A virtual debate between Bas Boorsma and Adam Greenfield
Does technology develop autonomously or can society be in control?
This issue takes a central position in two recently published though-provoking books to be discussed in this short essay.
The first book is Radical Technologies, written by Adam Greenfield (Verso, 2017). The second one is A New Digital Deal by Bas Boorsma (Rainmaking Publications, 2017). Both authors have been involved in the development of smart cities for many years. Bas Boorsma among others in various global and regional roles in Cisco. Adam Greenfield – also author of Against the Smart City has been working among others as an information architect for Nokia. Nowadays he is teaching at London School of Economics. Both books go beyond smart cities and focus on the role of digitalization in society.
Setting the stage
Bas Boorsma has a strong belief in the – until now only partially realized – potential of digital technology. Adam Greenfield refuses to discuss any such hypothetical value. He refers at Stafford Beer’s famous phrase The purpose of a system is what it does and that is the colonization of the daily life by technology giants and near-monopolists like Google, Apple, Amazon, and Facebook, called ‘the Stacks’ and other big technology companies.
The essence of digitalization is restructuring economy and society with digital communication and infrastructures. According to Bas Boorsma, the network paradigm will replace centralist thinking by the development of many connected nodes, in society and in the digital world as well. The organisation of society and the principles behind the Internet will reinforce each other.
Many expected digitalization to facilitate the emergence of a ‘true’ free market, i.e. an economy based on peer-to-peer principles, collaboration, with small enterprises relying of the network effect and digital tools to conduct business in ways previously reserved for large corporations (New Digital Deal, p.52). This is what initially happened indeed: The development of platforms empowered start-ups, small companies and professionals. Many network utopians believed the era of ‘creative commons’ had arrived and with it, a non-centralized and highly digital form of ‘free market egalitarianism’ (New Digital Deal, p.52). Some already predicted the decline of capitalism.
However, the network paradigm and the platform economy have been appropriated to a large extend by ‘the Stacks’ and other big companies. As a consequence, the workings of capitalism, revitalizing monopolism and oligarchy have been amplified. Digitalization-powered capitalism now possesses a speed, agility and rawness that is unprecedented (New Digital Deal, p.54). In this respect Bas Boorsma’s en Alan Greenfield’s visions do not divert much.
A New Digital Deal
According to Bas Boorsma digitalization cannot be countered, but steering is needed and feasible. He applies the analogy of a skillfully steered canoe sailing an incredible fast-flowing river, harvesting its energy. A New Digital deal must steer the further development and impact of digitalization to deliver on its promise in full, and we have to do this in a moral context… (New Digital Deal, p.42). In order to deploy digitalization and to manage platforms for the greater good of the individual and society as a whole, new regulatory approaches will be required… (New Digital Deal, p.46). This has to enable us to manage technological growth, regulate platforms, celebrate recalibrated free market principles, prepare for the emergence of new and better jobs, harvest digitalization generated wealth… and to tax wealth and platform rather than labor (New Digital Deal, p.65).
Thus the New Digital Deal requires strong regulatory power to bridge the tension between at one side the initial expectations and hopes for a post-capitalist society, dominated by many connected small actors and at the other side the appropriation of the digitalization and the platform-economy by ‘the Stacks’ and other companies. The question is what does this regulatory power include.
Bas Boorsma deals in depth with the societal impact of digitalization in domains like healthcare, education, transport, and energy. In each case he explores the content of the New Digital Deal. In the meantime I searched in vain for the answer to the question about the regulation of free markets and growing monopolism of ‘the Stacks’. The answer to this question is particularly important because it is exactly the unrestricted growth of monopolism that feeds Adam Greenfield’s deep pessimism with respect to the societal benefits of digitalisation. Adam Greenfield does not answer this question either, presumably because there is no answer. Still, I think there is one.
The vanity of a digital paradise
Before returning to the New Digital Deal, I go deeper into the reason of Adam Greenfield’s pessimism. In consecutive chapters of his book he unveils how big companies – sometimes is cooperation with the state – have taken possession of digital technologies: Where previously everything that transpired in the fold of the great city evaporated in the moment it happened, all of these rhythms and processes are captured by the network and retained for inspection (Radical Technologies, p.5). This because of the combined effect of smartphones, sensors, security cameras, ‘wearables’ – like Hitatchi’s Business Microscope – and the fast increasing capabilities of the algorithmic production of knowledge.
Was blockchain technology intended as the foundation for newly to develop decentralized peer-to peer distributed organizations, is it actually captured by large companies. They embrace it as a fundamentally improved entrusted framework for identity and data sharing (contracts and databases).
However truly transformative circumstances will arise not from any one technology standing alone, but from multiple technical capabilities woven together in combination (Radical technologies, p.273). Again ‘the Stacks’ will benefit most. Their innovation capacity is larger than any other company and their cash is unlimited. They are turning the entire planetary-scale entrepreneurial community into a vast distributive R&D lab… At any given moment there are thousands of startups busily exploring the edges of technological possibility, and shouldering all the risk of involved in doing so. (Radical Technologies, p.281) By focusing on the development of ‘minimum viable products’ they anticipate to be taken over by one of ‘the Stacks’ or other technology companies and cash the millions these companies offer. The start-up community is more vital than ever before but is nothing like the decentralized occupants of the nodes of the network on the eve of a new liberalized order. In stead they support the dominance of ‘the Stacks’.
The failing of politics
The influence of politics – other then incidental support – in western countries with respect to the growing power of ‘the Stacks’ is negligible. Maybe with the exception of the European Union that is entangled in rearguard actions by fining some eye-catching forms of monopolism. In contrast, the Chinese gouvernment is molding technology to its own aims, albeit not in an exemplary way. Supported by China’s own ‘Stacks’ – among them Alibaba and Baihe – the government is integrating smartphones, wearables and social networking services to establish the degree of ‘social credit’ of all of its citizens.
I expect a negative answer from Adam Greenfield to the question whether technological development is an autonomous force like the fast-floating river in Bas Boorsma’s analogy. In the USA large-scale scientific programs supervised by state-institutions like the legendary DARPA enabled major technological development. This carefully planned process resulted not only in the nuclear bomb but also in the discovery of all components of the later iPhone, which initial development – by the way – has been subsidized by the state too, as has been disclosed in detail by Mariana Mazzocato. Nowadays the development of technology and its impact on employment is predominantly instigated by strategic choices made by ‘the Stacks’ and other technological companies. As a consequence, any ‘deal’ regarding steering technological development or safeguarding the interest of citizens and society at large will have to target ‘the Stacks’.
The New Digital Deal revisited
This brings us back to the New Digital Deal. Targeting ‘the Stacks’ has to be preceded by decisive law making at national or supranational level with respect to the aim and the conditions of digitalization for the purpose of society at large. Referring at Bas Boorsma the aim is enabling a networked and connected society with thriving activity in all nodes and free markets in between. A far from complete – list of conditions includes:
- A strong and enforced anti-trust policy.
- The discouragement of acquisitions in favor of collaboration within networks.
- Unbundling heterogeneous conglomerates of companies (‘to big to fail’).
- Governance guidelines discouraging short-termism, the stock markets included.
- Considerable taxes on profits, which might be released by participation in state-coordinated research programs together with universities and other stakeholders.
- A basic-income combined with the right at paid work for adult citizens.
An emerging digital community
I seriously doubt the ability of the bitterly divided European states to settle conditions as mentioned above in the near future. Meanwhile my expectations of lower level governments – cities in particular – are higher. At this level, high and low tech digital tools might be applied and enabled to prove their value in relation to challenges as traffic, healthy air, sustainable energy and safety. Bas Boorsma’s 20 building blocks of community digitalization will prove their value here. Each of these building blocks is actionable. The ‘community digitalization’ approach puts citizen’s needs and wants in the center and their fulfillment will come from a network of stakeholders. The local government can be held responsible for robust connectivity and digital safety and also for interoperability and the deployment of non-proprietary protocols.
Somewhere at an undetermined but eagerly awaited moment in the future a world of collaborating cities might force states to take their responsibility and issue the laws that are necessary to establish a New Digital Deal.
Your appetite has grown?
Start reading both books. Those who are attuned to practical solutions better start with Alan Greenfield’s because his well-documented approach to technology definitely will put practice in a new light. Also his way of phrasing is excellent. Readers with a more academic mind-set are advised to start with Boorsma’s book, because his life-long experience will be helpful in making theory actionable. And that is where many of us are waiting for.
 This debate is certainly very interesting but it has not happened to this day. The title of this short essay is inspired by the phrase ‘Culture eats strategy for breakfast’ attributed to management guru Peter Drucker.
*) This article was brought to you by Professor Herman van den Bosch, Professor at Open University of The Netherlands.