Category

The Macroscope

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 He has repeatedly expressed approval of net neutrality, which was instated by Obama but subsequently repealed by Trump.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.

Carbon border tax

What do semiconductors and artificial intelligence have in common? Both have great impact on the economy as well as national security. Historically, such “strategic technologies” trigger a predictable pattern of politics, as shown by Jade Leung. The pattern pertains to the role of the state, firms and researchers, whose roles change in each phase of technological development. During the first phase of emergence, there is primarily synergy between them as the state supports its firms.

However, in the second phase of commercialization, fearful images arise as the impact on security gains more attention, and in the third phase of maturation, a big shift occurs as the state attempts to take back control to prevent foreign actors from gaining access to its strategic technology. We have seen this happening in the semiconductor industry and it is likely to happen in AI as well. Part of the pattern is that some firms will cooperate with the state (e.g. Palantir), whereas others publicly distance themselves from the state (e.g. Google). Overall, the politics of strategic technology will shape the future of semiconductors and AI.

Trump is making opposition media great (the platform becomes the bubble)

On November 5th, CNN interrupted a speech by President Trump because he was making unfounded claims about electoral fraud. Twitter and Facebook have also repeatedly labeled statements by Trump as misinformation. Moreover, Twitter has announced that it will not grant him anymore special treatment when he is no longer president and will delete his account if necessary. Supporters of Trump and his ideas have long sought alternative news sources and platforms where they can freely express their views.

When Trump began retweeting Newsmax, a conservative American news and opinion website that refuses to acknowledge Biden winner of the elections, it saw its visitor numbers soar (from an average 500,000 to 7.3 million a week). Conservative Twitter alternative Parler is currently even the most downloaded app in the U.S. Trump may start his own media outlet, but in any case, his departure from the White House will considerably boost these existing “opposition media”. Slowly but surely, completely separate universes will arise, even more so than now, with different groups each inhabiting their own platforms.

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.

The politics of strategic technology

Short Insight written by Alexander van Wijnen
October 22, 2020

What do semiconductors and artificial intelligence have in common? Both have great impact on the economy as well as national security. Historically, such “strategic technologies” trigger a predictable pattern of politics, as shown by Jade Leung. The pattern pertains to the role of the state, firms and researchers, whose roles change in each phase of technological development. During the first phase of emergence, there is primarily synergy between them as the state supports its firms.

However, in the second phase of commercialization, fearful images arise as the impact on security gains more attention, and in the third phase of maturation, a big shift occurs as the state attempts to take back control to prevent foreign actors from gaining access to its strategic technology. We have seen this happening in the semiconductor industry and it is likely to happen in AI as well. Part of the pattern is that some firms will cooperate with the state (e.g. Palantir), whereas others publicly distance themselves from the state (e.g. Google). Overall, the politics of strategic technology will shape the future of semiconductors and AI.

The geopolitics of rare earth metals

Short Insight written by Pim Korsten
October 22, 2020

Last year, China scared markets when it threatened to halt the export of rare earth metals to the U.S. For decades, China has invested heavily in rare earth industries (Deng Xiaoping compared them to oil) and it is now home to 90% of global production. Rare earth metals are used in everything from chips to batteries to military and green technologies. As such, these raw materials are the material backbone of our digital technology, powering data centers, electric cars and solar panels.

Given the fact that nascent exponential technologies such as AI, 5G, and quantum computing will determine who achieves digital hegemony, these materials will become important vectors of geopolitical interest. Last month, China again stockpiled huge quantities of the strategic resources, citing the coronavirus crisis as the cause of the dwindling exports, since an outright export ban would mean an act of economic war. In response, both the U.S. and Europe are trying to secure their supply, through investments as well as new exploration. In the foreseeable future, these materials will be in the crosshairs of a great power competition.

Human death as a boost for the use of ecological materials

Written by Jessica van der Schalk
October 7, 2020

This autumn, the first human was buried in a coffin made of mycelium, the root network of mushrooms and nature’s biggest recycler. It ensures a highly efficient transformation of remains into nutrients for the soil. The product ties in with a larger trend of using alternative materials that, contrary to stone, steel, wood, polymers or glass, are more compatible with the ecological processes of nature and/or are produced in an environmentally friendly way. The product has met with worldwide interest and could boost the reception of this controversial material. In some cases, it could even stimulate new uses and rituals.

Our observations

  • We’ve written before that global problems such as climate change, the depletion of natural resources and waste call for sustainable, circular and adaptive solutions. Studies on organisms such as bacteria and fungi show that nature has a very efficient way to produce its basic elements such as lipids, protein and complex chemicals with minimal waste. Progress in areas such as biotechnology, bioinformatics and synthetic biology is making it increasingly easy to use these insights for our own production methods.
  • In the West, the interest in the workings and possibilities of fungi is relatively new. According to biologist Merlin Sheldrake, there are two reasons for this. First, technologies for scientists to fully research the world of fungi have only recently become available. Second, historically, there has been a deeply-rooted prejudice against fungi, which mainly invoke fear and disgust in us. For example, fungi were only recognized as a separate kingdom of life in the ‘60s. Before that, scientists studying fungi were classed as botanists, rather than as mycologists (fungus scientists).
  • Fungi now appear to play a more important role in the carbon cycle than was previously assumed. Studies show that when plants cooperate with certain types of fungus, they can store up to 70% more carbon in the ground, which contains more carbon than the atmosphere and vegetation combined.
  • Scientists are using mycelium more and more often to make all kinds of products, from packaging to plant-based meat, and even frames to grow new organs in. It also has great potential in construction, as an alternative building material that is both practical and benefits the climate. At last year’s Dutch Design Week, a building made of mycelium was displayed.
  • The ecological footprint of conventional funerals and cremations is substantial. In the U.S., cremations account for about 360,000 metric tons of CO2 emissions per year. In India, emissions are much higher, and millions of trees are cut down each year to cremate the dead. The use of wood for coffins in the U.S. accounts for about 4 million hectares of forest per year, not to mention all the steel, plastic and toxic materials used to produce the coffins that end up in the ground. Moreover, a coffin delays the decomposition process, causing the body to produce toxins that also seep into the ground.

Connecting the dots

Mycelium feeds through hyphae, fungal threads, on the organic remains of trees, plants and dead animals. It can also neutralize the toxins that are released in the decomposition process. It’s the fundamental link in the process of turning (organic) waste into nutrients for nature. The advantages regarding the sustainability of a mycelium coffin as opposed to a traditional stone or wood coffin, are considerable. It stimulates the decomposition of the body as well as the conversion into nutrients for the environment, and the process can be complete after only one year. By comparison, a wood coffin in fact delays the decomposition process (on average, it takes ten years), causing the body to produce toxins which eventually end up in the ground.
Furthermore, no glue, lacquer, paint, metal or plastic is used in the production of a mycelium coffin, also sparing the soil some toxic pollutants. In addition, a chipboard or wooden coffin on average needs a year to decompose and a mycelium coffin is absorbed into the soil after 30 to 45 days. Finally, mycelium can be produced very sustainably and locally, using organic waste and without carbon being released. In that sense, this product ties in perfectly with the trend of environmentally conscious products such as meat substitutes, sustainable materials in fashion such as bamboo or hennep and energy-saving systems. The mycelium coffin was thus developed from a practical perspective on the ecological footprint of our final resting place.

There are, however, long-standing traditions surrounding the process after we die. Jews, for instance, bury their loved ones in a raw pinewood coffin, Muslims bury the dead on their right side, wrapped in a white cloth and without a coffin, Hindus often opt for cremation as it is the fastest way to return to “the source”. Additionally, in many cultures, it’s customary to give the deceased various objects and to create some type of permanent memorial. In secular funerals, many of these customs have remained. With this alternative option for burial, dominant values around sustainability gain prominence in this domain, and it brings its own, new uses and rituals. For example, it’s possible to give the deceased seeds so that the body can provide nutrients for the new life that will issue from the seeds. The use of a tombstone or other permanent memorials does not appear to be consistent with this new form of burial, which is meant to correspond to the biological processes of nature as well as possible.

The idea of life after death thus maintains a place in our secular worldview, albeit in a very singular way. With this, we’re breaking with old values of, for example, Christianity or certain Chinese practices and rituals in this context. In these practices and rituals, it’s of the utmost importance that the soul of the deceased is treated a certain way after their death, in view of the afterlife. At first sight, this new type of burial doesn’t appear to be consistent with these principles, and it seems to mostly be in concordance with the secular values of sustainability.

According to a study by the Pew Research Center, globally, the religious population is growing. And yet, the alternative of the mycelium coffin has been met with worldwide interest, including in non-Western countries such as Thailand and India. It’s not the first time religious people have shown the willingness to make concessions to sustainability when it comes to burial rites. Certain communities in India, for instance, have accepted a non-traditional but sustainable manner of cremation that requires only a fourth of the wood required in traditional cremations. Generally, modern values have often been known to affect religious customs.

Implications

  • In the U.S., among other countries, cremation is now more often elected than burial, mainly out of the desire to be environmentally friendly. If the mycelium coffin turns out to be a significantly better alternative to traditional burial than cremation in that respect, people might revert back to burials. However, traditional burial grounds don’t have sufficient room to accommodate a large increase in burials. But because this form of burial purports to benefit the soil, regulations on which locations may be used as burial grounds might be adjusted. Governments’ desire to plant more trees could, for example, play a role in this. In this way, new values could emerge with respect to the final resting place of our loved ones.

  • The mycelium coffin is the first applications of living mycelium that could be relevant to everyone. After all, every person dies sooner or later, and this is one of the first scalable, sustainable and affordable alternatives to traditional burial or cremation. This product could therefore have an important impact on our acquaintance with and subsequent acceptance of mycelium as a usable material in our living environment.

The sterile human and the biomedical disease model

Macroscope written by Sebastiaan Crul
October 7, 2020

Viruses and bacteria don’t have the best of reputations. They’re dangerous pathogens and in the past century, they’ve mostly been known as the culprits in virus pandemics and well-known infectious diseases. This image is characteristic of the biomedical disease model, according to which intruders threaten our health. The biomedical disease model has led to great progress but is also subject to much criticism. In the past decades, there has been growing interest in alternative disease models with a new outlook on what it means to be a healthy human being.

Our observations

  • Microbiologists are gaining insight into the complex relationships between us and micro-organisms. From these studies on the microbiome, a more positive image of micro-organisms is emerging than the one common to the dominant biomedical disease model. More and more studies highlight the useful or even crucial aspects to our health of viruses, bacteria and fungi. Consequentially, researchers and medical professionals are calling for a better distinction between the normal, good elements of the microbiome and those that are detrimental to us humans.
  • Scientists are also beginning to view nutrition in a different light. Besides a merely mechanical perspective on food, we’re becoming susceptible to a communicative and informative outlook. Dominant in our view on food are metaphors in which food represents nothing more than energy: food as fuel to keep the engine of our bodies running. In an informational perspective on nutrition, food is seen more as a conversation, and is attributed, besides energizing properties, autonomy and communicative skills. For instance, the genes our food contains can regulate our own genes.
  • In psychiatry in the ‘80s, a strong conviction became prevalent that mental disorders could be captured in a biomedical model as brain diseases. The progress that had been made in the neurosciences had created the expectation that, in the near future, it would be possible to classify all disorders in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) as brain disease with a clear cause. Because of disappointing results, after the turn of the century this neuro-centrism was widely criticized, paving the way for alternative disease models that ascribe more importance to psychosocial factors.

Connecting the dots

Of course, that bacteria can be beneficial to our health isn’t new information in medical science. And yet, the history of medicine in the 20th century can be read as mostly a battle against bacteria, which began with the germ theory of disease and the discovery of penicillin. The germ theory of disease was partly responsible for the dominance of a biomedical disease model in modern medicine.
According to this model, there is a straightforward relationship between cause and condition and a clear course of disease, clearly summarized in Koch’s postulates. This functionalist disease model encompasses a mechanical perception of the body. Disease is naturalistically understood as the dysfunction of organs and therapy is focused on recovery and restoring the affected functions. Health then simply comprises the absence of disease; the machine functioning as it should.

Historically, the dominance of the biomedical and functionalist disease model has led to great progress. Sterilization techniques were developed, as were medicine and therapies to effectively debilitate invaders, we learned to disinfect and keep our environment “clean”. Our current life expectancy would have been unthinkable without the biomedical disease model. This “sterile human” has a resistance to infectious diseases and a general level of health unparalleled in human history.
Despite these successes, the biomedical and functionalist disease model has been under fire for decades. Critics argue that the model is too unilateral and unable to explain a plethora of illnesses and phenomena. Auto-immune diseases, for instance, are difficult to classify within the model, hormone diseases are more likely to be the result of disrupted homeostasis and we underestimate the role of our emotional life in the course of physical disease.

Moreover, the dominant biomedical and functionalist disease model still seamlessly fits an anthropocentric worldview, in which the human as a ruling subject is cut off from his environment and is especially attuned to the menacing side of external nature, a nature which can be used for human gain if we so desire. This view of humanity has long been under fire too. New insights from (among others) modern biology, integral medicine, psychiatry and ecology are difficult to reconcile with the dualism of anthropocentrism.
In the past decades, these sciences have shed new light on what it means to be human. A different worldview is emerging in which the world is no longer seen as a large mechanical clock, but as an organic whole in which continual mutual interaction and transference of information take place on different levels of existence. “Subjects” then are not cut off from the world, but only are or become something or someone in relation to others and the environment.

This new worldview lays the groundwork for a different understanding of disease and health, which have received more attention in the past decades. In this transition from the Anthropocene to what we could call “the Microbiocene”, we are given the impression that being healthy demands continual exchanges between humans and their environment. Our kind is not just in danger, we would also benefit from this continuous exchange between us and, for example, the bacteria and viruses in our surroundings. This exchange, however, encompasses far more than we can comprehend and control. In this view of humankind, the ability to self-heal of nature and the ecosystems in which we live, are highly valued and trusted.
Key concepts around this idea of health are balance or homeostasis, self-regulation, adaptation, motivation and adjustment. The phenomenon of being ill also becomes more complicated than in the unilateral biomedical model. Disease arises from an interplay of a number of relationships that are impossible to oversee for us humans, which is why we always overlook some of them.

This new perception of disease and health results in contrasting ideas about medical intervention. Intervention and sterilizing humans and their environment can lead to immediate and quantifiable gains for the sterile human, but in accordance with the new worldview, it can also result in imbalances and vulnerabilities in the long-term. One of those new vulnerabilities has come to light in studies on antibiotics. Medics have been expressing increasingly vehement concerns over the unbridled growth of antibiotics, which is leading to antimicrobial resistance, now globally recognized as a serious problem.

Should medical practitioners then intervene less, as advocated by the anti-vaccination movement? On the one hand, the new worldview appears to implicitly call for more laissez faire and restraint when it comes to medical intervention. Human hubris regarding nature should make way for more modesty. The worldview prevents us from suffering iatrogenesis, harm caused by medical treatment. On the other hand, the common purpose of medicine lies largely in therapy through intervention, interventions have proved extremely successful (e.g. in the treatment of measles and pox), and the possibility of treatment causing harm is not sufficient reason to refrain from intervening.
The question therefore begs nuance: how do we retain what led to progress in the unprecedentedly successful functionalist and biomedical medicine, while also being more attuned to the vulnerabilities and imbalances it may cause?

The embedding of biomedical intervention in a more complete disease model that’s better suited to the complexity of disease and health appears to be the right way forward. The more dynamic and procedural disease models found in psychiatry might be a good starting point. In these models, disease and health are not discrete entities but located on a continuum.
They often do not have a clear-cut beginning or end, and there is often no apparent distinction between cause and effect or pathogen and symptom. In this ecological perspective, when designing a therapy, all manner of biological, psychological and social factors are weighed against each other. From this perspective, the biomedical model generally fixates on only one point or temporary condition in this complex relational field, such as the point when a virus in a human body begins multiplying uncontrollably, thereby damaging the organs. This interventionism of the biomedical model is an indispensable tool of medicine but is thus also viewed from a broader perspective on health.

Implications

  • The current battle against the coronavirus shows the implications of the contrasting disease models and worldviews. The biomedical model is particularly suited to answering the question how to intervene now, how to contain the spread of the virus and develop an effective vaccine. But if we want to answer the question how to maintain a healthy relationship with viruses in the long term, we need a disease model that is more attuned to the broader ecological embedding of humans and the everyday relationship we have to viruses. Both questions will have to be taken into consideration, even if they invite contrasting answers and thus fail to provide governments and medical institutions with a clear direction for policy.