Category

The Macroscope

Biden’s America on the world stage

Written by Alexander van Wijnen
January 14, 2021

Looking back on the period of 2000-2020 conjures up a gloomy picture of U.S. global leadership: from the unilateral war of Bush and the failed multilateralism of Obama to the unilateral sanctions of Trump. In 2021, Biden will become president of the U.S. What does this mean for the future of U.S. global leadership?

Our observations

  • Biden will attempt to counter China by building new alliances. After the signing of the RCEP trade deal in Asia, Biden suggested that the U.S. has to find other (democratic) allies for a new trade deal (similar to the Trans-Pacific Partnership quit by Trump).
  • Both the European Commission and Biden are supportive of a new EU-US agenda for global change.
  • Biden will return to the 2015 Paris climate agreement. He has also vowed to cooperate internationally to reduce fossil fuel subsidies.
  • Biden will rejoin the World Health Organization and has pledged to cooperate more closely with the United Nations.
  • Biden promises he will call for a global summit to pressure tech companies to reform their practices around privacy and surveillance.
  • Biden has called NATO the “single most important military alliance in the history of the world”.
  • Biden wants to convene all democratic countries in a “Summit for Democracy” to discuss three major themes: corruption, authoritarianism, human rights.

Connecting the dots

If we look back to the period of 2000-2020, we can identify different types of U.S. global leadership. From 2000 to 2008, the global leadership of Bush may be characterized as “unilateral destabilization”. The “Bush Doctrine” refers to his principle of unilateralism (i.e. going it alone). Bush withdrew from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and did not seek United Nations legitimization for the invasion of Iraq. From 2008 to 2016, the global leadership of Obama may be characterized as “sabotaged multilateralism”. Obama struck a deal with Iran about its nuclear program and was close to signing the historic Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal. However, Trump withdrew from both of them. From 2016 to 2020, the global leadership of Trump may be characterized as “unilateral sanctions”. Trump’s unilateral threats, sanctions and trade wars affected both adversaries (China, Iran) and allies (EU, Japan).

How should we characterize the global leadership of Biden? It depends on how likely Biden’s strategy of multilateralism (see observations) is to succeed. If Biden, for instance, strikes a deal with the EU on China or devises an alternative global trade deal, he may succeed where Obama failed. However, it is more likely that Biden’s multilateralism will reap even fewer rewards than Obama’s. Most importantly, the EU is unlikely to agree to U.S. demands to counter China, whereas a global trade deal at the scale of RCEP is unlikely given Biden’s electoral promises around trade. Such “strategic impasses” could render Biden a mere caretaker when it comes to U.S. global leadership, although smaller “multilateral wins” are likely (e.g. the Paris Agreement, WHO).

When a “strategic impasse” turns Biden into a caretaker, we should draw on what the previous decades of U.S. global leadership have taught us. The U.S. chose to unilaterally destabilize a region, then failed to reach its goals through multilateralism, then chose to unilaterally pressure both its adversaries and its allies, and then, in our scenario, again failed to realize its goals through multilateralism. To be sure, there is also an ideological force at play –both Republican presidents opted for unilateralism and both Democratic presidents opted or will opt for multilateralism.

However, there is a deeper force at play as well. It is the decline of U.S. global leadership: from unilateral destabilization, to failed multilateralism, to unilateral sanctions, back to failed multilateralism. The main question is how other powers will react. In different elements of the global order (e.g. trade, human rights, environment), different powers (e.g. China, Europe) will attempt to lead in this new world.

Implications

  • The domestic political situation will dampen Biden’s ability to fulfill his ambitions. The U.S. is not merely “polarized” between two camps. Instead, there is a four-way struggle (that resembles European politics with multiparty parliaments) between progressive/far-leftist Democrats, moderate Democrats, nationalist/far-right Republicans and moderate Republicans. It will make governing the U.S. much more difficult, as its political system is, contrarily to European countries, not built for such a struggle.

  • China could stand to benefit from Biden’s America. However, if Biden succeeds in bringing about a grand multilateral program aimed at countering Chinese influence (e.g. Transatlantic policy, a global trade deal), the odds of a Western front against China will grow significantly.

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.

Vaccine diplomacy

Written by Sjoerd Bakker
January 14, 2021

The global distribution of coronavirus vaccines can remind us of D-Day and the subsequent liberation of Europe. The companies and governments that deliver the vaccines will be hailed as liberators and will likely wield significant political power over the countries they ‘liberate’. China and Russia are clearly aware of this effect as they appear to be quite generous when it comes to distributing their vaccines to needy nations.

Despite concerns over the safety and efficacy of the Chinese and Russian vaccines, many nations are eager to use them. As a consequence, countries such as South Korea and India will be drawn closer to Russia, while Brazil, Malaysia, Indonesia and others will tilt towards China.

Europe and the U.S., by contrast, seem determined to get “their” vaccines to their own people first. While this may be a logical strategy from a domestic societal and economic perspective, the West runs the risk of alienating international allies. As such, sharing vaccines with the rest of the world is not only a matter of humanity, as it is mostly portrayed, but also of geopolitical power play.

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.

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.

Europe’s double digital ambition

Written by Sjoerd Bakker
December 18, 2020

The European Digital Strategy is beginning to unfold. Following the GDPR, which was geared towards protecting personal data, a number of agreements are rapidly being made with which Europe hopes to gain more of a grip on the European digital Stack. These agreements pertain to the storage of data, secure data sharing and better, more honest digital services. The EU is thus attempting to reclaim the digital sphere from large (non-European) tech companies and simultaneously work towards a strong, just and prosperous Europe.

Our observations

  • Earlier this year, we wrote about the digital ambitions of Europe and the possibility that they might actually lead to a European model for the internet. Such a European model, or European Stack, would put the user and citizen first, much more emphatically than the American and Chinese model do, and take away power from central (private or public) actors. Now, more has come to light about the different initiatives of the Union on different layers of the Stack.
  • On the infrastructure layer, the GAIA-X is meant to form a European ecosystem for cloud storage and computing.
  • The GDPR determines the rules of play, in line with European values, regarding the use of (personal) data.
  • In order to fully utilize the potential of data, as well as protect citizens’ and companies’ data, the Commission recently launched the Data Governance Act that seeks to realize a level playing field for the exchange of data.
  • In early 2020, Europe already presented plans for data spaces for specific sectors that have much to gain from pan-European data exchange. At the same time, the Commission presented its white paper on Artificial Intelligence, in which it describes how Europe could responsibly become the frontrunner in AI.
  • As regards the service layer, the E-Commerce Directive has been in effect in the EU since 2000. This will be replaced by the Digital Services Act, which was launched this week and will address the responsibility and liability of online services. With respect to financial services, the PSD2 has been in effect since 2015.
  • Concurrent with the DSA, the Digital Markets Act should become operational as well, which is meant to curb the power of (foreign) tech parties.
  • All of these measures are expected to contribute to a stronger Europe that converts the opportunities of digitalization into increased prosperity, but where, in the long-term, digital technology will also strengthen the European democracy and safeguard sovereignty.

Connecting the dots

With its digital strategy, Europe is striving for a globally leading digital economy that will, moreover, expressly benefit society and, openly and honestly, serve the interests of its citizens. This endeavor comes at a time when Europe is in fact lagging behind digital giants such as the U.S. and China. In that sense, this will be a double challenge: Europe must catch up with the U.S. and China, as well as realize a large number of societal ambitions. These goals could easily be interpreted as conflicting, as the societal preconditions could be considered a roadblock to innovation and the adoption of new technology and services.

Europe, however, presents this as a coherent strategy in which societal values are actually prerequisites for catching up technologically and economically. The thinking is that other countries, sooner or later, will have to set similar requirements, simply because their societies are also harmed by the unbridled growth of digital platforms. The first proof of this can be found in the U.S., where the curbing of big tech is gaining momentum amidst growing interest in GDPR-like regulation. By being in the forefront of regulation and giving substance to European values and norms, Europe could also come to take the lead in the development of platforms and services that tie in with these values and norms. Moreover, the European internal market is of great importance and the large international platforms will have to abide by European rules. This so-called “Brussels effect” makes Europe a potential “regulatory superpower”.

What’s interesting about the digital strategy is that different laws and initiatives cover every layer of the digital Stack, from infrastructure to data, intelligence, services and, ultimately, the governance of the digital sphere. Together these laws and initiatives are supposed to amount to the development of a truly European model for our digital future. On the infrastructure layer, at the initiative of Germany and France, Europe is working on a European ecosystem for data storage and cloud computing. This so-called GAIA-X project is meant to ensure that the entire Union will have an interoperable system that’s open, honest and secure.

Where data is concerned, the European regulation for the protection of (personal) data, the GDPR, has helped ensure that online service providers can’t just collect, use or sell all user data they can get their hands on. Other countries (and the state of California) are considering implementing the same rules, either for the protection of their own citizens or because they want (their own) companies to be better tailored to the European market.

The recently presented Data Governance Act aims to provide a data governance structure for sharing (public and private) data for the benefit of European governments, companies and citizens. With this act, the Commission hopes to create a level playing field (and end the hegemony of the current players) and inspire trust, so that citizens and organizations will be more willing to share their data, especially when this serves public interest and enables open modes of innovation. In early 2020, Europe presented plans for several data spaces. These data spaces should facilitate the easier exchange of data in specific sectors, such as healthcare, energy, transportation and agriculture. This could be done by means of clear protocols on data structures and agreements on open access.

Regarding the service layer, the EU has been trying since 2000, by means of the E-Commerce Directive, to create a single, harmonized market for digital services. The Commission follows up on these measures with the Digital Services Act. Essentially, the DSA will restrict the freedoms of online services and should create more clarity on the responsibilities and liabilities of these platforms. The emphasis here, is on the protection of consumers and service providers (such as delivery drivers or handypersons) and it will mostly be platforms on which products or services are sold that will come under scrutiny.

Concurrent with the DSA, the Digital Markets Act is also to come into effect. The DMA is meant to prevent large online platforms, which presently hail from the U.S. and China, from abusing their market power to thwart other, smaller (and mostly European) players. The DMA will therefore entail rules for so-called gatekeepers respecting the preferential treatment given to their own services, the bundling of services and making certain data available to other parties.

In early 2020, the Commission also presented its white paper on Artificial Intelligence. In this paper, as yet without any legal framework to support it, the ambition is expressed to make Europe a frontrunner in the application of AI and, at the same time, to expressly uphold European values and norms. A group of 14 countries, including the Netherlands, has already responded with a plea for a soft law approach, which should ensure that the development of technology (and applications) is not inhibited by legal barriers before it even begins.

Whether and how these laws and initiatives will actually put Europe back in the lead remains to be seen. One of the (typically European) challenges will be the balancing of interests of different member states. We’re currently joined in battle against a number of foreign platforms, but the question is what will happen when a French, German or Spanish platform dominates (part of) the market. Will there still be consensus to combat that? The same applies to the European cloud ecosystem; will that be a truly European ecosystem, or will it remain a French-German affair for which other countries will be unwilling to sacrifice their own standards (and companies)? Ultimately, the European good will partly have to take precedence over the national good in order for these plans to be realized and to prevent us from all losing in the end. If we fail to do that, we will see the added value of technology flow to other economies and will be stuck with technological solutions that don’t align with our ideas about the Good Life.

Implications

  • While Europe is known for its reticence regarding technology (cf gen tech), of which the GDPR is an example, this strategy shows that Europe is in fact looking for ways to turn this reticence into a(n) (economic) weapon.

  • Large foreign tech platforms will be confronted with far stricter rules concerning the products they offer, which data they are allowed to collect and what they may do with it, and how to deal with local service providers. They might also be confronted, even more so than in their own countries, with attempts to dismantle their monopolies.

  • The package of European measures could be interpreted as an illegitimate form of protectionism (by hindering foreign parties and supporting Europe’s own industries) and this could lead to a new (digital) trade war, e.g. between the U.S. and Europe.

The sound and cost of silence

Written by Pim Korsten
December 18, 2020

In his book Sound: A philosophy of musical experience (in Dutch), musical philosopher Tomas Serrien posits that we’re in an auditive crisis, meaning the visual is now more dominant than the auditive. We’re consuming more and more images, domains are increasingly structured according to the logic of the image (e.g. ocular democracy), while large companies are investing more in video streaming.

Yet our ears are increasingly stimulated as well: megacities are host to cacophonies, we can stream sound and music anytime, anywhere, and virtual voice assistants and speech recognition technology have us speaking and listening more, even in public spaces (e.g. in public transport, at work). But just as visual overload can cause “screen fatigue”, the ubiquity of sounds, microphones and headphones can lead to “listener fatigue”, a known cause of physical and mental problems. As a response, several (new) practices are on the rise, such as noise-cancelling headphones (originally invented for airplane pilots), silence wellness retreats, and practices that accentuate the spiritual value of silence (e.g. yoga and meditation). With sound in abundance, the sound of silence is becoming more valuable.

Transatlantic troubles

Written by Alexander van Wijnen
December 18, 2020

Since the U.S. election victory of Joe Biden, there has been a widespread expectation of renewed transatlantic cooperation between the U.S. and Europe. However, while it is likely that the Biden administration will reinvigorate some alliances, as opposed to Trump and his strategic pressure on both adversaries and allies, it is unlikely that the U.S. and Europe will grow as close together as is widely expected.

The main issue is hegemonic shift. The rise of China is primarily a threat to the U.S., but while Europe is cautious and also feels threatened by China in several domains, it is much more open to the strategic opportunity of a rising China. An implication is that the U.S., aware of Europe’s position, will not allow Europe to freeload off U.S. security while refusing to follow American policy towards China. Overall, although we should expect policy proposals such as transatlantic strategies and agendas to emerge, they will be much more difficult to implement than is widely expected.

Our image of Chinese power

Written by Alexander van Wijnen
December 4, 2020

In the past years, a dominant narrative has emerged about the power of China: China poses a threat to the “global rules-based order”, the BRI is a “geopolitical strategy” and Chinese investments are part of China’s “debt-trap diplomacy”. But this image is misleading. In order to better understand the power of China, we present two figures of thought: the multiplicity of the world order and the relational nature of power.

Our observations

  • In the West, China is often seen as a country that poses a threat to the current “world order”. The Chinese Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is seen as a “geopolitical strategy” with which China aims to build a new world order. Furthermore, Chinese funding of development is often seen as “debt-trap diplomacy”, a way for China to obtain strategic assets such as ports or railways.
  • In his article China In a World of Orders, Alastair Ian Johnston shows that in various world orders, China is more supportive of international norms than the U.S. The concept of the “rules-based order” (which China threatens to overthrow, according to many) is an idea by American policy-makers that once referred to the future of Asia and has only in the past few years come to apply to a “global rules-based order” in the twentieth century.
  • In their article Debunking the Myth of ‘Debt-trap Diplomacy, Lee Jones and Shahar Hameiri show that the BRI is not a geostrategic plan of the central Chinese government to gain strategic assets, but in fact a national-economic program in which the profit motive of Chinese state-owned companies and Chinese banks is dominant. The backlash against Chinese funding of infrastructure, of which we wrote in 2018 that it’s not structural, has yet to occur. Most developing countries actually want Chinese aid in building infrastructure. Jones and Hameiri show that the problems around the BRI are actually the result of weak state capacity (e.g. corruption, lack of transparence, structural economic problems), of developing countries (e.g. Sri Lanka, Malaysia), which causes many projects to fail. The idea of “debt-trap diplomacy” originates from an Indian thinktank, in the context of Hambantota, one of the 4,300 Chinese investment projects, in which Xi Jinping actually declined to take over the port.

Connecting the dots

The Western image of China lacks perspectivism. That’s why we fixate on the Chinese threat to the “rules-based order”, the “geopolitical plan” of the BRI and the Chinese “debt-trap diplomacy”. We’re inclined to reduce reality to an image in which the world order is under pressure because China is gaining power. But what actually is “the world order”? And how does “Chinese power” manifest itself? To better understand China, we introduce two figures of thought: 1) the multiplicity of the world order and 2) the relational nature of power.

1) The Chinese position in the world order is different than we often think, because the international system comprises several policy areas. Johnston explains that there can never be only one world order. There are different domains in which international rules, norms and institutions play a role. The question should be in which domains China is attempting to challenge the international norms. The answer is that China actually supports many international norms (e.g. sovereignty, arms control, free trade, freedom of navigation, currency internationalization, liberalization of trade and investments, multilateral development funding, fighting climate change). So in many respects, China greatly supports the world order. Then why is the dominant image that of China opposing the world order? In areas where liberal ideas are dominant, such as the development of political institutions and internet governance, China is attempting to change the norms. For example, China defends its own political system (in which socioeconomic rights trump political rights) and presents alternative internet structures to the United Nations. However, this does not constitute a negation of international norms but an attempt to reform them.

2) China’s power will manifest itself in different ways. Korean philosopher Byung-Chul Han explains that power always constitutes a continuation of “the self” into its surroundings. “The power of China”, without the context of a relationship with a specific power domain, is thus meaningless. Byung-Chul Han shows that power manifests itself in several different ways. Because China is building relationships with the rest of the world in an increasing number of areas, Chinese forms of power will continue to grow. The problem is that many news reports about and analyses of China are mainly concerned with the traditional forms of power, such as the size of the economy, the role of the yuan and innovation capacity. But there are new, less highlighted or important forms of power. Examples of these are technical standards, infrastructure, digital governance models, mutual economic dependence or cosmotechnics. What if China increasingly sets technical standards with regard to AI? What if the traditional Chinese way of thinking about technology becomes dominant? These could become important forms of Chinese power.
Why does this matter? If our image of China is formed by misleading concepts such as the “global rules-based order” and “debt-trap diplomacy”, we will create an unlikely projection of China’s future. Moreover, all sorts of opportunities and risks will be incorrectly assessed. The country is much less hostile towards international norms than we think, and China’s power is actually growing in places we don’t give enough regard to.

Implications

  • Europe and the Netherlands could become close partners with China in many domains.

  • Because of the Chinese cosmotechnics, it’s entirely possible that China’s adoption of technology in many areas will become the fastest in the world.

  • It’s probable that China will remain the most important financier of developing countries in the post-corona era. Chinese investments through the Chinese Development Bank already surmount those of the World Bank.