We need to end the neoliberal love affair with all things tech – before it’s too late

This past few weeks has shown that while we can't turn the clock back on enterprise and technology, we need to find new ways to keep the digital world in check.

In a recent Policy Exchange speech, Chief Secretary to the Treasury Liz Truss MP delivered an upbeat perspective on the digital revolution currently sweeping the nation. It was triumphantly hailed, but not everyone’s convinced.

Ideological oxymorons aside, one wonders just how many are fully on-board with the nature and pace of change, in reality.

Unquestionably, new technology can enhance lives, and the UK’s world-beating digital economy has stimulated fresh dynamism, created new jobs, and brought added prosperity.

But it’s important not to forget that what we’re dealing with here is a double-edged sword.

Digital literacy and up-skilling may have come on leaps and bounds in recent years – but we cannot ignore the fact that gaping digital divides remain – some of which appear to be growing.

Such demographic inconsistencies represent a significant barrier to a truly inclusive and mutually rewarding modern world of work.

Comparable obstacles have also emerged in the realm of digital entrepreneurship, as markets grow increasingly crowded, complex, and cornered e.g. by operators benefiting from first-mover advantage, economies of scale, and vertical/horizontal integration.

The gig economy may have taken off in a big way, but only a select few are truly sharing in the spoils.

On the consumer side, the ability to Just Eat a monopsonistic takeaway, hail an Uber unregulated cab, or use monumentally energy-intensive cryptocurrency may offer improved value or convenience but is, self-evidently, not without its drawbacks either.

Brands operating in these new spaces may seem inherently progressive or democratic but are, by and large, essentially no different to the big business beasts of old i.e. naturally driven by incentives to increase market share and profitability.

That an industry is edgy, new, and fronted by fresh-faced, bright-eyed young things renders it no less vulnerable to the lures of monopoly capitalism and cartelisation. Indeed, we’ve already seen plenty of evidence of rent-seeking behaviour, worker exploitation, (crony capitalist) anti-competitive practice, and even outright regulatory capture.

As we have seen in the Cambridge Analytica affair, supposedly innovative and ethical ‘infant industries’ have quickly grown into self-reinforcing multinational conglomerates, some of which lookfeel, and behave increasingly like states within states (or a law unto themselves).

Certain major search engines and social media platforms, for example, have transformed into data swiping ‘attention merchants’, relentless marketeers, social engineers, and unelected arbiters of truth. ‘Progress’ in the Information Age is a curious thing indeed.

Sure, the larger Big Tech gets, the more concerned big names seem to be about corporate image and reputation. But you don’t have to be a seasoned PR or CSR specialist to see the modus operandi mostly amounts to window dressing and damage limitation. Slowly but surely, we are being disabused of the myth that these firms exist to make the world a better place and ‘do no evil’; with the exception of a handful of counter-cultural mavericks and social enterprises, primarily they’re in business to make money.

The all too inconvenient truth is that Silicon Valley’s super-rich ‘robber barons’ have seriously upset economic systems, and triggered the next ‘great replacement’ in automation; they’re amassing oodles of unsecure Big Data, with no firm guarantees as to how and by whom it will ultimately be used.

And they’ve worked tirelessly to conjure a Digital Society hooked on their products and services, with very little consideration or care given to the sociological and public health consequences.

They are, by now, not merely significantly fuelling inequality but, furthermore, routinely dipping into deep pockets to keep the good times rolling and public officials off their backs.

These trends betray a political posture that is manifestly inadequate in the present, never mind a still more tech-dependent, capital-intensive future economic landscape. To expect unrestrained capitalism not to give rise to still more significant market failures as it conquers new territory would be rather foolish. Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it, after all.

We can no more turn our backs on enterprise and technology than we can on growth and scientific advancement – but there’s more than one way to cover new ground and it’s about time we had a serious conversation about our direction of travel in the West.

We must have the confidence to chart an alternative course. One based not merely on freedom but, more fundamentally, on the paramount imperative that is the genuine enhancement of the human condition. More compassionate conservatism than cutthroat capitalism. 

If we really do want “economic benefits to be felt right across the country” as Truss claimed in her speech, then we ought to set about moulding Digital Britannia in a more involved, intellectually honest, and ideologically flexible manner.

Crucially, policymakers and their advisors must work to get ahead of the curve as we begin to “unleash the potential” of game-changing technologies like Artificial Intelligence. As Stephen Hawking and others have emphatically forewarned, to neglect to implement reasonable safeguards at this juncture would be myopic, and quite possibly catastrophic.

As our digital ecosystem evolves so too grow the calls for prescient strategic and regulatory oversight. Besides the lamentably sluggish evolution of associated Parliamentary committees and ministerial briefs, the UK should now also consider the merit in establishing a fresh, overarching Digital Transformation commission.

The Digital Revolution represents a fantastically stimulating and disruptive paradigm shift, already on a par with the Industrial Revolution and clearly requiring rebooted human stewardship. What we need to see, and soon, is a concerted effort to acknowledge and face up to this, the challenge of our time.

Julian Glassford is an independent researcher and social entrepreneur, whose work focuses on economic, social, and environmental sustainability.

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