Should we be afraid of the digital revolution?

Five new technology specialists share their views on the hopes and dangers of the current digital revolution. Their responses reveal the urgent need to deepen our reflections on the political, social and economic consequences of this transformation of our societies.

This publication is part of our partnership with the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences. The entire list can be viewed here.

The idea of ​​a partnership between CASBS (Stanford University) and B&I/LVDI (Collge de France) was born from the common objective of our two institutions to enrich public debate with the help of the best empirical work in the Humanities and Social Sciences. While the CASBS was created just after the Second World War, The Life of Ideas was launched in 2008, the year of the subprime financial crisis. Despite this sixty-year interval between the birth of the two institutions, they were both designed with the same ambition to provide new keys to understanding a world in crisis and undergoing social change. Both attempt to facilitate the circulation of ideas produced by university research and to ensure their dissemination to all levels of society as well as across national borders. These shared values ​​are at the heart of our partnership and we hope that the analyzes that we publish together will thus be distributed even wider and deeper within the French-speaking and English-speaking worlds.

This partnership consists of the simultaneous publication, in French and English, of three types of content: reviews of books recently entered into the Ralph W. Tyler collection; intellectual portraits of influential and eminent former fellows of the CASBS; and, finally, interviews with members of the community of CASBS.

According to Forbes magazine, in 2022, 7 of the 10 richest people in the world have built their fortune on the digital economy. Likewise, 40% of the 20 largest companies in the world rely on a business model based on what is called platform capitalism. Rumor has it that new technologies are the new oil. Many investors are divesting themselves of their holdings in companies specializing in fossil fuels and are now directing their funds towards the digital economy. These massive flows of capital are transforming the structure of our societies, in a manner similar to that in which oil revolutionized the world by enabling a set of innovations which themselves led to the appearance of objects which now shape our daily lives: articles in plastic, paint, cosmetics, detergents, fertilizers, cars, planes, etc.

In a comparable way, the digital revolution has transformed our immediate environment. The Internet, smart phones and data science are omnipresent in our daily lives and more and more economic activities are now mediated by online platforms and machine learning algorithms. These technologies are responsible for the most important innovations of our time and attract the largest volumes of capital. They gradually shape an unprecedented material world in which new practices and new habits also develop. But, strangely, our social and legal technologies still belong to the old world. This is all the more worrying as the development of the data economy (i.e. the commodification of digital data collected by digital platforms) is transforming the competitive landscape, leading to a concentrated market in which economic gains go one way. very small number of large companies. These massive changes call for a new legal framework, but also, and perhaps above all, a new ethics. Societies built around algorithmic technologies indeed require an ethical framework capable of keeping them in check.

Located in the heart of Silicon Valley, the CASBS is particularly attentive to grasping the multiple consequences and implications of this digital revolution. The Life of Ideas / Books&Ideas interviewed five community members CASBS who have been working for a long time on the consequences of this massive social change. Analyzing these transformations from multiple disciplinary angles, they attempt to make sense of this very particular moment in which our societies are currently immersed.