coronavirus crisis seems to create even more demand for access to products and services at low cost and with minimal obligations. The difference is that this is now grouped under the much more pragmatic heading of the “rental economy”.

Our observations

  • The term sharing economy has been bandied about in the past decade by various digital platforms in order to portray themselves favorably. The term suggests that platforms and services make valuable contributions to society. That is, that they bring people closer together and liberate the world from its abundance of things. Misuse of the term by companies that are actually not a part of the sharing economy has considerably weakened the craze surrounding the sharing economy.
  • Whereas the sharing economy is essentially based in consumer-to-consumer services, the rental economy, now coming (back) in vogue, is more focused on business-to-consumer services. The use of this term as opposed to the more idealistic “sharing economy” reflects a pragmatic shift, both rhetorically as well as regarding the services referred to. In the rental economy, low costs and minimal obligations are the main objectives.
  • A number of these rental services initially suffered because of the coronavirus crisis. Especially services to do with travel and mobility were hit hard at first. Airbnb and car rental services are examples of this. Now, these and other rental companies have found ways to profit from the coronavirus crisis (e.g. by providing an alternative to public transportation or offering temporary workspaces). Business models based on temporary use are as old as the economy itself. Since the early days of the car industry, cars have been rented out to people who can’t afford their own car or only need one occasionally. Telephone companies such as AT&T even obligated their customers to rent phones from them, supposedly so they could guarantee the quality of the phone connection.
  • Because of digitalization, a lot of things or spaces can now be rented out that previously could not. First, this is because supply from large numbers of providers and demand can be more efficiently brought together, with digital means of communication also awakening much latent supply and demand to become manifest (e.g. people with a car in the driveway who would be open to renting it out can do so more easily by signing up to a platform, while people with a smartphone can quickly find a car near them). Second, administration costs have decreased dramatically, making it more lucrative to process modest transactions (from cheap products to short-term rentals).

Connecting the dots

One of the most significant promises of digitalization is that it can make a wide array of transactions simpler and cheaper. This is where especially the rental, lending and sharing platforms excel; they enable us to have a simple and real-time overview of the availability of various goods, to book them and pay. This provides us access to an assortment of products and services, without having to purchase anything or being tied down by long-term contracts.

In the past decade, the term sharing economy was widely applied. In the ideal sharing economy, consumers offer their own means when they’re not using them themselves. This allows for all sorts of capital goods to be used more efficiently, leading to a decrease in the use of natural resources and pollution in the manufacture of these goods. This would enable consumers to (partly) earn back their investment and increase their wealth. Moreover, the sharing economy would stimulate social cohesion by bringing people together and could revive old practices of shared ownership.

Now, the term sharing economy has lost much of its cachet and, both in the framing of this market as well as in the services involved, we’re seeing a shift to a more traditional rental economy.  The framing of the sharing economy has been done away with because the practice has failed to live up to the ideal, with all sorts of companies claiming to be part of the sharing economy without actually contributing anything in regard to the values the sharing economy purportedly upholds. Many of these companies (such as Uber) are in fact more a part of the gig economy or operate partly or entirely in a traditional rental market (such as Airbnb). As such, these companies have failed to contribute anything to achieve the societal goals of the sharing economy. With respect to the services involved, we can now carefully conclude that real consumer-to-consumer sharing is not without disadvantages. Although digital platforms are specifically able to bring together supply and demand and facilitate financial transactions, this doesn’t mean the transaction is always smooth, cheap or fair in the end. In practice, the use of a private share car is more complicated than hiring a car from a 24-hour car rental service; think of the key exchange and possible damage claims. On the side of the private provider, there are still high costs involved; a rented-out residence needs to be cleaned afterwards and acquiring good ratings requires time and effort. In other words, amateurism is inhibiting the growth of the real sharing economy.

Nonetheless, the demand for cheap and temporary services is increasing and the (digital) rental economy is eagerly playing into this. Before the coronavirus crisis, it was already clear that the as-a-service model, in mobility for instance, caters to the needs of new generations. The crisis has enhanced this. First, because it has led to a demand for temporary solutions, e.g. regarding work space and office furniture and personal mobility solutions. In the longer term, the crisis will also leave us with lasting economic and societal trauma, and chances are that many of us will not be very eager to commit to any long-term obligations for fear that another crisis, of any nature, will create problems for us. This kind of no-strings-attached mentality plays into the hands of as-a-service providers.

The rhetorical and factual transition from a sharing economy to a rental economy is also interesting and relevant with respect to the long-term success of this kind of service. We could view this as the unmasking of the supposedly socially committed millennial. The sharing economy has specifically fed into this image, with its ideals such as cohesion and sustainability, but it now appears that millennials mostly want user-friendly services at low cost and with minimal obligations. In the longer term, this offers better (economic) perspective for providers of rental services than the “youthful idealism” aimed for by the sharing economy. The same appears to apply to Gen Z, who are said to have had an overprotective upbringing, causing in them a strong aversion to any potential source of worry. The success of Swapfiets is telling in this respect; Gen Z are more than willing to pay for services that relieve them of responsibilities.

Implications

  • The pragmatic transition from the sharing economy to the rental economy means that the platforms offering services of the latter kind are likely to be successful in the long-term, as they are less dependent on ideals that may go out of fashion. Nonetheless, the professional rental economy could still contribute to a more efficient use of resources and goods and serve (some of) the ideals of the sharing economy in this way.

  • With the label of the rental economy, these parties are now once again expressly part of the regular economy, subjecting them to stronger regulation (already visible in the fact that Airbnb and its lessors are now treated more like regular hotels in many places).

  • The demand for professional rental services, not offered by “amateurs”, will also compel some of the platforms to operate in a more “asset-heavy” way. This trend was already incited by an increased need among platforms to gain more control over the user experience and acquire more data with their own hardware. This does mean, however, that because of the investment costs, these platforms will be less scalable and there will be less of a winner-takes-all dynamic.