WHAT will governance look like in the year 2030? I could well imagine corporations and governments around the world using “big data” (a once-useful term rendered meaningless by promiscuous repetition) to develop effective social and economic policies, and even perhaps giving more prominence and authority to chief information officers to help fortify their control and management of the flow of information — as it is already clear that the way information flows in this new mediacracy will determine how a society and economy are organized and above all, will be a significant driver of economic development.
For all the cautionary warnings of the future impact of artificial intelligence, the nature of power in the twenty-first century will be transformed by the rapid development and diffusion of advanced information and communications technologies. The unlocking of massive streams of information will not only reshape the cultural landscape of nations, but will also drive decision-making in government and support service improvement and transformation in healthcare, education, banking and agriculture. Already, “big data” makes it possible for governments to better mobilize national resources and engage the public in development initiatives — as well as foster and nurture dialogue on economic opportunities, high value services and national identity.
Based on current trends, the new information economy, having replaced the post-manufacturing and industrial economy, will be the primary cascading agent of the change and efficiency that will underpin market economies, particularly in areas such as intellectual property rights, democratic representation, institutional governance and the rule of law. As is already a reality in many parts of Africa and Asia, governments will optimize the use of information and communications technology to improve service delivery, transparency and citizen engagement in especially rural communities where civic participation is lacking.
However, the same information that will serve as oxygen to keep our democracies breathing will at times suffocate the system through the bombardment of convenient facts, fake news, falsehoods and systematic misinformation.
In the United States alone, one billion pages of information are created each and every day — needless to say this deluge (or overload) of information is already creating systems-stability problems, clogging the main data arteries of the Internet with inaccurate and meaningless information.
Francis Fukuyama, the American political economist and author sees, through this information overload, a “wilderness of uprooted institutional landmarks”. According to him, “one of the more striking developments of 2016 and its highly unusual politics was the emergence of a “post-fact” world, in which virtually all authoritative information sources were called into question and challenged by contrary facts of dubious quality and provenance.”
Experts and seasoned observers now believe that critical thinking skills have never been so pressing to facilitate the sifting through of the avalanche of data and information in this second coming of the Internet Age.
Massimo Pigliucci, Professor of Philosophy at the City University of New York, believes the greatest peril in the twenty-first century information economy is ignorance of the “brainwashing potential” of limitless unverified information. “You can think of the paradox in another way: we live in an era when knowledge – in the sense of information – is constantly available in real time through computers, smart phones, electronic tablets, and book readers. And yet we still lack the basic skills of reflecting on such information, of sifting through the dirt to find the worthy nuggets. We are ignorant masses awash in information,” he writes.
Other experts in the field have also identified the problem as not only one of access to information, but of a lack of ability to process and make sense of that information.
As government and civil society become increasingly suspicious of concentrations of (ICT) power of any kind (and of course, Google comes to mind), the battle lines have already been drawn between traditional and new media. The sociologist Philip N. Howard recently used the term “new cold war” to describe the “battles between broadcast media outlets and social media upstarts, which have very different approaches to news production, ownership, and censorship.”
Meanwhile, in the private sector, information decentralization and transparency is affecting the way in which companies would like to be seen; as firms seem to have become fishbowls — their contents visible to customers, governments and competitors alike. The worry is that social media will become an even greater manipulator of corporate affairs and image — and can also become the platform for the leaking of classified government information.
Gareth Evans, former Foreign Minister of Australia and President of the International Crisis Group, thinks that even the effort to pursue miscreants who leak out confidential information may prove futile in the new mediacracy. “One of the hardest lessons for senior government officials to learn – including for me, when I was Australian Attorney General and Foreign Minister – is the futility, in all but a tiny minority of cases, of trying to prosecute and punish those responsible for leaks. It doesn’t undo the original damage, and usually compounds it with further publicity. The media are never more enthusiastic about free speech than when they see it reddening the faces, with rage or humiliation, of those in power. Prosecution usually boosts leakers’ stature, making it useless as a deterrent,” he explains.
Despite some of the setbacks that information technology is likely to cause and the tensions that are likely to arise between the governing and the governed, the future of information and communication is set in stone — and will most certainly be a more impactful policy lever than spending, taxation, regulation or legislation. The inexorable march of information economics is on, and although some sectors of society are having a rude awakening, they need to be kept awake.
[For comments, write to Clementsoulage@hotmail.de – Clement Wulf-Soulage is a Management Economist, Published Author and Former University Lecturer.]