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Wasn't The Internet Meant To Make The World Flatter?

14/11/2016 16:03

Defining the Data Economy in the 21st Century
When Thomas Friedman wrote his book The World Is Flat in 2005, it was heralded as a seminal work on the impact that globalisation would have on us all. The Internet was supposed to play a huge part in this and with Facebook a year old we began to believe in a very different future. Fast forward to today. Power is concentrated in the hands of the few, and this power is growing. Is it not hugely ironic that commentators now talk about the potential of the shared economy to disrupt business models? In reality the sharing is done mainly amongst vendors such as AirBnB and Uber or Google, Facebook and Amazon.

At the same time Governments appear to have recognised an opportunity to increase their oversight, and dare I say control, of societies. Around the world administrations are invoking laws to increase access to data while many state actors are using the Internet to conduct widespread espionage. Welcome to the "Flat World!"

Globalisation - what has it done for me?
Globalisation has been happening for a long time and the worldwide web has certainly sped things up. It has given more and more people access to social and economic opportunities and doing so much more quickly than previous industrial eras.

However, there are still many who are excluded from this new normal - or indeed are the "victims" of this Internet-enabled time. Many studies show the gap between the wealthiest 1% and the rest is growing and the harshest critics suggest many of these companies make their huge profits at the expense of their customers.

The bigger worry is that this generation of web focused businesses are skewing communities and making it harder for them to sustain a decent standard of living. It is no surprise that against this backdrop, we are seeing a rebirth of reactionary and radical politics, and sadly the established authorities appear to be struggling to find a suitable response. We need to find new economic and social models that reflect the changes we have seen arising in the last few years, because they will only become more acute in the years ahead. Governments and large corporations cannot be left to retain the control they have today, particularly over our most precious commodity, our data.

Learning from History
Each industrial era has brought with it disruption, which has caused significant economic and social upheaval -some positive, some negative. Surely by now haven't we enough knowledge to be able to predict and mitigate the negative consequences of technology-led disruption?

Today's disruption affects everything from low income earners to middle class managers in developed nations making the effect much deeper than employment. Ultimately the danger is that this techno-led displacement will further isolate communities. Potentially it will cut off future generations who cannot afford the education to carve out roles in this world of blockchain, artificial intelligence and machine learning. Therefore the key question must be; How do we stop this gold rush from marginalising more and more people?

Take Control
The answer has to be deciding who has control. If we accept our data is what underpins this economic era, then it has to be recognised as a precious asset. We have to give it a credible value, which we can build an economic model around, but this will only be possible if we have complete control of our own data.

Governments must make it a priority to help communities to understand how to prosper and grow in a world where data is the most important currency. Authorities should help to create frameworks to encourage economically viable and interdependent communities that physically or virtually work together to build and sell products or services based on data.

What next?
Healthy communities are built on trust, shared values and mutual benefit, but of course there is also a human need for the security offered by the certainty of regular employment. Successful communities build networks of economic and social partners, who help to ensure long-term prosperity. This is no different to how it was in the 17th and 18th Centuries when European merchants travelled the world and traded. The difference now is that data is more difficult to grasp, because it is not a tangible "product" and communities need help to understand its full potential.

The starting point has to be a fundamental shift in how we treat our data. Commercial companies should not own it, and it should not be the property of governments. We should control it. We should decide who has access and what level of access we grant. If companies want to commercialise our data, we should be paid for it - it is a universal global currency that unites us. Only then will we reach a fairer distribution of wealth and economic opportunities.

It is the job of Government and big business to work with individuals to create economic and social communities where more are included, less marginalised. There is no sense in saying that such a change to the fundamental economic model cannot work. Micro-payment economics prove new business models can spring up all the time and create opportunity. Governments and businesses can help communities understand the way to maximise their value, which ultimately derives from the value of their data.

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