January 2030. Looking back a decade, the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020-2022 did more than take five million lives and devastate the global economy. It revealed with searing clarity, weakness not just in our political leaders, governments and society, but in our systems for everything from supply chains to data and public health.
The second era of the digital revolution had started to come of age with powerful new technologies like blockchain, AI, machine learning, robots, and the internet of things showing how the traditional systems and their institutions were outmoded. These technologies also created transparency that further revealed deep problems in society.
It was one of those dramatic turning points in global history.
The effects of all this were felt strongly in the United States, when President Donald Trump denied science and through his policies, personal example and divisive actions disarmed the nation from responding effectively to the pandemic. We all remember how he lost the election in November 2020, and refused to leave office, mobilizing armed militias and rank-and-file military personnel against their leadership to crush the mass demonstrations wanting to defend democracy. Fortunately, tens of millions of young people mobilized, and a general strike forced him to resign and hand over power.
The crisis revealed all the weaknesses of our underlying social contract as we transition fully to the digital age and unleash a new set of forces for profound change. The weaknesses were formidable:
Systemic inequality and racial injustice. The increased transparency enabled by the internet spotlighted the fragilities of our public health systems, with a disproportionate percentage of COVID-19 deaths in black, brown and indigenous communities. The same was true for our financial system: in the U.S., for example, nearly half of black households were unbanked or underbanked, and black entrepreneurs were twice as likely to be rejected for credit. Without access to banking services, how could they survive this economic meltdown? And mass incarceration, a symptom of criminal injustice, only concentrated these risks. In the summer and fall of 2020 citizens around the world rose up to demand fair and equal treatment under the law for people of color. Trust in politicians and the legitimacy of our governments was at an all-time low.
Elusive prosperity. Thirty-five years ago, I hoped the internet would create new industries and jobs. For a while, it did. But today technology is wiping out industrial business models like big box retail and media distribution and transportation. The pandemic hobbled others such as airlines, hospitality, tourism and even commercial real estate. Many small businesses closed for good. Underemployment and the threat of structural employment fueled unrest. Today, 90% of jobs in trucking, for example, are automated. In the 1990s, digitized networks enabled outsourcing, offshoring, and the globalization of labor.
With the second era of the digital age – one centered on machine learning, artificial intelligence, robotics, the internet of things and blockchain technologies – many core functions of knowledge work were eliminated. Yes, there was a new wave of entrepreneurism, but many regulations were designed for the industrial economy, and so they hampered digital innovation. For example, securities regulation was designed to protect an old failing financial system. With national borders becoming porous, the old ways of protecting domestic industries and taxing foreign companies just didn’t don’t work.
Commandeering of our data. Decades ago, I had hoped the internet would support our rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness in the process. Instead, the digital economy created a system of what I called “digital feudalism,” wherein a tiny few appropriated the largesse of this new era of prosperity. Data, the oil of the twenty-first century, was not owned by those who create it. Rather, it was controlled by an increasingly centralized group of “digital landlords” who collect, aggregate, and profit from the data that collectively constitutes our digital identities. By exploiting our personal data, they achieved unprecedented wealth, undermining our privacy and revenue potential in the process.
Fragmented public discourse. I hoped the Internet would bring us together as societies and improve our democracies. Instead, various factions on the Internet have stoked fear through fake news, rousing xenophobes and scapegoating minority groups. Fewer people sought to understand those who disagree with them or have different life experiences from theirs. The story that exploded before us is one of unacceptable conditions and the old establishment that created them. Amid death and economic destruction, people everywhere were “mad as hell and not going to take it anymore.”
The destruction of our biosphere. The fragmentation of public discourse enabled the short-term beneficiaries of climate change to deny basic science and sow confusion in the population. The Climate Fires of the West Coast of the United States continued to spread and the consequences were unthinkable.
There were many more problems.
The perfect storm and unprecedented social unrest was leading to an inevitable civil war. But fortunately a miracle of sorts occurred: driven by fear and also a deep hope for a brighter future, people everywhere began to undertake a new process, to reimagine our social contract — the basic expectations between business, government and civil society for a new digital age.
In hindsight, this was not some kind of academic process, but rather the result of mass mobilizations and it had real teeth and consequences. We began to rethink many basic assumptions about the division of labor in society and who does what. Old government leaders were swept away and a new generation began to rethink how public resources should be allocated, putting money behind some fresh new thinking. Corporate leaders began to understand that business can’t succeed in a world that is failing.
Historically, the digital age demanded that this rethinking had to occur. The crisis only accelerated the process.
Going back centuries, when we evolved from an agrarian economy to an industrial one, we developed a new social contract for the times — public education, a social safety net, and laws about civil rights, pollution, workplace safety, and financial markets, to name a few. Countless nongovernmental civil society organizations arose to help solve problems. It is time to update these agreements, create new institutions, and renew the expectations and responsibilities that citizens should have about society.
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In countries around the world new peoples’ congresses assembled around some new principles:
Inclusive models of global problem-solving. The next era of the digital economy could bring epoch prosperity, if we rely on multi-stakeholder approaches to effect change. By that, I mean groups of independent parties who organize around the big problems we need to solve – not just health, education, and justice but social safety and environmental stability – the right to clean air, safe water, sustainable food sources, and ecologically sound homelands in perpetuity. People from government, the private sector, and civil society could forge and agree on new structures, new action plans and budgets.
Rethinking democracy for citizen engagement. Networks enable citizens to participate fully in their own governance. Let’s rethink how we achieve public safety, perhaps shifting from top-down surveillance and enforcement to grassroots prevention and intervention. We can now move to a new era of democracy based on a culture of public deliberation and active citizenship. Mandatory voting encourages active, engaged, and responsible citizens, but only if voters can cast their ballots easily, securely, and without intimidation. Technologies such as blockchain, for example, enable us to embed electoral promises into smart contracts and to secure other forms of direct democracy through the mobile platforms citizens use every day.
A new commitment to justice. Black lives matter, just as all lives should matter. Racism, class oppression and subjugation of all peoples must be swept into the dustbin of history, along with those who perpetrate these vile relics of the past. Enough!
New models of work and education. Our expectations of employment are shifting. People no longer anticipate doing the same job in the same company in the same field their whole career. To support transitions, we need a universal basic income that supports entrepreneurialism and investing in the potential of individuals. Workers must prepare for unprecedented lifelong learning, with the knowledge that technology will likely force them to reimagine their role in the workforce. We need to transform how we educate young people in all ZIP codes for this future.
New models of identity. Let’s move away from the industrial-age system of stamps, seals, and signatures we depend on to this day. We need to protect the security of personhood and end the systems of economic exclusion and digital feudalism. Individuals should own and profit from the data they create from the moment of their birth.
A commitment to sustainability. It’s also time for business executives to participate responsibly – for their own long-term survival and the health of the economy and the planet overall. Even – or especially – in a time of exploding information online, we need scientists, researchers and journalists to seek the truth, examine options, and inform the ongoing public conversation. We need to price carbon into everything and reduce carbon emissions 90% by the year 2050. To do this, billions of people can be mobilized to fight climate change. The planet has been mobilized before during world wars, but we were on different sides. Today we need everyone active, not just governments and corporations but parents, commuters, vacationers, employees, kids at school, consumers – everyone – from every walk of life if we are to turn the tide on global warming.
These goals were not utopian. Rather, it turns out, they could only be achieved bottom up through struggle, as vested interests fought at the top fought against change.
Victor Hugo said there is nothing so powerful as an idea whose time has come. In our case there was nothing so powerful as an idea that had become a necessity.
The status quo was indefensible to anyone with a conscience. Enlighted business leaders became involved too, understanding that business cannot succeed in a world that’s failing.
And those dark and painful days called forth a new generation of leaders who united in collaboration to bring everyone into the digital age.