The Digital Revolution — a phenomenon driven by the conjunction of the personal computer, the Internet and the mobile phone — has now been under way for half a century. In the process it has triggered the most comprehensive transformation of our information environment since Gutenberg’s invention of printing by moveable type. It has unleashed a wave of ‘creative destruction’ through our economies, triggered the emergence and rapid growth of powerful new global corporations, enabled governments and companies to engage in the most intrusive kinds of surveillance and enriched the lives of billions by giving them access to knowledge, communications and networking facilities that were once the exclusive preserve of elites.
Despite all that, it’s still early days. The Internet is just over 40 years old, and it didn’t become a mainstream communications medium until 1993. So we’re about the same distance into the Internet revolution as the citizens of Mainz were in 1477, two decades after Gutenberg launched his revolution. And just as they had no idea of the ways in which that technology would shape the world for the next 400 years, we are likewise largely in the dark about what the digital future holds.
The goal of this philanthropically-supported project — which is led by John Naughton and David Runciman — is to explore the implications of digital technology for society. Questions in which we are interested include:
- Are we living through a ‘third industrial revolution’, akin to the other technology-driven upheavals which have shaped the world in which we live?
- In what ways are digital technologies different from earlier disruptive forces? Are they increasing rather than diminishing inequality?
- Will computing and advanced robotics displace many categories of middle-class employment, as some scholars now predict? If so, how will democracies cope with the ensuing disruption?
- What are the implications for democracy of the pervasive surveillance now practised by governments and corporations? Can privacy — and personal data — be protected in such a world?
- Is the pace of technological development now too rapid for society to absorb the disruption that it brings? If so, how could we enhance social adaptability?
- How can the gap between the pace of technical change and that of legislative and regulatory adaptation be closed?