Marta Arniani is a member of the Digital Gap Think Tank at Digital Future Society, a creative thinker about the limits of technocentrism, project manager and Horizon 2020 expert. She designs open innovation projects, strategies and events creating a meeting ground for different disciplines and industries. In her projects, she builds a culture of innovation focused on impact and meaningfulness. Marta Arniani curates a newsletter about the social impact of tech and innovation Futuribile/Curating Futures.
How do you see the digital revolution developing over the next decade?
I believe the term “digital revolution” is good for marketing but harmful for society: technology is already part of the infrastructure of reality, it is not a neutral layer on top of the existent, it shapes objects, experiences and habitats. There is a fault line between being online and not (for instance we keep radiating data even when we are not consciously utilising devices); or between being intentional and digesting the options pre-selected by a recommendation algorithm. Also, interfaces are moving away from screens and the cold metallic case of a computer, they are embedded in everyday objects and living spaces, or in our body. This invisibility is something that has been quietly prepared in the past 20 years, and in the next ten, it will expand and consolidate in our everyday life. I have always been interested in the spaces of awareness and self-determination that we can design into it. More recently, I started to look into how this granularity of data and operations can be used for fighting collectively the climate disaster instead of serving extractive business models.
Will the future be more or less inclusive? Are we closer to a more equitable digital society?
Technology tends to accelerate or formalise existing inequalities: adding a technology layer on top of an unequal economic model and branding it as “sharing economy” (see the work conditions of Uber drivers) or “community building” (see Facebook revenue model) won’t make it more equal. If you look at equal opportunities, in binary logic systems there is no space for inclusivity: it’s a “with us” or “against us” kind of situation, which does not acknowledge the very existence of diversity and the intersectionality of our identities (see any algorithm bias case study). On the positive side, technology can help building equality in situations where it is related to making knowledge and services accessible (think of disabilities, or literacy, or women condition in certain societies). In an ideal future, equality in what you call the digital society will be synonym with environmental pair opportunities and duties (access to resources, sustainable consumption and production) and anonymity (making privacy a basic good and not a luxury one).
Which technology will be the most radical in the near future?
If you mean impactful, the combination of AI-led automation with IoT will be prominent. We will be increasingly delegating decision-making to algorithms, losing our capability to take autonomous decisions and understanding the context of the choice. The implementation of such decisions will be pervasively made through IoT, which combines connectivity, data tracking and everyday operations. If you ask me what will be radical in terms of subverting the status quo, it is collective ownership of tech services (like ride-sharing or house renting apps) and of connectivity infrastructures. Basically expanding the range of public utilities.
How should governments prepare for this?
Governments have the mandate to work on long-term goals and collective wellbeing, although unfortunately most of the time the only aspects emerging of this mandate are public powers slowness and their lazy recourse to regulation. They should be more proactive if they want to evolve in order to survive the current wave of privatisation of basic services, which is making them an outdated vestige of the past. The private sector has largely benefited from the novel opportunities offered by the data economy, now it’s time for the public sector to incentive public-private initiatives where data are used to generate public value. Take the smart city: the “smartness” there is very much dictated by the private sector. There is a lot of room for improvement if we switch the goal from technology efficiency to increasing the quality of life. In a way, it is like applying a principle of frugality: instead of optimising for the sake of it, we would be optimising matching problems and solutions, creating a market that thrives because it addresses real needs. Moreover, since the city is a space that citizens can grasp, and where they can feel a sense of belonging more easily than they do with the state, I suspect we would see an increased sense of citizenship and solidarity in such paradigm.
What will be the biggest social challenges over the next few years?
Migration will keep forcing governments to address otherness and inclusion beyond surveillance and biometrics ID, and we should start planning seriously for migration pushed by climate worsening. The next few years will be decisive for the health of the planet and they are a tremendous occasion for revising the societal opportunism and individualism that made it possible to reach this emergency situation. With this in mind, the biggest social challenges that we have in relation with technology is firstly understanding that we move in a hybrid infrastructure of the everyday and not in the analog VS digital illusion; then building a base of unalienable rights that take into account the novel capabilities of technology and reinstate people as citizens (with all the implications of responsibility, solidarity and shared goals that come with the term) instead of consumers; finally, promoting and incentivising role models and success stories of customisation, reuse and collective action, where technology is an open enabler and not an occluder of possibilities. I see with optimism any initiatives that can raise awareness around the technology black box at societal level (digital literacy, citizen science, DIY), and use it in the public interest; in order to make them scale we need more efforts from the top-down in favouring collaborative as well as circular economic models.