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By 2035, analysts expect a primarily digital society

By Susan Lahey

Published January 30, 2020
Last updated January 30, 2020

"Digital is changing our entire social contract, the implicit understanding of what our society is based on," said Scott Smith, director of webinar content for Gartner. Smith was moderating a panel, "The Looming Impact of the Emerging Digital Society," about the dramatic social shifts arising from the digital age and the questions those shifts raise.

For example, Facebook is a private digital company; yet it operates as an information infrastructure with unprecedented social impact: facilitating social movements, being used for election tampering, and potentially contributing to the spread of mental illness. Should society have some leverage over what Facebook can and can’t do, or is the free market the only appropriate power for a private company? And what bucket would social leverage fall into? How do you regulate “Get out of my head?”

Or, we now have the technology to widely deploy artificial intelligence, or for anyone to start a business conducting genetic experiments, both of which could dramatically impact giant swaths of the population. Yet the only people with the responsibility or authority to create ethics policies for these organizations are the CEOs themselves, who are also driven by the profit motive. Isn’t that a bit like leaving the fox in charge of the hen house?

And what bucket would social leverage fall into? How do you regulate "Get out of my head?"

Tech companies are working to solve problems from curing disease to ending starvation to reversing climate change. But since there’s not always money in these ventures, private equity often won’t fund them, and governments are often in bed with the industries that caused the problems in the first place. Will it take a political revolution to change that equation?

The digital world is, in a lot of ways, a “Wild West.” The technology moves so fast, even those creating it don’t know what the impact will be until later. The presumption is that the free market is sufficient to provide oversight, but that ignores the unforeseen problems already wrought by the digital age,

Gartner analysts Leigh McMullen, Bettina Tratz-Ryan, Dale Kutnick, and Debra Logan discussed some of these trends, how they’re shaping the balance of power and behavior of society, and what they think our world will look like in 2035.

[Related read: Keeping pace with the future—which emerging technologies are right for your business?]

The rise of corporate nation states

Governments are ill-equipped to make rules for the modern world. Most legislators don’t understand emerging technologies or how they develop. They don’t understand the fluid employment contract in which jobs and industries are global and in constant flux, many people want to work remotely, and many employees want a wide variety of personalized experiences, benefits, and perks that may not have been invented yet. Gartner VP analyst Leigh McMullen pointed out that while many countries are retreating from globalism, digital corporations aren’t. They continue to disseminate their corporate cultures, their AI, and their products and services around the world, making up the rules as they go. Some of these rules will be adopted across industries, becoming institutions that supersede the old ones.

Already, many companies operate as nation states, operating by their own laws for the sake of their own constituents, many of the analysts said. And these companies don’t always benefit the good of society as a whole—consider the environmental and social toll tech companies have had on San Francisco and the rest of the Bay Area.

Corporations have no external imperative to benefit society. But they do have an internal one: research shows that people want to work for, and do business with, companies that practice social justice. It is in the company’s best interest to try to be socially responsible. On the other hand, with no Blue-Ribbon panel of ethics experts, futurists, and social justice warriors peering into the future for these companies, decisions that seem beneficial to society today may, in hindsight, turn out to be detrimental.

Corporations have no external imperative to benefit society. But they do have an internal one: research shows that people want to work for, and do business with, companies that practice social justice.

The panel of analysts envisioned the potential for both the utopian and dystopian views, recognizing that companies are often a law unto themselves but also that they can have a great potential for good.

“My belief is that where companies and governments can exploit technology to solve the problems of human suffering and enable less stress on people, hopefully that will be one of the driving forces we will see,” said Dale Kutnick, senior vice president and distinguished analyst at Gartner. He pointed out that roughly 10 percent of the world is still in abject poverty and said technology could provide the seven essentials of life which he identified as: food, housing, clothing, healthcare, safety, education, and high-speed internet. In the digital world, he said, people live both on and offline, flitting between the two almost seamlessly like in the metaverse of Ready Player One. Consequently, high-speed internet should be considered a basic human right.

But in the digital world, who decides what is a basic human right? And is it the task of governments, or the tech pioneers themselves, to advance access to the fruits of technology across societies?

[Related read: Your 21st-century challenge: put away the technology and ask better questions]

Who owns the data?

The lifeblood of the digital world is data. Companies and institutions use access to individuals' data to make decisions that influence those individuals. Organizations and marketers use it to influence thinking and behavior. Consumers share their data willy-nilly in order to secure content, discounts, and a better customer experience. By 2035, some panelists said, privacy will be non-existent. And, Kutnick said, that could be a good thing. If, for example, everyone shared their medical data and gene mapping, it could let us wipe out diseases, alert us to outbreaks before they happen, and reduce healthcare costs.

If only we didn’t have to worry about repudiation.

“If I wasn’t concerned I was going to be robbed, or have my healthcare taken away, or my insurance rates go sky high because they’ve looked at my DNA and seen I’m going to get a disease,” Kutnick said, he wouldn’t mind sharing his data.

If, for example, everyone shared their medical data and gene mapping, it could let us wipe out diseases, alert us to outbreaks before they happen, and reduce healthcare costs. If only we didn't have to worry about repudiation.

But empowering repudiation is a key purpose of some countries’ data collection practices. In China, for example, the social credit system uses data to control citizens’ lives. And Russia has shut down apps that won’t let them spy on users. Nor is repudiation confined to communist dictatorships: McMullen and Kutnick agreed that America’s version of a social credit system, “uses one metric, your ability to pay your bills, as a de facto score for getting a job, an apartment, getting into a school, etc.”

By contrast, Europe vigorously protects citizens’ data. While the U.S. was happy to let companies mine consumers’ data without alerting them to the mechanisms at play that spread their data far beyond the initial permission, Europe instituted the General Data Protection Regulation giving anyone who does business in Europe or with European citizens more protection over their data. VP analyst Bettina Tratz-Ryan, who is German, said that Finland has been working on a European data exchange and privacy mechanism that treats data as a personal asset.

“The Finnish government is starting to do a data exchange and privacy mechanism with people owning their own data,” she said. The exchange would work like a bank in which data had an agreed-upon value and consumers exchanged it for fair market value.

The question is which view of data management will prevail en route to 2035.

[Related read: How CEOs are using sci-fi to imagine the future]

The (im)balance of power

In many ways, technology has put power into people’s hands. The personal computer and everything that followed—like the internet and 3D printers—significantly lowered the barriers to entrepreneurship. The internet and social media made distribution of ideas more democratic, although they also opened channels for ideas that harm society. And open source software and collectivist sites like Creative Commons and Wikipedia democratized information and development. But there are still barriers for minority groups, people in rural areas, people who can’t afford education.

For example, panelists noted, once laws and regulations have been challenged and disrupted—as by companies like Uber and Lyft—it’s easy to disrupt them again. The next big transportation breakthrough might come from former drivers of those companies finding, as McMullen said, “the last little bit of customer value” because they see from experience what works and what doesn’t. Companies like Facebook seem to have a monopoly because they own the platform. But, as McMullen pointed out, when he started using email, he had to sign up with an email provider. Now email is a protocol; he predicts social media will be one day, too.

But there are still barriers for minority groups, people in rural areas, people who can't afford education. And plenty of organizations and institutions still work to concentrate power in the hands of the few.

Every time technology empowers someone to take a function that formerly belonged to an institution—like mortgage processing—and turn it into gig work, it undermines the power of the old institutions.

“I think tech can be used to disrupt power to the same establishments that seem to be turning the screws on us…. This is how we can use technology to disrupt the power base,” McMullen said.

But the power base is likely to fight back. Kutnick recalled that, in the 90s, many companies were trying to make capitalism more inclusive by sharing ownership of the company with many employees. Then Congress enacted FAS123R which changed the tax code, making it economically infeasible to use stock ownership as compensation for any but the top two percent of employees. “That was the greatest blow to the democratization of capitalism in the twentieth century,” he said.

In Europe, Tratz-Ryan pointed out, the countries are capitalist, but governments often enact laws to protect the social good. Both citizens and corporations understand the need for a social construct. In the current atmosphere of the U.S., such laws would likely be labeled socialism and anti-business. The digital age is strongly libertarian, with companies enjoying their nation state status and eschewing oversight by government bodies that don’t understand them and can’t keep up with their evolution. What this will look like in 2035 remains to be seen.

[Related read: How augmented reality could change customer service]

Amish 2.0

For some people, said Distinguished VP analyst Debra Logan, the answer will be to drop out altogether. This is not a new thing. In the 1960s and 1970s, some people created a Back-to-the-Land Movement, seeking a Third Way between Capitalism and Socialism. And in the 1800s, many Utopian rural societies sprang up, focused on creating a perfect society. Logan noted that some people don’t want to be part of the emerging digital world at all and are exploring the creation of offline communities. They may work in a digital job somewhere but live in a “disconnected” community. This movement is sometimes called Amish 2.0.

The digital age is strongly libertarian, with companies enjoying their nation state status and eschewing oversight by government bodies that don't understand them and can't keep up with their evolution.

“More and more people will not be able to stand the noise and will retreat into their own enclaves,” she said. To retreat into your own world where “you get along and fend for yourself isn’t necessarily a bad place,” she said. Technology will drive people to drop off the grid as it becomes “more pervasive and invasive.”

The list of possibilities for what 2035 could bring is long and contradictory. The forces behind the movements—authoritarianism vs. collectivism, capitalism vs. socialism, nation states versus government regulation—actually push each other toward change on a daily basis. The key for most people might be to figure out what direction they hope it goes in and put their energy behind that today.