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The #digitalsociety and the digital social contract

by Frank Buytendijk  |  May 30, 2017  |  Comments Off on The #digitalsociety and the digital social contract

Ok, that wins first prize on “least attractive blog title”. But it is a very important subject. In this blog I regularly comment on the digitalization of society. In my last blog I focused mostly on your role, dear reader. In this blog I’d like to take it one step further, and see if we can further a bit more regarding some core principles.

What makes a “society”? The literature suggests that there must be persistent social interaction between a group of people. This group must agree on a number of things, otherwise there is no social cohesion. And the group must disagree on certain things too, otherwise it gets rather boring quickly, and there is no societal progress.

So what’s different in the digital society? First of all, much of the persistent social interaction is taking place through new technologies. Social media, but soon also via augmented and virtual reality. Feedback is an important part of communication, and in the digital world this is very different from how we receive feedback through direct interaction. Second, smart devices and algorithms now start to be part of the persistent social interaction. They are not only carriers of the communication, but act themselves as well. Lastly, the digital world is about connections and being connected.

The functioning of society is based on norms and values, on rules, and founded on the idea of the “social contract”. Practically seen the social contract is an exchange between people and businesses (and increasingly “things”) about rights and obligations. We give up some parts of our freedom, accept some rules, and get other things in return, like safety and common infrastructure. On the more idealistic level the social contract represents our collective understanding of what we want society to look like.

When society is digitalizing and as part of that process needs to be partly reinvented, the social contract changes alongside. A digital social contract needs to emerge.

As I see it, the starting point of the digital social contract is not seeing human beings as the center of the world, as a goal in themselves, and in their autonomy. As the core concept of the digital society is “being connected”, we should see all actors (next to people also businesses and things) as interdependent, relational and connected.

That has quite some impact.

In our current society the well-being and dignity of human being is leading, in all its individuality. Human beings have free wil land the freedom to do whatever they want. Of course there is a limitation, anyone’s actions shouldn’t interfere with the freedom of others. Everybody is treated the same way, that’s at least what we call “fair”. Furthermore, we are expected to rely on ourselves, and that’s also our own responsibility.

The digital social contract looks different. It’s about the well-being and dignity of all actors, but in the context of their functioning in the wider ecosystem. We measure that functioning in terms of “contribution”. Freedom means the unlimited capability of connecting with other actors. Obviously there is the constraint that our connections shouldn’t inhibit other actor’s connections. A fair treatment is not necessarily equal treatment, but can also be a more personal, context-based treatment. We must rely on our collective abilility to organize our own ecosystems, and our interdependence within them.

How we get there, and how exactly the digital society will look like, I don’t really know yet. But let’s start the discussion. What do you think?

@FrankBuytendijk is Research Fellow at Gartner Research and Advisory and pioneers in the field of digital philosophy.

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Frank Buytendijk
Research VP & Fellow
10 years at Gartner
23 years IT Industry

Frank Buytendijk is a Gartner Research VP & Fellow, covering digital ethics and data & analytics. Read Full Bio




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