At the inaugural Digital Future Society Summit, Andrew Keen explained why human agency is so important and suggested 5 vital components for the social operating system of the 21st century.

Andrew Keen is a British-American entrepreneur and author. He is particularly known for his view that the current Internet culture and the Web 2.0 trend may be debasing culture, an opinion he shares with Jaron Lanier and Nicholas G. Carr among others. Andrew gave a keynote speech at the inaugural Digital Future Society Summit at the Smart City Expo World Congress in November 2018. Below are excerpts from his talk.

Andrew Keen Digital Future Society SummitI like this quote from Tom Knight: “Everything interesting happens because one field has crashed into another.” The problem in the digital age is that one field has crashed into every other; one field is dominating everything, and we all live in the same field. We’re seeing it with the media, health care, governments, transportation… We’re all digital serfs; we all work in the fields of Facebook and Twitter and Amazon, and Cisco and other technology joints. This idea of fields crashing into one another is very idealistic but not realistic. The truth about the narrative of the world is, for better or worse, a winner-take-all economy, society, and culture.

The idea of inclusivity, of democratisation, that technology would change the world for the better was the great narrative of the 90s with the rise of the internet, driving the first generation of digital innovators forward. But today, Google and Facebook are companies making billions and perhaps trillions of dollars out of the ideology of transparency and openness; yet they are actually some of the most opaque organisations ever to exist in human history. Successful, yes, but also opaque.

That’s the metaphor of the digital revolution. We were promised more equality, but it’s not the case. Out of the idealism of this revolution, out of the promise, the reality is that we live in a winner-take-all world where a tiny group of companies dominate everything. The 9 richest people in the San Francisco area are worth the same amount as 2.5 billion people in the world.

Unfortunately this new world is shaping us: this world of San Francisco, of staggering inequality, of the erosion of freedom, of the undermining of work, of the destruction of coherent and responsible culture.
Winston Churchill apparently once said, “We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us.” That’s another interesting quote… How can we shape the world before it shapes us? That’s the true challenge you should be tackling in this session: How should we shape a city before that city shapes us? Marshall McLuhan, the great 20th-century Canadian futurist and perhaps the most enlightened thinker about the
technological revolution, riffed on Churchill’s quote: “First we build the tools, and thereafter the tools build us.”

We have a timeless responsibility to shape our own societies, whether it’s buildings, tools or technology – and of course smart cities are all of these. Think of smart buildings, wired buildings, networked infrastructure, infused with the technology of Silicon Valley, of connectivity, of artificial intelligence… artificial, not human intelligence. We are forgetting about our place, the human place, in this twenty-first-century networked world. That’s where the hole is. And the future, our future, won’t be fixed until we fill it.

This is what Churchill’s and McLuhan’s quotes underline: the role of human agency in shaping our society. When does the shaping stop and the being shaped begin? That’s the key challenge and opportunity of the digital future society.


5 Principles for Human Agency: An Operating System for the 21st Century

The following can be thought of as interchangeable pieces of a new 21st century operating system, one that is constantly evolving and adapting to fresh technological innovation.

 

•  Regulation

As we can observe the failure of the pre-existing law to be applied to the new gig economy, one of the greatest issues of our time is finding ways to “fix” the law and guarantee a decent quality of work for future generations. Regulation matters, particularly at the local level. The dysfunction of central governments is making cities increasingly important: they are the most essential vehicle of modernity, of freedom and democracy. I think democracy is radically changing and that the city can become the vehicle for a new kind of democracy, as the state fails. In the face of this disruption, local governments suddenly have an enormous opportunity.

• Competitive Innovation

The fundamental problem with the web today is its dominant business model. The challenge, then, is the reinvention of internet economics. It requires us to rethink the whole ecosystem of the digital economy, from free content and services to ubiquitous advertising and surveillance. We need entrepreneurs to produce responsible products. We need an architecture that will re-decentralise and do away with these new middle-men, the rentiers of our new economy… We need new kinds of companies using technology that will literally connect people, for example. Innovation matters, regulation matters. And we need consumers to speak up.

• Worker and Consumer Choice

Consumers should be more aggressive, more pressing. In local government terms, that means that we need citizens to step forward. They need to be more demanding, to understand better, and to take more responsibility. When you build a smart city where the walls can see and everything is connected, citizens need to ask themselves what it means for them, and who’s paying for it. To say they want services that protect their privacy, services that actually work, and services that aren’t creating a winner-take-all world. To say, “I don’t want my city enabling the emergence of new kinds of monopolies.” Moreover, the operating system for labour in a networked economy, where 40 percent of all American workers are predicted to become members of the precariat by 2020, is changing with dizzying rapidity. How can we fix a future in which algorithms replace not only vast swaths of the manual labour force, but also skilled workers like lawyers, doctors, and engineers? As the most serious long-term problem on the horizon, the automation of work is quickly becoming the great debate of the twenty-first century.

• Social Responsibility

It’s no longer enough to rely on the mayor, our policy makers or on businessmen to give money back. We can all do something: citizenship matters and is the purest manifestation of Thomas More’s law. In his masterwork Utopia, the 16th-century social and political English philosopher suggests that it is our responsibility to shape the future. More’s Utopia is anything but utopian; it’s a call to action. And calls to action are founded on the idea of human agency: that it’s for us to shape the future. Another great thinker, Immanuel Kant, reminds us that with agency comes responsibility: setting goals and creating things also means being able to intuitively distinguish between right and wrong. And so, according to the German philosopher, being human means naturally doing good, irrespective of who benefits from these actions. What is then missing from the philanthropy of most tech billionaires today is a similar kind of civic engagement.

If we are to maintain our control over smart machines, it’s “very important” for venture capitalists to use moral criteria to determine their investments in the AI space. But where will these moral criteria come from? How can we be confident that the new masters of the universe are actually working on behalf of people, with the interests of society in mind?

• Education

It’s humans who will populate smart cities, not robots or automatons. And humans have to exist and prosper. Considering that software cannot think for itself, nor does it have agency, the purpose of a smart city is not to benefit technology companies nor making things more efficient so that smart cars can park themselves. It is to
serve us as human beings, citizens, residents. The challenges on the horizon are monumental—from wide-scale unemployment to the alienation and loneliness created by the always-on nature of our social media culture— and the key institution to face them in the smart city is education. Education shouldn’t just be about knowing or memorising; it’s also about doing and thinking critically. It’s about the importance of the independent spirit, imagination, and will. We need to focus on the creative skills of the next generations of people. We need education systems founded on a new kind of humanism, a focus on agency and on our ability to be creative.


Couldn’t make it to the first Digital Future Society Summit?

Download a PDF copy of the workshop conclusions here and check out the video below: