We need to consider what we want to achieve with the new technology. Otherwise, we willll end up with societies that do not favor human interests, Mikkel Flyverbom, professor in digital transformation from Copenhagen Business School believes.
Humans will change more in the next 20 years than in the previous 300.
That was the thesis of one of the world’s most prominent futurists and public speakers, Gerd Leonhard, back in 2016. And looking beyond today’s technological landscape, one might well agree with him. Society is certainly facing a series of quantum leaps that will potentially change the lives of many.
For trends such as artificial intelligence, cognitive computing and infinite virtual worlds are sweeping through society right now. And the new technologies bring with them a range of ethical dilemmas that we have been too slow to address in the past. So says Mikkel Flyverbom, professor of communication and digital transformations at Copenhagen Business School, head of the research platform DigitalTransformations and member of the Data Ethics Council.
“We have been regulating on the back foot for many years. Too few have seen technology as a political issue. This has created a regulatory vacuum, which is why many countries now need to actually address some important issues. So when people complain about the tech giants, it’s as much governments and stakeholder organisations that have been asleep at the switch and not implemented the right playing field,” Flyverbom explains.
The obvious example is social media. Besides the fact that platforms like Facebook and Twitter have become de facto privately owned democratic town halls, several international studies have shown that the impact on the mental health of children and young people in particular can be harmful. And when the businesses behind it are also tied to an attention economy, where technology is used to retain the user for as long as possible, it becomes problematic.
“I often compare it to the early phase of industrialization, when companies could just empty their toxic waste into the local lake, hire child laborers, and generally do whatever they wanted. Similarly, social media has for too long had free rein in what amounts to the unregulated Wild West. That’s why we’re in a tobacco moment, just like when the public realised the need to regulate the tobacco industry’s addictive cigarettes,” Mikkel Flyverbom says.
Technology must be considered as critical infrastructure
Although the impact of social media is finally resonating with the public, new dilemmas lie ahead. Because technology is evolving faster than ever before.
“Besides social media, of course, I think the next 5-10 years are going to be about the damage that Google and Amazon are doing to both our free choice and the general consumer market,” says Mikkel Flyverbom.
It also means that societies need to go further than before and rethink the balance between private enterprise and the well-being of democracy.
We are in a situation where we have let private companies set the framework and have control over what is de facto the community communications infrastructure in our society.
“Maybe we need to set a new framework for the dividing line between big business and government. If you think about the role that some tech platforms have taken as infrastructure, we would never allow a free highway from a super-company in exchange for advertising on it. And we do that today with our communication and Facebook and Twitter,” Flyverbom explains.
The metaverse lurks
In 2021, 40 percent of Apple’s investment and acquisitions, 66 percent of Facebook’s (Meta) and 75 percent of Snapchat’s were all in the XR space. The giants have all turned their gaze in the same direction. Similarly, digital consultancy Digi-Capital expects that revenues from the Extended Realities market will rise from $13 billion in 2020 to a staggering $67 billion in 2024.
And with the potentially society-changing metaverse on the horizon, it seems we might as well get used to discussing the limits of technology. Because it’s going to be a fixture of the political landscape in the future.
“In the long term, of course, the metaverse will be useful in several contexts. But like all technology dreams and nightmares, it is being oversold,” says Mikkel Flyverbom and continues:
“It’s not about being for or against technology. The problem is that digitalisation has been sold through a narrative that we will fall behind as a society if we are not at the forefront. But instead of talking about what technology can do, we need to talk about what we want to achieve and how we get there. And here technology can sometimes help, but not always.”