C’mon, it’s the year-end! Be positive, mate.

Okay, let’s start with a positive news from the digital world. A recent report from the World Economic Forum says nearly half of the Earth is now online. And that’s a whopping three billion or more people with access to internet who, in other words, are able to take part in almost all the activities of the digital world. Technically, they have the ‘access’, according to the WEF report, ‘Our Shared Digital Future: Building an Inclusive, Trustworthy and Sustainable Digital Society’.

Sounds progressive. What’s the worry then?

Before we get there, let’s take a look at the report, which begins with an ambitious statement, that the Fourth Industrial Revolution — which is powered by the digital revolution — has the power to reduce inequalities across the world, as a “brave new digital world” powered by big data, artificial intelligence, the internet of things, mobile and the cloud transform our lives. The report is rich with data that back this argument and ends with another loaded statement that considering the stakes involved, “the need to shape our digital future is urgent”.

Isn’t that obvious?

Yes. But the question is how are we going to do that. The report clearly says that the way technologies are transforming our lives are so fast and furious that we must look at what kind of society we “wish to create” rather than trying to foresee the kind of “society it will be”. That’s when the WEF scholars discuss the idea of what they call a Society 5.0 or the Imagination Society.

I’m curious.

Interestingly, this is the next level of society that we are building. This is apparently a ‘super smart’ environment where people “are expected to” use rich imaginations to figure out what’s wrong with them and their surroundings, and solve the problems using digital technologies and data. In fact, the idea of the Society 5.0 is basically a Japanese concept, mooted by business forums in that country a couple of years ago. Society 5.0 relies on using big data, AI and IoT, together, to fix problems. This is a step away from Society 4.0, dubbed the Information Society.

Pardon my ignorance; what were the other three societies?

The Hunter Society, Agrarian Society and Industrial Society. Now, the new digital society which can create more value in comparison with its previous avatars, can also help the world achieve the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in a big way, according to the WEF report. But policymakers, businesses and other agencies must collaborate on this new wave to share goals and solutions.

This sounds a great place to end your column.

How I wish. Now, let’s go to another piece of data released by, again, the WEF just a few months ago. This chart, ‘The World’s 20 Largest Tech Giants’, should be juxtaposed with the latest report’s grand thesis of building an Imaginative Society. The chart shows all the most significant internet companies of the world hail from the US or China. From Apple, Amazon, Alphabet, Facebook and Netflix to Xiaomi, Tencent, Alibaba, Baidu and Ant Financial, the top 20 internet companies are, according to the WEF data, from the US and China.

What’s the real problem here?

This new binary, say experts, doesn’t augur well for the efforts to create a digital future for the very fact that two economic superpowers control all the digital infrastructure and can, hypothetically for now, set the digital agenda for the rest of the world. And, interestingly, this big divide has happened only in the past five years. Importantly, no other segment — be it manufacturing, automobiles or even banking — has seen such a concentration of power, products and services.


To put this in perspective, consider Facebook’s much criticised plans (Internet.org, FreeBasics) to provide internet access to poor and developing countries where the tech giant has been trying to push differential treatment of products. This is one fallout of such monopolistic attitude where companies look for sweet-sounding shortcuts to bring non-priority geographies to the digital map. They may not take a similar approach in their home turf. Further, a world were China and the US — both following the so-called neo-liberal economic policies, perhaps, in two different ways — control all the hardware and software of the information economy will not be a place where the global South (which includes you, dear reader) would be enjoying a level-playing field. So, in 2019, our digital agenda should include, importantly, strategies to make the tech giants more accountable, altruistic and inclusive. Happy New Year!

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