Report #AmbitionNumérique : Benoit Thieulin's Preface

By | 26 août 2015

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Empowerment of society and economic transformation enabled by the digital revolution  

Californian digital drift in the shadow of the Valley 

All European innovators look to Silicon Valley to provide a blueprint. Rather than simply being a place, it is a special community that fosters entrepreneurial drive and invention. It now embodies a mind-set to be copied. Public and private stakeholders strive to unearth the secrets of California’s digital miracle. Buoyed by the success stories, we tend to look upon the Valley as the promised land for the inventors who will shape tomorrow’s world and as the leader of the global digital revolution. Silicon Valley is the great wonderland for Europe’s thinkers who see their own shortcomings constantly reflected against the shining backdrop on show.

But, the time has come to shatter a few illusions. California is also synonymous with an historic digital drift. In the same way as Frédéric Martel mapped out a digital geography in his book Smart, what is needed is a political history of digital technology. From the outset, information technology, and now digital technology, have been beset by controversy and deeply political disputes – open versus closed networks, whether or not to patent software, decentralised versus centralised system architecture, open-source versus proprietary software, and so on. Although at the vanguard owing to the multiplicity of continuous innovations grounded in an ecosystem that survives through perpetual renewal, Silicon Valley nevertheless conceals a more shadowy side.

As it stands today, the Internet no longer fully matches up to the vision of its inventors and forefathers. Some, including its founders, have even gone so far as to say that it bears no resemblance whatsoever. The mutual interconnection between technical progress and social uses means that, as the Internet develops, it now appears to be gradually returning to the values that underpinned its original design. Networking society was supposed to have paved the way for transparency, cooperation, common assets, greater scope for action and empowerment. In reality, there is increasingly excessive centralisation plotted by businesses which sometimes only have their growth in mind, and overly passive viewing of content and use of applications.

A striking example of this is the sharing economy which is a ground-breaking economic model. At the outset, the model was built from alternative demands such as the predominance of use-value over exchange-value and the end of exclusive private ownership. The sharing economy has now adjusted itself to embrace standard value redistribution models. As the word “sharing” extends to a wide variety of measures and actions, it would be wrong to suggest that, as a whole, sharing models no longer have any alternative agenda. It does however have to be said that the headline “Who wants to be a billionaire?” on the cover of the February 2013 issue of Forbes devoted to the sharing economy seems less and less far-fetched, as market capitalisations of the sharing economy’s main stakeholders skyrocket. This was the case for Airbnb which ousted Couchsurfing. The industrialisation of the sharing economy is not unlike capitalism’s adoption of the artistic critique that drove the May 1968 uprising in France based on notions of employee initiative and autonomy in the workplace as Boltanski explains in The New Spirit of Capitalism. That said, this industrialisation does help disseminate new practices. Accordingly, lumping these new uses together with historical organisation and value-sharing models closes off the avenues that advocates of the sharing economy are attempting to open. These concern establishing new ways of working, living and sharing value in a climate marked by sustained unemployment, and financial and environmental crises.

We should not be deluded by the fantasy of a master narrative that systematically measures the positive values of the birth of the Internet against their modern corruption. What is at stake has less to do with rival values than a rethinking of their empowering political reach. Silicon Valley’s new “experts”, who are creating the society of the future without always being accountable to today’s, have not so much relinquished the core values but bled them dry of political significance. Transparency, individual empowerment and the constant need for disruption are zealously applied by senior managers and the “chief evangelists”. The altruistic political ideology underlying this position has been gradually swallowed up by the quest for market shares and fund raising – which are, incidentally, essential –, thus confirming the disassociation between geeks and politics. The digital sector therefore now faces the same barriers, dominating forces and exclusions as in the traditional economic and political spheres. Digital natives are the children of the digital age and are treated as such. Far from being able to conscientiously create tomorrow’s applications and empower themselves to combat new forms of exclusion, they are afflicted by it, often to a much greater extent than their forefathers. This is the reason why the Conseil national du numérique (French Digital Council) has devoted so much of its work to the issue of education throughout its mandate. Whilst the education system can be reformed from the inside using digital technology, it must be tasked with disseminating digital literacy to enable young people to perfect their know-how and skills to make this technology embody empowerment and commitment.

Ambiguous platform creep: empowerment and domination 

Relatively recently, the Internet has witnessed the emergence of major platforms. As drivers of innovation, they give impetus to social interaction and offer high value-added functionalities. As a result, they make a telling contribution to the expansion of the digital sector, the economy and society in general. There can be no doubt that Apple and Google have transformed our lives. These corporations have helped revamp businesses and institutions much more radically than government policies over the last two decades. This, coupled with other aspects, is gnawing away at our democracies’ traditional political leverage. The Internet is becoming a hierarchy as this sprinkling of key stakeholders centralise an increasing share of what was once a highly devolved network. Due to its networking effects, the digital environment is particularly open to this. In his book, L’Abeille et l’économiste, Yann Moulier-Boutang examines the Web’s own value creation model, that of “pollination”. In the same way as determining value generated by bees cannot focus simply on honey production but must also factor in their pollination work (one third of global agricultural output), value on the Internet originates from a whole host of interactions, traces and clicks from users. These are constantly altering the network’s services and general architecture. We are therefore changing over from an economy based on trade and manufacturing to one grounded in “pollination” and contributions.

Platforms have an ambiguous role in building this new economy and this is what makes the clear-cut criticism of GAFA so problematic. This stigmatising acronym belittles the enormous contribution made by these Internet giants to changing the world through the digital revolution. This basic ambiguity stems from the fact that whilst the platforms help empower individuals, disseminate knowledge and provide individual and collective options, they also supplant the same individuals and historic institutions such as government and businesses. To once again use the bee analogy, whilst they play a key role in pollination, they simultaneously exploit those doing the pollinating. This domination principally manifests itself by capturing the value generated by Internet users’ “work” and the mass gathering of personal data, particularly for commercial ends. It raises not only issues about value redistribution but also establishes a relationship of passive consumption of “things”, based on invasive marketing. The dominance of platforms is also creating a creeping hierarchy that goes hand in hand with the restructuring of information silos and the appearance of very large corporations able to foist their terms onto the other stakeholders. This domination, often in the form of a virtual monopoly of the market, led French Senator Catherine Morin-Dessailly to call Europe “a colony of the digital world”. Europe is the exception in this respect as other countries such as China and Russia, and more tellingly Japan, South Korea, Brazil and Indonesia, have managed to build the sort of local digital ecosystems that are few and far between on our continent. This cannot be explained away simply by the protection afforded by their languages or the fact that some of these countries have authoritarian administrations.

Will Amazon and Apple control voting rights in the future?   

The challenges raised by the digital revolution cannot be measured based on a purely economic scorecard as this domination contains a resolutely political element. The digital world is a unique space and not simply a medium for interaction– it is the new focal point for economic, social and political power. Following on from physical infrastructure such as roads, bridges, ports and postal networks that structure countries’ regions and afford them political sovereignty, “infostructures” are the new powerhouses. Organising, controlling and monitoring information flows often makes it possible to influence behaviour by, for instance, prioritising the content in circulation, the way in which it circulates and the target audience. Vertical expansion, centralisation and insularity, which are partially at play, mean that the issue of democracy and political autonomy is being approached from a different angle.

The ramping up of big data needs to be examined from this standpoint. Whilst this has already led to a raft of innovations and new services, the point it raises is also political. Power has traditionally been underpinned by secrecy and insularity but it is now becoming smart and open, free-flowing and connected. It is primarily based on data, the quantity of which is about to mushroom due to the ever increasing interconnection between individuals and “things”. This new type of power is no longer dictated by regulations and the introduction of vertical rules, but by verification, personalisation, profiling, modulation, surveillance and tracking.

Broadly speaking, the digital giants are widely challenging standard power-regulation methods and we could go so far as to say that public authorities are running the risk of becoming totally outdated. This risk extends to their ability to regulate the market in the public interest and to provide public services that guarantee equality, which are central to the social compact. If we persist in blithely dismissing the changes occurring right at the pinnacle of the fortified – yet crumbling – heights of government, then perhaps tomorrow Le Bon Coin (a French classified ads website) and Amazon Mechanical Turk will take over from Pôle Emploi (French National Employment Agency), YouTube will dictate how culture is funded and Apple will steer health policy. A mere comparison of the effectiveness (design, rollout and service provided) of the Apple HealthKit and the personal medical file should sway even the most strongly held beliefs. It is not however simply a question of making services more effective and streamlined. What is at stake is the ability to draw up and disseminate a political agenda or, in basic terms, sovereignty, and therefore democracy for which it still represents the primary organisational form in the modern world. If private sector services were to shape public services and policies, the collective ability to make choices – democratic sovereignty – would die out.

To avoid our citizens having to one day go cap in hand to Amazon or Apple for their right to vote, the EU needs to introduce a comprehensive strategy as the US so successfully did in the past. Europe needs a comprehensive and forward-looking approach which is not limited to stock-piling standards for the various sectors, nor to harmonising rules between Member States. The failure of the Lisbon Strategy revealed the EU’s and Member States’ inability to introduce strategic planning. We should take a leaf out of the US’s book, not so much in respect of content as of form. During the last five decades, the US has established guidelines for making information a powerful vehicle and growth driver, by either setting priorities for building infrastructure and infostructure or by ensuring the expansion of the sector’s core corporations. Examples are the deregulation of GPS, the Clinton/Gore administration’s measures to promote information superhighways, the 1998 Internet Tax Freedom Act and, more recently, public access to government datasets, the National Broadband Plan and the Startup America initiative. The US government’s long view is also strikingly demonstrated by its support for the growth of a multitude of startups with potential, including Google, by funding them at the seed stage.

The European Web revolution

Let us recall how much European engineers contributed to the Internet and the World Wide Web, and that it is here that the empowerment revolution – which is at the heart of the digital revolution – can be carried forward.

Although the Internet’s roots are mainly American, its founders also include Europeans, such as Louis Pouzin, author of the afterword of this report. Similarly, although digital culture experienced a long gestation period in pioneering US communities (The WELL in particular springs to mind, which is still in operation), the inestimable Web basically saw the light of day in Europe, and is very much a product of European values. It is thanks to the Web, and thus to CERN, a European research institute, and to key European players such as Tim Berners-Lee and Robert Cailliau, that the general public was given access to the network.

Europe has been the tip of the spear in crucial political battles around the future of the Internet, the question in the 1990s of whether software is patentable, and current debates about patenting human beings. European political will can thus infuse the global digital project with new meaning. We must act quickly, leading the unfolding revolution rather than being led by it. We need to imbue our digital world with political meaning, so that people can retake control of the Internet, and so that the Internet’s founding values can be reaffirmed.

The age of Internet innocence is over. The choice is no longer between those who defend the urgency of the digital changeover and those who neglect it or attempt to slow it down. The digital changeover is underway, everywhere and for everyone. Positions need not be hard and fast: several digital worlds are possible, and it is time to build a European digital environment that is more political and more in line with the promises of empowerment and with the prognostications of its founders. It is France and Europe’s responsibility to define this digital world and to introduce public policies to take us there.

 

A far-reaching French and European strategy

Such a strategy must include maintaining public stakeholders’ regulatory power and the sustainability of public services. This is the basis of any alternative scenario. The idea is to ensure that the government has the financial means to take action by introducing fair taxation for major digital firms. By building on the innovative capacities of civil servants and all of civil society, the public authorities can resist this pressure by providing services in line with public service values of equality, continuity and neutrality. Central government and local authorities need to thoroughly transform themselves, introducing greater flexibility, innovation, networking, collective intelligence, cooperation, and so on.

Europe must also maintain its economic innovation by creating an innovator-friendly environment. This would involve restoring conditions of fair and equal competition between European and non-European economic stakeholders. Supporting innovation also means that the priority of the EU Member States and the European Commission should be to foster the emergence of a European digital ecosystem through appropriate financing, favouring European initiatives and expanded digital literacy.

In this sense, digital technology can form the cornerstone of a renewed industrial policy. Innovation in the digital era, based around sharing and the creation of ecosystems, will allow us to get beyond artificial distinctions between horizontal industrial policy – designed to create economic incentives and regulatory frameworks favourable to industry – and vertical industrial policy, which is sector-based and encourages the emergence of « national champions ». For a digital-based innovation economy to grow, we need exchange, positive externalities and to put an end to silo mentalities. Structuring industrial sectors in the digital era will depend on introducing conditions for shared innovations and an overall transformation of growth models.

The European digital strategy needs to break with knee-jerk reactions and short-term support for the strategies of large industrial groups, which is done without assessment or consistency, and which sometimes creates setbacks. The end goal is not to catapult European champions to take the place of their American counterparts, or to copy the model of platform dependency and economic and political domination. In the same way, government cannot simply adopt, as it so often does, the same mind-set as the major economic stakeholders in the « supervised society » by yielding to the temptations of comprehensive Internet surveillance. With much less effectiveness, of course.

We need to invent a new model, one that puts digital technology at the service of empowerment and emancipation, both individual and collective. It will draw inspiration from the most inventive and altruistic sources in Silicon Valley (Code for America) and Africa (Ushahidi). This is the only way that the digital world can support sustainable, inclusive growth. This model is all the more vital as the cornerstones of digital technology – erosion of tax bases and job destruction spring to mind – are unsustainable.

We must fight on many fronts, but political solutions do exist. Net neutrality is the prerequisite to protecting content diversity, preserving the « licence to innovate » and combatting centralisation. Enshrining it in law should go hand in hand with heightened protection of private data, circumventing its unilateral commodification and use with neither permission nor control – hence the principal of data self-determination that we espouse. Finally, the major platforms must be regulated: requirements that they act in good faith must be established to ensure a balanced situation between all stakeholders. So that such a principle is not simply ignored, as we propose in our report, a European agency could be established to rate platforms’ good faith, using legal and technical expertise and an open network of contributors. This would leverage the platforms’ reputation and influence investors’ decision-making.

Common goods as a model for our future society

A new paradigm could be constructed based on the concept of common goods serving as the basis for political, economic and social innovation. « Common goods » refers to a model of collective ownership and management of resources that is part of the long history of « commons » – natural resources managed by every individual in a community. Digital technology has revived this concept that is the linchpin of alternative points of view, which are based on calls for joint governance, shared use of resources and the development of exchange, including non-market exchange. Thus, whether it is for the production of new goods and services, such as open-source software, Wikipedia or Openstreetmap, or the non-market exchange of skills via time banks (where the unit of exchange is person-hours rather than money), digital technology can allow these projects to scale up and demonstrate what they are capable of.

The common goods that exist already deserve to be protected against attempts to ring-fence them once again, but there is also the issue of encouraging their global development, both on- and off-line, and to make them the cornerstone of an overall shift that redefines the means of production, the distribution of wealth and our relation to value. As Yochai Benkler explains in The Value of Networks, it is precisely thanks to decentralised means of production and the unprecedented opportunities provided by shared skills, tools and knowledge that these new models can take shape and assume the proportions of a political, economic and social paradigm.

It is no accident that common goods have led to the formation of an informal grouping of two main types of demands: those concerning intellectual property and the means of production, based on new forms of organisation made possible by digital technology, and those having to do with the defence of natural common goods within the framework of environmental struggles. The two key transitions of our era – digital and environmental – are loci in which inherited concepts are put to the test, and it is no surprise that arguments in their favour combine the same concepts, based on the search for a sustainable model for the world to come.

Digital technology to empower citizens 

It is also important to no longer view these struggles as specific causes that are solely the domain of experts. Since the digital world is everyone’s domain and involves power dynamics, everyone must play a part in its definition so that power can be re-appropriated by the largest number. This is why we can no longer be satisfied with traditional political methods: digital technology must be harnessed in service of power-sharing, of a far-reaching renewal of forms of citizen empowerment. The effectiveness of our democratic model depends on it. Digital technology allows and requires this transformation of citizen action – it supplies the new tools for designing public policies and making joint decisions. More generally, it renders traditional political methods and expertise being confined to certain areas intolerable. How is it possible to still view politics as a centralised phenomenon that is the reserve of a professional class, whereas access to knowledge and freedom of action and expression are available to all thanks to digital technology? It is unthinkable that expertise is still walled off at a time when the gap between civil society and its leaders is a daily reminder that this model is no longer viable. It is unimaginable that we do not call for the contributions of everyone, particularly given the tremendous complexity of the issues we are facing collectively.

We need to remind some of the Silicon Valley prophets that politics is not an outdated concept and that digital technology does not draw a line under democracy in favour of « technological solutionism », which consists of approaching every social, environmental and economic problem as a puzzle that can be solved technically, as Evgeny Morozov has described in his book, “To Save Everything, Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism”. Arguments for and against various models within a shared space, and struggles that take place in various places – what we call politics – will not be rendered obsolete by digital technology. We need to promote flexibility, speed and innovation while factoring in the wide range of challenges we are faced with, and without calling the legitimacy of the democratic process into question.

Digital technology in the non-digital world: a change of tack

The digital technology we wish to support does not consist of some nostalgic utopia to replace the values of the Internet’s founders. Instead, it comprises millions of initiatives and the development of new ideas that have been around from the start and are designed to thwart the attempts at centralisation. It outlines and paves the way for a change of course that is underway and takes inspiration from the impressive empowerment movement that it spawned and whose impact is apparent every day. In short, it is based on the fact that the digital revolution has largely exceeded its initial remit: the new methods of organisation and individual freedom that have sprung up alongside the latest political and economic models have had a significant impact on the non-digital world. Digital technology’s influence reaches beyond the digital world and it is now software’s turn to try and conquer all. The Maker Movement provides evidence of this: this new generation of hackers is reinventing how we make things and how we work by sharing information, making plans and technical diagrams available online via open source software and by working together as an online community.

Wikispeed is a key example of the momentum behind this movement. As indicated by the Editor-in-chief of Wired, Chris Anderson, it shows that the Web is merely a “proof of concept”. In three months, a dozen inexperienced volunteers built a relatively low-cost open source car which resembled a traditional car in terms of speed and fuel consumption. By democratising production, the open source movement that promotes working as part of a community can serve as a blueprint for the non-digital world. In the “Hacker Ethic”, Pekka Himanen analyses the paradigm shift currently underway in the labour market. The protestant work ethic, based on duty and profit seeking, is now coming up against the hacker ethic, which is motivated by a personal desire to take action and work without necessarily seeking financial reward in return. This new approach is not exclusive to hackers but is spreading to society as a whole. Today, this is startlingly apparent. Innovators and creative talents are once again at the helm of companies, reviving the entrepreneurial tradition that dominated at the end of the 19th century, when the main business leaders were engineers or inventors. Startups’ business models often rely on the creativity of their founder and the marketing of an innovative technological prototype. In so doing, they challenge the race for financial reward that has taken precedence over entrepreneurial spirit since the 1980s.

Giving priority to invention and creativity over financial indicators would seem to correspond more to the values espoused by France and Europe. Creativity in every form, be it artistic, artisanal or industrial, is what sets Europe apart from the rest.

The digital transition underpinning the environmental transition: reinventing the world

Let us therefore take a stance that is not defensive, as we have tried to do here, and support a digital technology movement that will continue to reshape political, economic and social policy while underpinning sustainable and inclusive growth. Such an approach will enable us to fulfil the promises made by our digital forefathers and deal with the most challenging transition of our time: the environment.

The connection between both transitions is perhaps the key to understanding digital technology’s role in history. At first glance, it may seem like a handover phase. We are now facing the limits of our colossal ambition as we hit a wall in the form of environmental debt and the increasing scarcity of resources. At the same time, we are trying to build a new world. While coming up against the limitations of one, we are building another which is fundamentally human, has no limits and unlimited potential.

At the same time, the digital world is not separate and does not offer a utopian escape. We are not simply “brains in a vat” looking at the mirages that we ourselves have created and unaware of the material world’s limits. Cyberspace does not exist. The digital world is the world’s attempt at action as well as its actual voice. If a new world is being created, it is one with extra potential: whereas the real world is comprised of events that have occurred, the virtual world relies on the possible. For each real situation, the virtual world makes this situation possible. Digital technology enables us to ask questions of the real world, to simulate events and test new scenarios before introducing them in the real world. In other words, the virtual world is a fantastic vector for individual and collective empowerment.

Consequently, digital technology will play a key role in how our societies will deal with the environmental crisis faced. It will not simply be used to optimise energy consumption and improve waste management, even though we must make significant improvements in both areas. The growing scarcity of physical resources is occurring at a time when we seem unable to invent new theoretical and practical models when we most need to do so. Far from being reckless and impulsive, digital technology will help us test any new models we may create.

It will therefore be at the forefront of global transformation. France and Europe must spearhead this movement and make strategic decisions that will imbue this transformation with political direction and pave the way for European digital policy.

The 70 proposals outlined in this report provide details of this goal.

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