SITUATING ‘HUMANS’ IN THE DIGITAL ECONOMY!

— Mayank and Ishita

From the Managing Editor’s Desk (Sayantani Saraswati): This is the first blog from the special interest group (SIG) Digital Economy. This SIG has been very close to my heart as the authors (who as also the coordinators of this SIG) and a few of us have been visualising and working on the first blog article for more than six months now. This blog aims to draw our attention towards the need to shift from ‘machine-centric’ to ‘human-centric’ digital economy to incorporate issues like the digital divide, privacy & security, automation, and governance. This is what the authors have called SITUATING ‘HUMANS’ IN THE DIGITAL ECONOMY! Read on to know more…

The contemporary world lives in a paradoxical flux. Despite the world being challenged by a deadly virus, optimists have found positives in technological progress, which is bridging homo sapiens better than before. And it wouldn’t be an understatement to say that digitalization is at the forefront of this fundamental transformation of society as well as the economy. This very transformation led to Tapscott (1996) coining the word ‘digital economy’ in his book ‘The Digital Economy: Promise and Peril in the Age of Networked Intelligence’. He defines the digital economy as ‘networking of technology, smart machines, and humans through technology itself’. With evolving technology, there have been quite a few ramifications in this definition itself. The earlier definitions (Tapscott 1996, Lane 1999, Mesenbourg 2001) considered the internet as the point of focus whereas terms like sensor networks, cloud computing, and digital technologies have made for a newer version of definitions. The attempt to part ways with complex definitions and articulate an understandable one led Brynjolfsson & Kahin to define the digital economy as ‘referring to the recent & largely unrealized transformation of all the sectors of the economy by the computer-enabled digitization of information’ (2000, p. 2).

This unrealized transformation has called for certain challenges that when combined with some apprehensions could threaten and hinder the development of the human race. Such transformation can only be a sustainable one when humans are kept at the center of it. Nation-states all throughout the globe are trying to align this digital surge with human-centric models of sustainability and inclusiveness. With humans at the core of this surge, this would enable and rebalance it to live improved and prosperous lives.

To make the necessary departure from ‘machine-centric’ to ‘human-centric’, a fresh mindset becomes imperative that takes into consideration issues like the digital divide, privacy & security, automation, and governance so that humans can be imbibed in the ‘digital economy’.

DIGITAL DIVIDE

In the context of the digital economy, the digital divide pertains to the gap in the capabilities of possession, acquisition, and use of information (Xie Yangqun & Wang Chuanlei, 2001). This possessed information gives the first-mover advantage to certain countries and areas to use this information for their economic development leaving the rest behind in this information-based economy. Thus, this difference in information possession segregates the society into two components of ‘information-rich’ & ‘information-poor’ wherein the perks of digital economy are mostly enjoyed by the former, aiding in the unbalanced development of the society (Zhang, Jin & Peng, 2011). The viable solution to curb this divide is to create a more inclusive infrastructure-rich digital society so that none is left behind. The projection of ‘Society 5.0’ by Japan is one such vision wherein the latest technologies are employed in such a manner so as to benefit the last person in the remotest part to help her live a prosperous life (Fukuyama, 2018).

PRIVACY & SECURITY

We, knowingly or unknowingly, leave our digital footprints, in the form of our location, social media actions, etc. when we log onto any website. This creates an enormous amount of (personal) data that the digital platforms rely on to gain insights and also to sell, making data a monetizing entity proving that ‘personal data is the new currency of digital economy’ (Rob, 2017). Online platforms like Facebook and Twitter exchange free digital goods for consumer data, creating a definite trust deficit in the consumer (Wendy et al., 2019). Governments these days also collect a large amount of data of their citizens to deliver services electronically, putting the data on online networks, making it susceptible to breach (Bhattacharya, 2008). One such data breach of the AADHAR dataset happened in India in the year 2018 leaking the information of millions of Indians on dark websites. Such events further deepen the trust deficit in citizens’ minds. WEF in its report has emphasized ‘end user-centricity’ and defined it as a holistic approach that recognizes the importance of end-users in value exchange and its creation. The same can be assured through 4 measures:

  1. Transparency- Individuals should be aware of their data capture and its usage.
  2. Trust- Facets such as security & reliability are diligently practiced by data-accessing agencies.
  3. Control- Individuals should be empowered to determine the usage of their personal data.
  4. Value- Individuals should be remunerated when their data is put to use.

AUTOMATION AND THE LABOUR MARKET

Digital technologies such as Artificial Intelligence are altering the way we work in contemporary times (Mitchell and Brynjolfsson, 2017). It is imperative to quote an interesting conversation about automation that I had with one of my cousins who is a Cardiologist at the Government Medical College, Ahmedabad. He told me about the robots that perform open-heart surgeries which left me awestruck. I could visibly sense the anxiety on his face during the conversation. Upon asking, he told me in order to sustain in the profession, he now needs to have a super-specialization. That is, to remain employed, he needs to upskill himself. This brings us to one of the major implications of the digital economy, disruption in the labor market that is fuelled by structural change. Even though this new economy opens the door to newer job avenues, it readily destroys the traditional ones (OECD, 2016). To tackle the situation that might lead to unemployment, constant up-gradation in the digital skills and adaptability to same is needed (NCVER, 2019). The government needs to maintain a constant dialogue with the industry and educational institutions so that the curriculum and training programs be designed in a manner that aligns with the skills required to enter the digital job market. Also, social policies need to be put into action to abort the digital disruption as much as possible.

GOVERNANCE IN THE DIGITAL ECONOMY

Global digital platforms are said to be in a monopolistic position that dominates cyberspace leaving almost nothing for the new entrants (Loertscher and Marx, 2020). It can thus be concluded that there exists immense power concentration in the hands of a few leaders leading to inequalities. The same can be proved through the Digital Economy Report of the United Nations wherein Google covers 90% of the Internet search market, Facebook has a share of 66% in the global social media market, and Amazon has control over ⅓ of the online retail store. Facebook and Google together account for 65% of the digital advertising market. These surely are monopolistic trends. The impact of social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter is to the extent that they hold the power to shape public opinions (Thorson, Cotter, Medeiros, and Pak, 2019). The state’s intervention in such cases becomes the need of the hour wherein the states should impose necessary taxes, pressurizing the platforms to comply with the laws (Graham et al., 2018). The platforms on their part should ensure fair contribution to society, keeping a balance between power and responsibility.

THE LAST SAY!

A definitive degree to which digital technology will strengthen the economy solely depends upon how well the human-centered technology approaches can be applied to ensure progressive outcomes for all people and the planet because a digital economy without ‘human’ in it is nothing but an algorithm-driven economy.

REFERENCES:

  1. Bhattacharya, J., 2008. Privacy Technology for E-Governance. Emerging Technologies in E-Government.
  2. Brynjolfsson, E. & Kahin, B. 2000b. Introduction, in Understanding the Digital Economy, E. Brynjolfsson & B. Kahin (eds), MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 1–10
  3. Fukuyama, M., 2018. Society 5.0: Aiming for a New Human-Centered Society. [online] Jef.or.jp. Available at: <https://www.jef.or.jp/journal/pdf/220th_Special_Article_02.pdf>
  4. Graham, Mark, and Woodcock, Jamie, 2018. Towards a Fairer Platform Economy: Introducing the Fairwork Foundation. Alternate Routes, 29 pp. 242–253.
  5. https://cs.stanford.edu/people/eroberts/cs181/projects/digital-divide/start.html
  6. Lane, N., 1999. Advancing the digital economy into the 21st century, Information Systems Frontiers, 1(3), 317–320.
  7. Loertscher, S. and Marx, L., 2020. Digital monopolies: Privacy protection or price regulation?. International Journal of Industrial Organization, 71, p.102623.
  8. Mesenbourg, T.L., 2001. Measuring the Digital Economy, US Bureau of the Census, Suitland, MD
  9. Mitchell, T. and Brynjolfsson, E., 2017. Track how technology is transforming work. Nature, 544(7650), pp.290–292.
  10. NCVER, 2019. Skilling the Australian workforce for the digital economy. [online] Available at: <https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED594704.pdf>
  11. OECD, 2016. New Markets and New Jobs in the Digital Economy. The Digital Economy: Innovation, growth and social prosperity. [online] Available at: <https://www.oecd.org/digital/ministerial/meeting/New-Markets-and-New-Jobs-discussion-paper.pdf>
  12. Tapscott, D., 1996. The Digital Economy: Promise and Peril in the Age of Networked Intelligence, McGraw-Hill, New York, NY
  13. Thorson, K., Cotter, K., Medeiros, M. and Pak, C., 2019. Algorithmic inference, political interest, and exposure to news and politics on Facebook. Information, Communication & Society, 24(2), pp.183–200.
  14. Wendy C.Y., L., Makot​​o, N. and Kazufumi, Y., 2019. Value of Data: There’s No Such Thing as a Free Lunch in the Digital Economy. RIETI Discussion Paper Series 19-E-022,.
  15. World Economic Forum, 2011. Personal Data: The Emergence of a New Asset Class. [online] Available at: <https://www3.weforum.org/docs/WEF_ITTC_PersonalDataNewAsset_Report_2011.pdf>
  16. Xie, Y. and Wang, C., 2001. Digital Divide and Poverty Relief of Information. Information studies: Theory & Application, 6.
  17. Zhang, Bin & Jin, Zhiye & Peng, Zhidao, 2018. “Bridging the Digital Divide: Making the Digital Economy Benefit to the Entire Society,” 22nd ITS Biennial Conference, Seoul 2018. Beyond the boundaries: Challenges for business, policy and society 190412, International Telecommunications Society (ITS).

About the Authors:

Ishita Vyas- Ishita is a final year Master’s student in Digital Humanities at IIT Jodhpur. Her research interests lies at the intersection of ICT4D and Healthcare IT. At present, her work focuses on the power dynamics between a digital crowdfunding platform and the various actors involved in the process. In her leisure time, she prefers walking over talking and cooking over eating.

Mayank Kapoor- Presently a Master’s student in Digital Humanities at IIT- Jodhpur, Mayank’s active research interests lies at the intersection of Platform economy, Gig Workers, and Technology adoption. In particular, he is interested in studying the networks and the dynamics that any digital platform brings with itself. He regularly turns to Piano and Good food for an escape.

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