There is no doubt that the digital economy is vast and complex and with the rapid changes in technology that impacts various elements, the understanding of all its moving parts is therefore a challenge in and of itself.
The innovations that led to even more progress in new technologies, infrastructure, software, programs, algorithms, blockchain technologies and information, communications technologies, have had and continue to have many positive impacts globally. Communications across the globe are no longer at prohibitive prices, banking is done at the convenience at your computer or mobile phone, and advancements in technology applied in healthcare have made progress in helping disabled people use computers or robotics to speak or to walk. Several developers have also been using the challenge of climate change to innovate and build cleaner alternatives to fuel and gas, such as renewable energy such as solar and wind, and electric cars. These are just some of the few of the ways technology can be used for the good of the people. Platforms have also allowed for various online economic and non-economic activities to rise and flourish, such as jobs in the gig economy. Social media, while some use it as a way to generate income, is not threshed out in this publication as it requires a discussion well beyond economic activities.
As history would show, however, technology made with the best of interests, have sometimes ended up having negative consequences, made vulnerable to misuse and abuse and when discovered to be quite profitable, is then acquired by big capital, not shared and used to profit off of people. It has also, unfortunately, shown that some jobs offered are just as exploitative as a job in the traditional off-line economy. The so-called share economy followed by Air BnB has strayed miles away from that as local hosts are replaced by property owners cashing in on customers.
There is good and even more potential for improving the way regular people can benefit from an economy. While it is true that half of the world have no access to internet, unfairly stacking things against them, it is also true that the other half that have access do have many opportunities to better their income and provide for their families. Civil society groups have also been using these opportunities to campaign for more access to those who have none, protection of privacy, defense of human rights and providing tools to many other groups to establish their own protection from unlawful surveillance and other threats.
The recent COVID 19 pandemic is a good example of how technological innovations have allowed for people to meet head on the challenges of a lock down by having the tech to work from home instead of the office. Keeping safe at home and yet keeping their jobs, incomes and ability to provide basic needs for their families.
As the digital economy and technologies that enable it moves at lightning speed, policies and regulations are not moving at the same pace and this needs to be addressed urgently. There are already too many examples of the dangers of the misuse, abuse and manipulation at different stages in the digital economy for policies to still not be everywhere, protecting people.
Data, the raw material, the new oil, of this economy, needs to be protected. Just like how the free trade based economies exploited and extracted natural resources without care to the devastating impacts on the planet and people, so will the digital economy exploit and take raw data. And just like how the traditional global value chains put little to no value to the raw materials at the bottom of the chain, so does the digital economy to raw data, leaving behind least developed and many developing countries that have no or little capacity or technology to process the raw data into the more valuable processed data with analytics. This will just exacerbate inequality in an already uneven and unfair world – and when it comes to the digital economy – ever so clearly – as half of the world does not even have access to the internet.
Furthermore, this new model of extractivism, is just as exploitative as the extractivism seen in free market based economies, maybe even more so because of the lag in policies and regulation. The value of data cannot be underestimated and the potential for misusing it for profit, political gain, invasion of privacy, violation of human rights and other non-economic dimensions, is clear and present. The equally urgent challenge is pushing for the spreading of awareness on just how valuable any kind of raw data is and how it is a very valuable resource, no matter how intangible it may seem versus something as tangible as oil. This knowledge and understanding is a first step in getting people to be less vulnerable to exploitation.
It is also equally urgent to address the speed of the growth and accumulation of power of platforms that is making the digital economy more and more uneven. Platform owners are gaining a monopolistic power over the digital economy as it controls technologies and benefit from being at the top of the global digital value chains, accessing, processing and analyzing data. And the more data it accesses, the more profits they make, the larger and more dominating they become.
The race to develop technologies, particularly new technologies whose impacts are not yet fully known nor understood, is also an urgent issue that needs to be addressed. Artificial intelligence for example, that is the new goal of the “space race” as countries like the US, China and the grouping of the European Union compete to reach, has both the potential for use and misuse. Again, policies and regulations that prioritize people should be progressing and not lagging behind.
The digital economy may still be a new frontier that is complex and multidimensional in nature, but the speed with which it is growing, unevenly, needs to be seen as an urgent challenge to all that do not want to see the repeat perpetuation of an unfair and exploitative system from the traditional free market based economy to a digital economy. There are many challenges head and much more that yet need to be done.