Friday 06 September 2019

Time for debate

This summer was a digital summer, during which ten researchers discussed the diversity and scope of the challenges of the digital era. The observation that the public debate was struggling to kick off served as their starting premise. There can be no doubt that their ideas have fuelled the debate, each in their own way. The summer should have been longer: while a public debate is a prerequisite for a vital, digital society, it is far from sufficient to achieve the kind of transition that is commensurate with these challenges.

The politicisation of the digital transition

Digital technology has energised our lives. It is intuitive, efficient, practical, helps us make informed decisions and offers new opportunities on several levels. At the same time, and that is where the debate comes in, it creates tensions with other shared concerns, such as autonomy, respect for privacy, freedom of choice, environmental protection, solidarity, equality, security, knowledge sharing or respect for people in light of the risk of dehumanisation and the exploitation of all kinds of daily actions for commercial purposes. Should these tensions lead us to massively reject this technology? Of course not! But not confronting these issues head on would be irresponsible, as they are a clear sign that we are witnessing a clash of different world views.

Acknowledging these tensions is vital if we want digital technology to become a political issue: they attest to the multiple values, orientations and finalities that underpin the development of a digital society. We must therefore dare to use critical thinking to highlight them and address the resulting issues as part of a democratic debate. What kind of digital society do we want? For which purposes and for which collective project? With which priorities and which values? On which conditions and within which boundaries? By raising these questions, we politicise digital technology, promoting its appropriation by societies and working towards various possible futures. Eluding these questions is tantamount to passively undergoing and adapting to a digital transition that is only motivated by economic concerns, that is claimed by certain private interests or abandoned for technical reasons only.

Creating a digital democracy

Digital technology has an impact on several activities and levels of our daily life, on industries and professions. While engineers and industrialists play an important role in this new world, citizens and their representatives, professional associations, trade unions and political parties, researchers and civil society must feel that they have a legitimate right to also express their opinion, whether on the organisation of work, on urban planning, on health care or energy grids. These are all themes where the participation of all the people concerned is vital for the development and evaluation of innovation projects and policies. Two essential conditions underpin this vision.

On the one hand, we must develop the platforms and mechanisms of a digital democracy. The Rathenau Institute in the Netherlands is a good example. At the request of the Senate, it has formulated proposals for this (1). The nexus between society and technology requires deliberation, allowing all the stakeholders to weigh in on decisions that define digital technology and create societal challenges. The stakeholders join forces and the assemblies become aware of it, the methods exist and experience is developed. We must continue to do this on every level. On the other hand, these platforms can only be fully developed through critical and informed thinking, based on citizen consciousness. By citizens who are aware of how digital technology influences their lives so they can choose the technology they want to use and participate in the debates that shape the future of our digital society.

Ultimately these considerations pave the way, both in terms of content and form, for the digital transition that we want and that makes sense for everyone. A path that enables us to shake off the irrational fear or blind fascination that are associated with this topic, and instead approach it responsibly. An approach that reorganises the relations between the State, companies and citizens, to shape a digital society that is able to permanently define its goals and the means to achieve them. A road that we need to urgently go down…

Julien Raone, politologue, membre du Groupe du Vendredi
Steve Tumson, ingénieur, conférencier, professeur