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The contradictions of digital modernity


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This paper explores the concept of digital modernity, the extension of narratives of modernity with the special affordances of digital networked technology. Digital modernity produces a new narrative which can be taken in many ways: to be descriptive of reality; a teleological account of an inexorable process; or a normative account of an ideal sociotechnical state. However, it is understood that narratives of digital modernity help shape reality via commercial and political decision-makers, and examples are given from the politics and society of the United Kingdom. The paper argues that digital modernity has two dimensions, of progression through time and progression through space, and these two dimensions can be in contradiction. Contradictions can also be found between ideas of digital modernity and modernity itself, and also between digital modernity and some of the basic pre-modern concepts that underlie the whole technology industry. Therefore, digital modernity may not be a sustainable goal for technology development.
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AI & SOCIETY (2020) 35:197–208
The contradictions ofdigital modernity
Received: 27 March 2018 / Accepted: 18 April 2018 / Published online: 25 April 2018
© The Author(s) 2018
This paper explores the concept of digital modernity, the extension of narratives of modernity with the special affordances of
digital networked technology. Digital modernity produces a new narrative which can be taken in many ways: to be descriptive
of reality; a teleological account of an inexorable process; or a normative account of an ideal sociotechnical state. However,
it is understood that narratives of digital modernity help shape reality via commercial and political decision-makers, and
examples are given from the politics and society of the United Kingdom. The paper argues that digital modernity has two
dimensions, of progression through time and progression through space, and these two dimensions can be in contradiction.
Contradictions can also be found between ideas of digital modernity and modernity itself, and also between digital modernity
and some of the basic pre-modern concepts that underlie the whole technology industry. Therefore, digital modernity may
not be a sustainable goal for technology development.
Keywords Digital modernity· Modernisation· Disruption· Innovation· Data
1 Introduction
Modernity and the associated process of modernisation
serve descriptive, teleological and normative purposes.
Greater uptake of technology, and other developments such
as the general movement of peoples from rural to urban
areas, the replacement of ad hoc responses to events with
management using abstract systems, and the wide adoption
of international aspects of culture, can be summarised in the
simple statement that a place is modernising. Teleologically,
modernisation is often experienced as a natural, unstoppable
process that unfolds inexorably [Giddens (1990) uses the
image of the juggernaut] while viewed normatively, ‘mod-
ernisation’ is the sort of process that governments, com-
panies and even individuals work to make happen. In this
paper, I wish to focus on the effects of digital technology
on modernisation as a narrative, a discourse through which
reality is shaped and modelled, and modernity as the subjec-
tively experienced outcome of the processes that go to make
up modernisation. The truth or falsity of the modernisation
narrative, and its digital extension, is less to the point than
that people and organisations subscribe to it. As the Thomas
theorem has it: “if men define situations as real, they are real
in their consequences” (Merton 1995). This paper should be
understood as reporting the modernisation narrative, rather
than endorsing it, although as a narrative through which real-
ity is shaped, there are many agents and forces working to
bring it about.
Giddens (1990) argues that modernisation has three
consequences. First, time and place become separated and
local variation dissolves. Time becomes a universal, meas-
ured remotely by standard clocks, while places are opened
up to wider influences via media, migration, communica-
tions and transport. Second, as a result of these openings,
social action and attitudes become ‘disembedded’ from local
contexts, and can increasingly be described and understood
without reference to the local. Third, in the midst of this
flux, individuals are capable of self-criticism and adaptation
based on examination of their context—reflexivity—which
undermines any pretence of linearity and creates complex
feedback loops of influence and action (Beck etal. 1994).
This third consequence means that advances of knowledge,
particularly scientific knowledge, do not automatically yield
control of our environment, as thinkers of the enlightenment
and the scientific positivists imagined would happen.
* Kieron O’Hara
1 Web andInternet Science Group, Electronics andComputer
Science, University ofSouthampton, Highfield,
SouthamptonSO171BJ, UK
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198 AI & SOCIETY (2020) 35:197–208
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Modernity as a concept has moved in and out of fashion
through time, and its meanings are not particularly stable.
Furthermore, the very notion of ‘modernity’ is under threat
from its own success—the fluidity it has ushered in has made
it harder to draw a firm boundary around ‘modern’ places
and practices (Koenis 2014), while many critics from Lyo-
tard (1984) onwards have declared it superseded by post-
modernity. However, the association between modernity
and technology is a constant aspect, and the World Wide
Web has a particularly strong connection, facilitating as it
does globalisation, abstract and expert systems, undermin-
ing traditional practices and hierarchies, and disembedding.
Furthermore the language of modernisation has driven many
developments in Silicon Valley and the technology industry,
where the implementation of modern ideas, processes and
technologies is often seen as an unalloyed good (Fukuyama
[2006] writes that “the desire to live in a modern—that is,
technologically advanced and prosperous—society” is “uni-
versal”). Governments the world over have also signed up
to these ideas, working to implement digital government,
and where possible courting major figures from the tech-
nology industry. Trust in progress is less unquestioning
now than before the wars and environmental degradation of
the twentieth century, but the strand of progress for which
digital technology is responsible has been spared the most
trenchant criticism. Alan Turing, for example, is regarded
with an uncritical admiration that we do not find with, say,
The spread of digital technology is (an important) part
of the modernisation narrative, which will be the subject
of this paper; the critique from postmodernism is clearly
important and influential, but space precludes discussion
of it here (see Sect.4 for some hints about how this argu-
ment might go). The narrative of modernisation is hard to
resist (even if people wished to resist it), and this has helped
the spread of digital networks in many areas of life through
persuasion rather than force. Many have represented these
developments as leading to new states, or discontinuities in
human history (Kurzweil 2005, Brynjolfsson and McAfee
2014; Barrat 2015; Schwab 2016), in which the technology
itself will actively reshape the lives of people and the futures
of nations and businesses (Schmidt and Cohen 2013). Digi-
tal modernity is therefore perceived and presented as a much
more singular and revolutionary state than modernity in gen-
eral. When the technology is digital, the potential for accel-
erating and turbo-charging the transformative processes of
modernity is argued to be exponentially greater.
In this paper, I want to challenge this type of narrative.
I do not want to argue that it is not happening—as with
most large-scale narratives about the progress or otherwise
of humankind, it makes sense of many observable develop-
ments, while neglecting many others. I wish to challenge
its normative aspect, in two ways. First, I will argue that
the uncritical acceptance of digital modernity as a good is
unwise. Second, more importantly, I will argue that there
are important contradictions in the modernity narrative. In
Sect.2, I will discuss two different types of digital moder-
nity, based on time and space, respectively. Then in Sect.3,
I will outline some of their internal contradictions, and some
of the external contradictions with other important aspects
of technology adoption.
2 Two dimensions ofdigital modernity
Modernity is a relative term—a society or culture is more
modern than something else, which could be another society
or an earlier stage of the same society (a) where tradition
and geography are stronger influences than rationalism and
abstraction, (b) which are exclusive rather than inclusive,
and (c) where social structures are constraining, imposed
hierarchies as opposed to contractual, transactional net-
works. The contrast can be therefore in space or time (or
both), which indicates that modernity in general, and digital
modernity in particular, can be mapped on those two dimen-
sions (Koenis 2014).
In the temporal dimension, the important contrast is
between backward societies and advanced ones. These two
types of society are placed on a single dimension, implying
that—if the backward society ceases to stubbornly reject
progress—it will eventually evolve to become advanced.
Advanced societies have the characteristics of modernity,
while in the backward ones one expects, for example, dis-
putes to be solved by violence, people to stick pins in voodoo
dolls, and governments to be imposed, rather than being cho-
sen by citizens. It is also possible for advanced societies to,
as the revealing saying goes, slip back into barbarism, fol-
lowing some failure of technology, natural calamity, social
unrest or rejection of advanced political wisdom.
In the spatial case, the contrast is between being at the
centre of things, where value is created, and being peripheral
(Shils 1975). At the periphery we find rural areas, so-called
edgelands and liminal spaces, and the developing world.
These contrast with major cities, hubs, centres of excel-
lence, clusters of creativity and industry where innovation
happens (Formica 2017). Again, these are not incommensu-
rable; political rhetoric places them on a single dimension,
so that a peripheral place could become more modern with
development, a central place can lose its position through
decline, and may regain it through regeneration schemes.
So, in its own terms, the narrative of modernity rests
on three key assumptions. First of all, progress is linear,
and indeed reversible, so it is possible to make judgments
such as ‘this culture is more advanced than that’, ‘this city
is more modern than that village’, and (when postulating
a reversal away from modernity) ‘this nation has become
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199AI & SOCIETY (2020) 35:197–208
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more barbarous’. Secondly, it assumes (on pain of circular-
ity) that ‘backward’, ‘advanced’, ‘peripheral’ and ‘central’
can be characterised independently of terms such as ‘more
modern’ or ‘less modern’. Thirdly, it assumes that progress
in one dimension will more or less correlate with progress
in another. Each of these assumptions can be questioned,
although in this paper I will scrutinise the third most deeply;
the first and second assumptions tend to support each other,
and historical and geographical studies of modernity can
help break the circularity of definition (e.g., Berman 2010).
However, as noted above, my main aim in this paper is to
examine the supplementary narrative of digital modernity
and evaluate its internal consistency. What, then, is digital
Digital modernity in many ways extends these two
dimensions, increasing the distance between the modern and
the backward/peripheral. The narratives of digital modernity
are important drivers of political and business projects, and
so help create their own reality, still resting on the three
assumptions. In the remainder of this section, we explore the
digital modernity narratives more deeply, before we consider
some of their problems in Sect.3.
2.1 The temporal dimension
An important and often-noted effect of digital technology
is to compress time (Harvey 1990), as increasingly many
events or actions can take place within a given interval.
Automation of response means that entire processes involv-
ing the complex interaction of several agents can be car-
ried out in a barely-perceptible interval. Even processes that
necessarily include humans in the loop can be disintermedi-
ated to focus on the efficiency of the basic input–output. A
romance, which in the nineteenth century could be spun out
to cover several hundred pages of a novel, can now be short-
circuited from discovery to consummation into an evening
using a dating app such as Tinder (Sumter etal. 2017). The
game of roulette used to involve an elaborate set of rituals
in a casino which had the effect of slowing down the game
and making it into a social event (stimulating the imagina-
tions of authors such as Dostoyevsky, George Eliot and Ian
Fleming). It has now been transformed by fixed-odds bet-
ting terminals into an addictive, solitary pastime promoting
heavy, unreflective gambling, and allowing many more bets
in a given time, vastly increasing the likelihood of the house
beating the individual (Adams and Wiles 2017).
It is the nature of digital technology to disintermediate
and disrupt existing processes (Curley and Salmelin 2018,
pp. 15–25), and this is where technologists look to create
innovation (Christensen etal. 2015; Yang etal. 2016). The
ability of the advanced society to innovate at will is one of
the things that distinguish it from the backward one, and
a highly advanced society would be expected to innovate
routinely. Since innovation, in this narrative, is disruptive,
the super-advanced society will be super-disruptive, a world
of startups where disruption is routine, and where institu-
tions and entrepreneurs would be expected to adapt con-
stantly to new pressures; Schumpeter’s (1950) world of crea-
tive destruction will have come to the fore. As an example,
Britain’s Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Coun-
cil, a funding body (which partially funded this research),
states in its delivery plan that the first of its five ambitions is
to “introduce the next generation of innovative and disrup-
tive technologies”, apparently without stopping to consider
whether this is good or bad.1
Taken to the extreme, this is a world in which to be
advanced is to be a disruptor, and therefore it follows imme-
diately that to exist is to be backward. Once a system is
implemented, or a product produced, it is ripe for disruption
from radical innovators (Colombo etal. 2015). The classic
cases are Airbnb (Guttentag 2015) and Uber (Cramer and
Krueger 2016; Yang etal. 2016), each of which has not only
disrupted an industry (of tourist accommodation and taxis
respectively), but also challenged regulatory systems across
the globe. They are already the targets of new disruptive
technologies (Langner 2016; Greene 2017).
The temporal aspect of digital modernity appeals in the
political world, where disruption foregrounds the contin-
gency of established ways of doing things, and provides a
story about how an active politician is achieving measurable
successes. Political disruption, facilitated by technology, can
itself facilitate the introduction of new practices that exist-
ing institutions are unable to support (Dikeç 2017), and the
coalescing of new (mass) groups (Margetts etal. 2016). In
the UK, for example, on the right, the disruptive potential
for free markets has often been highlighted, by intellectuals
such as Hayek, and politicians such as Thatcher. Liz Truss,
a Conservative cabinet minister at the time of writing,
recently argued, for instance, that free enterprise supported
by technology:
… is intensely democratic and open—breaking down
monopolies, hierarchies and outdated practices. It’s
why so many people from non-establishment back-
grounds have succeeded in enterprise. You do not
have to be part of the Old Boys Network to set up a
business. The essence of entrepreneurship is what the
author Malcolm Gladwell has called the freedom to
be ‘disagreeable’: to not rely on the approval of oth-
ers or give up in the face of some initial social uproar.
It’s how all the big disruptors made their mark—from
Apple to Ikea (Truss 2018).
1 https ://www.epsrc /plans /deliv erypl an/prosp erity outco
mes/produ ctivi ty/.
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200 AI & SOCIETY (2020) 35:197–208
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Voices on the left also like disruption (perhaps of differ-
ent things) with technology: Labour Prime Minister Harold
Wilson lauded the white heat of the technological revolution
in the 1960s (Byrne 2016), while Tony Blair was described
by his own spin doctor as “a lovely man, but he is so relent-
lessly modernising I feel myself getting more traditional by
the day” (Campbell 2010, p. 71). Radical commentator and
activist Paul Mason both describes and advocates what he
calls networked revolution made possible by technology
(Mason 2013), and a key factor in the position of Labour’s
far left leader (at the time of writing), Jeremy Corbyn, is
Momentum, a grassroots movement organised via social
media (Pickard 2018).
Note that digital modernity does not automatically appeal
to radical movements (even ones that wish to disrupt), if they
do not endorse the narrative of (digital) modernisation. For
example, the German Greens do not use technology very
much for their internal processes, and are currently engaged
in a careful consultative process to determine how far they
should, and how they should structure technologically medi-
ated systems so that they remain consistent with their egali-
tarian and inclusive philosophy (Thuermer etal. 2016).
2.2 The spatial dimension
The spatial dimension brings us to the shrinkage of space in
modernity (Harvey 1990), as modernisation marginalises the
periphery and privileges the centre. An innovation cluster
is tightly-packed, and indeed we have seen in recent years
how an idea such as automated trading in financial centres
demands clustering because the distance from the server to
the market makes a difference to how efficiently it can take
advantage of arbitrage opportunities (Urstadt 2009). Within
a hub, acquaintance is not rationed by geography, and so we
can develop many more links with others, creating richer
networks. Connections are not accidental or imposed, as in
the sparsely-populated periphery, where one does not choose
one’s neighbours. In the centre, connections are rational and
transactional—they are win-wins for each side. The occu-
pant of a modern space is valuable to many others, and
expects value in return.
Once more, we can extend the logic to produce digi-
tal modernity. On the spatial dimension this produces the
idea of cyberspace. In one of the earliest (science fiction)
uses of the term, we already get a sense of cyberspace as a
compression of space via quantification to produce greater
Cyberspace. A consensual hallucination experienced
daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every
nation, by children being taught mathematical con-
cepts. … A graphic representation of data abstracted
from the banks of every computer in the human sys-
tem. Unthinkable complexity. Lines of light ranged in
the nonspace of the mind, clusters and constellations
of data. Like city lights, receding … (Gibson 1984,
p. 69).
A common usage today refers to the Web and its various
extensions (Heylighen 1994).
Rational connection becomes increasingly possible,
because data is searchable and we can find the connections
we want, rather than be presented with those that are avail-
able. Hence cyberspace affords opportunities for order and
rationality, in accordance with Isaiah Berlin’s description of
the eighteenth century philosopher Condorcet’s modernist
The rational reorganisation of society would put an
end to spiritual and intellectual confusion, the reign of
prejudice and superstition, blind obedience to unexam-
ined dogmas, and the stupidities and cruelties of the
oppressive regimes which such intellectual darkness
bred and promoted. All that was wanted was the iden-
tification of the principal human needs, and the discov-
ery of the means of satisfying them. (Berlin1992, p. 5).
In the spatial dimension of digital modernity, the best that
hapless reality can achieve is to get closer to the perfection
of the algorithm and the data.
Cyberspace is populated by avatars, digital doubles or
digitally extended selves, made up of increasingly rich data
(Parkinson etal. 2017). Records of our transactions and
communications abound, and with the advent of the quanti-
fied self movement, even measures of our own well-being
can be added to the mix. In the quantified self, the individual
is rendered transparent to him- or herself, thereby allowing
advantage to be taken of digital feedback to self-optimise (or
biohack). The optimisation of the self is carried out only in
terms of the data—the data are optimised as a proxy for the
self. The quantified self movement positions self-tracking
sensors as interfaces for improving technological engage-
ment, and our lives become as a result more data-driven
(Ruckenstein and Pantzar 2017).
Smart cities are pitched as a necessary and unavoidable
response to the technical, material, social, and organisa-
tional problems associated with modernism’s push toward
urban growth, to improve quality of life and provide a
competitive and sustainable city (Shapiro 2006; Schaf-
fers etal. 2011; Batty etal. 2012). Again, smart cities are
technologically rooted, depending on low power minia-
ture sensors, high-speed wireless communication networks
and high-performance computing. The smart city is awash
with citizen-aware intelligent environments and user-cen-
tric services, such as smart homes and smart buildings,
smart energy, smart mobility, smart parking, and smart
health and well-being, which between them will improve
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201AI & SOCIETY (2020) 35:197–208
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efficiency, lower resource consumption and promote qual-
ity of life for citizens. The city achieves an online pres-
ence, and the transformation of the citizen into avatar is
perfected. Policy depends now on the state of the person’s
data, not of the flesh and blood human. The Internet of
Things will accelerate these trends further (Zanella etal.
Governments too can get excited about the possibilities
of these data avatars. We can be studied, diagnosed and
perfected, in an implementation of what Oakeshott (1975)
called the therapeutic state. To avoid (the appearance of)
coercion, a covert paternalistic philosophy has grown up
called nudging (Thaler and Sunstein 2008), which is particu-
larly effective in the data world—since the data furnishes the
means of assessing whether citizens’ performance, choices
or well-bring are acceptable, as well as the means for provid-
ing feedback. Technology amplifies the effect of the nudge,
because it is networked, pervasive and dynamically updated
(Yeung 2017). Modernising governments, such as that of
David Cameron in the UK, have invested resources in the
development of units for implementing policy based on the
nudge philosophy (Halpern 2015).
Digital government, and the use of AI in government, are
assumed to produce better decisions (Eggers etal. 2017); it
also, of course, implicitly suggests that a government in pos-
session of the data is in a better position to make decisions
about societies rather than, say, the people directly involved,
who are unlikely to have the same access to comprehen-
sive data and inferential power. For example, in the UK, a
recent report assembled a great deal of data to pronounce
that “Some recent surveys have uncovered levels of loneli-
ness across all ages that are worryingly high. What we do
not yet know is if this is a sign of a growing problem, or
because efforts to break down the stigma of loneliness are
working, making people more willing to acknowledge their
loneliness. Whichever it is, there is much to do.” Despite
this somewhat equivocal statement, the report went on to
demand that the national government lead a “UK wide Strat-
egy for Loneliness across all ages” (Jo Cox Commission on
Loneliness 2017)—and a minister was indeed appointed in
January 2018.
The profusion of data means that the individual is meas-
urable, and via feedback, perfectible. Governments are natu-
rally interested, but in the cyberspace of digital modernity,
imperfection is also to a large extent policed by the digital
citizenry itself (Goldman 2015; Ronson 2015; Laidlaw 2017;
Kasra 2017). One can be shamed for being physically imper-
fect, socially awkward, intellectually lacking, racist, sexist,
abusive to animals or morally dubious. One can shame fat
people and fat-shamers with equal facility. In the narrative of
digital modernity, we can hope and aim for a population that
maximises health and well-being, respectful behaviour, and
rational and prudential choices, even if some of the debate is
occasionally rough (Rohlfing and Sonnenberg 2016).
Hence if we view digital modernity from its spatial
dimension, we can see the possibility of not only the rational
reconstruction of society, as the pre-digital modernists
wanted, but also the means of discovery and satisfaction of
human needs, wants and desires, all from the new sources
of data.
3 Inherent tensions inthemodel
Digital modernity can thus be conceptualised as a two-
dimensional space, with a temporal axis running from back-
ward societies to advanced societies to societies of disruptive
innovation, and a spatial axis running from the periphery to
the centre to the smart space of intelligence and data. This
narrative, descriptive and normative, makes it hard to resist
modernisation, and associated processes such as rationalisa-
tion, technologisation, datafication, bureaucratisation, glo-
balisation, urbanisation, democratisation, emancipation, and
individualisation. Who would advocate living in a backward
society on the periphery?
The ‘map’ of this two-dimensional space looks like
Fig.1. The narrative of progress toward digital modernity
implies societies moving from the bottom left to the top
right. Many technologies serve this vision, both proving
disruptive of existing systems and helping bring about an
ordered and smart society. One example is the blockchain,
whose cryptographically secured distributed ledgers are
intended to disrupt the positions of trusted middlemen in
transactions, thereby reducing costs to other parties. As
a result, it could become the chosen system of record for
all transactions, both between and within organisations.
Certainly disruptive then, but also it could become the
Fig. 1 Trajectories through the two dimensions of digital modernity
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202 AI & SOCIETY (2020) 35:197–208
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foundation of a rational, open, secure means of identifi-
cation and record to enable a dramatic rationalisation of
administration, bureaucracy and work (Iansiti and Lakhani
2017). AI might be another example, which on the one hand
threatens to disrupt all manner of current methods of work
(and other areas, such as warfare) because of its abilities to
model, predict and anticipate human behaviour, so bringing
with it worries about the unemployment and unrest it might
cause (Ford 2013), and on the other promises far greater
understanding of human society and interaction, especially
as it begins to converge with cognitive psychology and neu-
roscience (Gershman etal. 2015).
However, there are some tensions within this simple
narrative of digital modernity, which I will explore in this
section. Firstly (Sect.3.1), the characteristic state of digital
modernity is different in each dimension. Certainly in many
cases, as noted above, disruptive technologies and smart use
of data will help us converge on the goal, as expressed by
Berlin, of identifying and meeting basic human needs. How-
ever, it may be that we advance towards digital modernity
by something other than a neat 45° line—we might instead
become more disruptive, or alternatively simply collect and
process more (and richer) data, which correspond to the two
other progress lines in Fig.1. Might there be different results
with those two emphases?
Secondly (Sect.3.2), digital modernity is presented as an
extension of, and improvement of, ‘core’ modernity. How
far can that supposition be supported?
And thirdly (Sect.3.3), digital modernity to some extent
rests on the bedrock of our pre-modern relationships (includ-
ing very basic attitudes and instincts that may even be hard-
wired). Might digital modernity undercut some of these
instincts, and therefore its own foundations?
3.1 Between thedimensions
Firstly, it should be noted that the temporal dimension and
the spatial dimension set out different sets of priorities, and
that the steady accumulation and processing of data can
itself be disrupted from many perspectives. On the other
hand, incumbent master-controllers of data, especially large
ones, try to identify and snap up potential disruptors and
challengers (e.g., Facebook’s purchases of WhatsApp, Ocu-
lus and tbh, and Google/Alphabet’s of Waze, DeepMind and
Softcard), to defend and expand their positions. If they are
able, they will resist disruption using the oligopoly powers
they have by virtue of their size and commercial heft. Mark
Zuckerberg promises to address the problems of incumbency
by accepting the logic of disruption, and co-opting the dis-
ruptors, in this somewhat disingenuous post.
A lot of us got into technology because we believe it
can be a decentralizing force that puts more power in
people’s hands. (The first four words of Facebook’s
mission have always been “give people the power”.)
Back in the 1990s and 2000s, most people believed
technology would be a decentralizing force.
But today, many people have lost faith in that prom-
ise. With the rise of a small number of big tech com-
panies—and governments using technology to watch
their citizens—many people now believe technology
only centralizes power rather than decentralizes it.
There are important counter-trends to this—like
encryption and cryptocurrency—that take power
from centralized systems and put it back into people’s
hands. But they come with the risk of being harder
to control. I’m interested to go deeper and study the
positive and negative aspects of these technologies,
and how best to use them in our services.2
Indeed, the extent of the ambition of many so-called
‘disruptors’ goes no further than to be bought out for mil-
lions, and the incumbents can argue in many cases that they
will add value as a result of those buy-outs (Desyllas and
Hughes 2009; Buenstorf 2016). The power of data will
be a regulator, not a liberator of creative destruction and
innovation (Hacking 1990; Yeung 2017). In particular, the
major platforms defend their role as the means of providing
visibility and legitimacy to other actors, creating a set of
dependencies that it is hard to disrupt (Kenney and Zysman
2016; Gillespie 2017). On the other hand, when startups and
innovators attempt to disrupt the major platforms, they often
do this by providing services that do not rely on keeping
data; cf. for example the indienet,3 MaidSafe (Lomas 2016),
Blockstack and others (Keane 2017).
Ultimately, there is simply a tension between the role of
disruptor and the role of coordinator. The so-called platform
economy, in which Uber and Airbnb are usually included,
is a mix of big data, clever algorithms and the cloud to
allow new marketplaces to emerge, matching buyers and
sellers; these platforms can become very large, because of
network effects combined with monopolization of the data
they gather from their operation (Kenney and Zysman 2016).
The questions of who gains from these developments, who is
prevented from competing (either by technology or by regu-
lation), and how, if at all, existing institutions and individu-
als are protected from negative effects, are usually political
questions up for grabs (and lobbying).
This tension is a version of the wider clash between
politics and governance. The temporal dimension of digital
modernity encourages conflict and an agonistic approach
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=story .
3 https ://
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203AI & SOCIETY (2020) 35:197–208
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to debate and argument, where consensus is there to be
challenged (and potentially strengthened by the challenge).
Meanwhile, on the spatial dimension, the focus is on ration-
ally ordered and coordinated existence (as Zuckerberg points
out,4 the decentralised systems are harder to control). The
disruptors envisage a world in which people make and
defend their own choices, however way out, while the coor-
dinators imagine ways to use data to show people the most
efficient route to the pursuit of their best interests. These
two visions sometimes merge, but will surely conflict on
The control-through-data paradigm of governments and
the large technology incumbents is unattractive (Zuboff
2015). On the other hand, disrupting it can be worrying too.
Hacking, though sometimes performed in the public interest,
is a standing problem for the Web, whose design assumed a
relatively small and homogeneous good-faith community of
users. Even those whose hacking is for positive reasons may
not contribute to the public good (Powell 2016)—the dis-
ruptors may fail to produce a more rational, or indeed more
citizen-centric or public-oriented cyberspace. Fake news is
undermining the hopes for the Web as a beacon of Enlight-
enment. The Dark Web remains a place to which disruptive
(and criminal) behaviour can migrate, out of the reach of
mainstream technological surveillance and control. Rather
like the slums and informal communities that are required
to support planned cities like Brasilia and Chandigarh (Scott
1999), much of the innovation around markets might take
place in the low-trust, high-risk margins of the Dark Web
(Bartlett 2014).
Finally, it was noted earlier that cyberspace was self-
policing. However, it can notoriously be disrupted by troll-
ing and other activities, which are often, if not exclusively,
intended to entertain an audience with some rough humour
at the expense of the trolled person (Dynel 2016). Ado-
lescents appear to be especially vulnerable to this sort of
attention, while still finding it hard to refuse access to their
online selves (Weinstein and Selman 2016). Women and
non-white people are common targets of trolling and abuse
when defending their rights (Jakubowicz 2017; Lewis etal.
2017). Scions of digital modernity are divided as to whether
these problems can be sorted out technically (Geiger 2016),
or whether we should retreat into a positive, but actually
rather exclusive, big data paradigm where the individual,
his or her agents and social machines, benevolent compa-
nies and the state get to use the technology (Mayer-Schön-
berger and Cukier 2013). There is a general hope that when
digital modernity reaches its apogee, the abusive trolls and
misogynists will be expelled back into the periphery (the
backwoods where they belong), although this is countered
by doubts about whether such people can be identified eas-
ily, as well as by the problem that youthful indiscretions will
remain to be judged, so that people may not be given the
benefit of doubt in the future about poor behaviour in the
past (Mayer-Schönberger 2009; Ronson 2015).
3.2 Between core modernity anddigital modernity
Modernity, as conceived by Giddens (1990), is complex and
resistant to control, principally because of the phenomenon
of reflexivity. As people reflect on their position in society,
the insights of scientific knowledge, data science and other
such modes of inference and discovery feed back into their
own understanding of their behaviour, which makes predic-
tion harder (if not impossible), as they factor these predic-
tions and judgments into their thinking and work around
them. As a response to this, Vass (2013) argued that the
notion of reflexivity needed to be decomposed, to encom-
pass ideas of ‘responsivity’ and ‘recognition’—responsivity
referring to the quality of reaction of the environment to
actions by individuals, and recognition referring to the ways
in which the digital environment supports individuals’ main-
tenance of their social position, allowing its use as a resource
by the individual or others. Vass and Munson (2015) discuss
reflexivity of social machines in the context of a 2 × 2 matrix
of high/low responsivity crossed with high/low recognition.
Yet while digital modernity may indeed render reflexiv-
ity more complex, and at least sometimes less valuable to
the individual, it may also reduce the space for reflexivity to
operate—and, to the extent that reflexivity can undermine
attempts to predict and control, it may facilitate the control
of individuals by governments, organisations or others with
access to the data and inferential capacity.
We might expect this to happen differently in our two
dimensions. Temporally, if the cycle of innovation and dis-
ruption gets ever faster, then it will become impossible for
any reflexive monitoring to take place in a timely fashion.
However, responsive the digital environment is to the actions
of individuals, if it is persistently and rapidly evolving thanks
to disruptive innovation, then individuals simply would not
be able to come to understand the responses. Signals from
the environment, through constant change, will not be leg-
ible to them (Scott 1998). Similarly, the recognition that an
individual receives from a system will depend, presumably,
on the individual’s relations to and status within the institu-
tions that are being disrupted. Recognition requires reflec-
tion of the past in, or influence of the past on, the present.
Yet the past is precisely what the temporal brand of digital
modernity tries to escape from.
With regard to the spatial dimension, Hildebrandt (2015)
argues that a system that takes one’s first order preferences
for granted, catering for them before one is aware of them,
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204 AI & SOCIETY (2020) 35:197–208
1 3
diminishes the capacity to reflect on habits and desires, and
therefore the capacity to remake oneself and improve as a
person (by one’s own standards). Data for profiling and pre-
emption is much more easily available for the owners of the
databases and software than the individual data subject, and
this is crucial because the data will produce non-obvious
knowledge about matters such as creditworthiness, health
and employability, creating asymmetry. The actual affor-
dances of technology matter, but may be hidden (in several
different ways—[Burrell 2016]). In such a world legal exper-
tise is displaced by data expertise, which is an issue because,
unlike lawyers who are paid to advise clients who are fully
aware of their involvement in a legal case, data scientists are
generally funded by the data consumers, thereby exacerbat-
ing the asymmetry. Furthermore, important social protec-
tions—such as the socialisation of risk via insurance—may
disappear, to be replaced by individual responsibility, as data
can enable the risks associated with individuals to be priced
to them directly.
It is not clear that Hildebrandt’s suggestion (2015, pp.
222–224) that counter-profiling the profilers will help
redress the balance. Quite apart from complex issues such
as data gathering and presentation back to individuals, the
problem in the cases discussed above is less reciprocity (our
awareness of our interlocutors’ purposes and beliefs about
us), than the (non-relational) lack of a space in which to
understand ourselves and reflect. The asymmetry between
what I know about me and what Google knows about me
may be a problem in my relationship with Google, but the
important issue for me is really my lack of knowledge of
myself. I could know so much more, and don’t. How can I
make authentic choices in such circumstances?
Yet the existence of this knowledge impales us on the
horns of a dilemma. As Hildebrandt argues, transparency
following the collection and analysis of personal data about
oneself “can be an infringement of privacy, because one is
forced to confront knowledge about oneself that disrupts the
future” (Hildebrandt 2015, p. 74). The very of the knowl-
edge forces one to choose between knowing or not knowing,
for example, the sex of one’s baby, the risks associated with
one’s genome, or the likelihood that one will be the victim
(or the perpetrator) of a crime.
In pre-modern societies, the sense of self was “sustained
largely through the stability of the social positions of indi-
viduals in the community. Where tradition lapses … lifestyle
choice prevails” (Giddens 2002, p. 47). On this reading, core
modernity retained alternative resources to support the self.
However, digital modernity threatens to undermine these
resources too; the disruption characteristic of the temporal
dimension undoes social stability, while data and machine
learning problematises lifestyle choice.
3.3 Between digital modernity andits social
Digital modernity depends on a number of technologies,
institutions and practices; our technologies presuppose vari-
ous social and sociotechnical systems. Without them, their
foundations might become less resilient. Hence, to the extent
that the practices of digital modernity undermine long-exist-
ing practices and assumptions, risk is inherent.
There are a number of reasons to think that this is another
contradictory aspect of digital modernity. The metaphors
of digital modernity are entrancingly ethereal—cyberspace,
the cloud, virtual reality, the World Wide Web, frictionless
information. And yet we still have to access this unearthly
realm with real physical devices, whether PCs, smartphones
or futuristic implants in the brain. Designers need to come
together with engineers, managers and marketers to develop
networks of users with sufficient scale to provide the benefits
of communication and sharing information.
These affordances are built on centuries of social regu-
larity, regulation and practice—the rule of law, respect for
contract, limited liability, bankruptcy law. They also require
materials, including rare earths, compounds of lithium for
batteries for portability, and copper wires to carry informa-
tion and electricity. The cloud itself is a network of data
warehouses, which generates about the same amount of
humanity’s carbon emissions as the airline industry.
Giant infrastructure projects, such as power grids and
communications networks, demand big initial investments
whose return would not be realised for years, if not decades,
requiring capital and agencies to absorb the risk of default.
The organisations needed to work for long periods of time
toward a single goal will require good governance, and so we
need auditors enter the picture. Investments of such longev-
ity will need stability and as little uncertainty as practica-
ble—so we need security and cybersecurity firms, insurance,
and global policing, intelligence and anti-terrorism agencies.
Yet many see digital modernity as a means of unpicking
this skein of institutions. Barlow’s Declaration of the Inde-
pendence of Cyberspace suggested that “Your legal concepts
of property, expression, identity, movement, and context do
not apply to us. They are all based on matter, and there is no
matter here”.5 In more recent years, commentators have con-
tinued to emphasise the Internet’s disruptive potential over
its dependence on the things it might disrupt. McChesney
(2014) argues that it “is central to the movement to build a
more democratic society and extend self-government to the
economy”. Capitalism “will be abolished by creating some-
thing more dynamic that exists, at first, almost unseen within
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205AI & SOCIETY (2020) 35:197–208
1 3
the old system, but which will break through, reshaping the
economy around new values and behaviours” (Mason 2013).
Yet this kind of disruption is only possible because of
advances in IT and the institutions upon which the industry
rests. As Mason (2013) argues, “The thing that is corroding
capitalism is information”. The risk is that digital modernity
will disrupt its own foundations in business, science and
industry. Disembedding is characteristic of modernity, but
there may be limits built into it; for instance, much of mod-
ern economics is an attempt to disembed and reify markets,
but markets function most effectively when they retain their
immersion in other social institutions and relations (Polanyi
The potential for disruption and rationalisation could also
undermine more focused institutions and practices. Consider
the example of smart contracts, programs that use the block-
chain to execute contractual arrangements automatically.
This is a major reinterpretation of what a contract is there to
do. Contracts are not mechanisms to make things happen.
They are social arrangements, voluntary constraints neither
unlike (Fried 2015) nor identical to (Shiffrin 2007; Barnett
2012) promises, backed by the machinery of law. They have
a social function, to enable cooperation, and help spread
habits of warranted trusting around an economy. Many
alternative types of agreement receive support from rich
networks of norms (of friendship or kinship for instance),
whereas parties in contracts often have very little in common
other than the contract. Hence the trust-building function is
key to the social value of the institution.
Contract has built into it the presumption that interpreta-
tion and flexibility will be needed, partly to deal with failures
to agree on the meanings of particular commitments, partly
because of the immense complexity of some contracts, for
example governing major pieces of infrastructure, partly
because some contracts are unfair, and partly because things
change and both parties may want and expect the contractual
terms to evolve over time. Contracts are also rarely in one
direction; they generally involve reciprocity or exchange,
and help manage the additional complexity that brings.
There is no way back from the smart contract (other than
a hard fork, impractical as a general remedy for obvious rea-
sons) if parties have misunderstood the specification of the
code, if the code is badly-written, or if one party has been
coerced or misled into taking on an unfair obligation. Con-
tracts are means to navigate a complex landscape, to promote
productive cooperation and trust in a world where the parties
involved may only have weak ties with each other. The aim
of blockchain technology is to remove the need for trusted
third parties, and so, far from replacing contracts, smart
contracts in the wrong places are likely to disrupt or inhibit
vital social relationships (Christopher 2017; O’Hara 2017).
That is not to say that they have no role to play, for exam-
ple, in contexts where trust is antecedently low in supply
or within large, complex organisations where shared goals
and ontologies can be assumed. But outside these friendly
environments, the smart contract rests upon ideas of trust,
promise and reciprocity that its own anti-trust agenda would
4 Discussion
In Plato’s Republic, Socrates is asked to construct a plan of
a just state, which he does, describing its frugal way of life.
But Glaucon, one of his interlocutors, replies “It seems that
you make your people feast without any delicacies. … If
they aren’t to suffer hardship, they should recline on proper
couches, dine at a table, and have the delicacies and desserts
that people have nowadays” (Plato 1997, p. 1011). Socrates
replies that:
It isn’t merely the origin of a city that we’re consider-
ing, it seems; but the origin of a luxurious city. And
that may not be a bad idea, for by examining it, we
might very well see how justice and injustice grow
up in cities. Yet the true city, in my opinion, is the
one we’ve described, the healthy one, as it were. But
let’s study a city with a fever, if that’s what you want.
There’s nothing to stop us. The things I mentioned
earlier and the way of life I described won’t satisfy
some people, it seems, but couches, tables and other
furniture will have to be added, and of course, all sorts
of delicacies, perfumed oils, incense, prostitutes, and
pastries. We mustn’t provide them only with the neces-
sities we mentioned at first, such as horses, clothes,
and shoes, but painting and embroidery must be begun,
and gold, ivory, and the like acquired. Isn’t that so?
(Plato 1997, pp. 1011–1012).
To get all these desirable things, the new state will need
to defend its land and go to war, and so need an army and
arms. It will need agricultural surpluses, and decision-mak-
ing methods that will scale to a larger population. It will
need doctors, women’s dresses, animals to eat, musicians,
actors, servants. In other words, Socrates tells Glaucon, if
you want to preserve the luxuries which we now possess, as
well as the justice which you crave, you will need to adapt
the system while ensuring it remains capable of supporting
all the industries and activities we do not want to give up.
This is Glaucon’s dilemma. If we innovate by disrupting the
system, we risk losing its current benefits. Digital modernity
cannot simply sweep away the remains of the pre-modern and
modern worlds, because they contain not only much of value in
themselves, but also the foundations of digital modernity itself.
Hence uncritical pursuit of digital modernity could undermine
its own preconditions. This is not, of course, an unusual posi-
tion for a technology to find itself in—for example, uncritical
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206 AI & SOCIETY (2020) 35:197–208
1 3
pursuit of intermittent renewable energy sources such as solar
and wind could undermine the more reliable fossil energy grid,
resulting in blackouts that would discredit renewables. It is also
conversely true that many of the most productive innovators
in this space, the Pages, Brins, Zuckerbergs and Bezoses, are
innovative because of their single minded focus on creating the
conditions for digital modernity. However, the same does not
necessarily apply to policymakers, administrators, lawmakers,
ideological entrepreneurs and representatives of civil society,
who must shape the conditions in which technology is socially
Digital modernity is a narrative that can be descriptive,
teleological or normative. By influencing policymakers and
leading technology innovators, it becomes a self-fulfilling
prophecy by shaping the reality it purports to describe. As a
narrative, it may even have rescued modernity from the cri-
tique of postmodernism, although this is beyond the scope of
this paper, which focuses on its internal contradictions. But it
is suggestive that the report that launched postmodernism as
a key concept in social science (Lyotard 1979/1984) takes as
its starting point the effects of technology, especially artificial
intelligence, databases and the knowledge economy, on twen-
tieth century modernity, while other commentators too see
technology as a key factor (e.g., Anderson 1998). Combined
with the possibility that Lyotard in particular may have misrep-
resented developments in a field with which he was somewhat
unfamiliar (cf. Anderson 1998, pp. 24–27), it is at least pos-
sible that there are continuities between postmodernity and
digital modernity, and that the longer perspective afforded
us in the twenty-first century may support an argument that
postmodernism was premature in writing off modernity, and
that the phenomena that the postmodernists had spotted were
signs merely that modernity was morphing into a new form
courtesy of digital technology. Evaluating this argument is a
matter for future work.
Digital technology is clearly transformative, and promises
to improve many aspects of humanity’s material condition;
indeed, its benefits may also be political, social and environ-
mental, as well as economic. All the more reason, then, that we
should be aware of digital modernity’s internal contradictions,
and its external conflicts with other ways of understanding the
Acknowledgements This work was partially supported by the UK
Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council project SOCIAM:
The Theory and Practice of Social Machines, Grant Number EP/
J017728/2. Thanks also to the anonymous reviewers of this paper for
helpful comments.
Open Access This article is distributed under the terms of the Crea-
tive Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (http://creat iveco
mmons .org/licen ses/by/4.0/), which permits unrestricted use, distribu-
tion, and reproduction in any medium, provided you give appropriate
credit to the original author(s) and the source, provide a link to the
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... Depending on the conceptualisation of the abstract, there has been talk of up to three distinct modernities (Zuboff, 2019;O'Hara, 2020). I will not enter into a review or debate of this discussion here. ...
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Zygmunt Bauman addressed spatiotemporal compression as a critical aspect of the transition from solid to liquid modernity. In this transition, speed and flexibility came to define the conditions of social life which no longer relied on spatiotemporal separation as the basis of all power relations. But digitization of these conditions raises the question of whether the present phase of modernity depicts a resolidification of capital and power that exploits the fluidity of a densely intermediated world. By treating databases as the new localities of power, the digital operations inherent to their utility and productivity render the systemic nature of intermediation as solid as the power relations of the pre-digital era. The example of mass surveillance demonstrates the solidity of a new power derived from surreptitious data gathering and collation in populations attuned to intermediation as a way of life. A new mass culture is emerging through spaces of power that have reset speed in the service of datafication. This is not simply a culture of mobility and choice but one prefabricated and utilized for advancing the redesigned solidity of a digitized modernity.
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Full-text available
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Margaret Thatcher’s statement that ‘there is no such thing as society’ has overshadowed Conservative Party politics since the 1980s, and has been the subject of exegesis and attempts at repudiation ever since. This chapter considers the statement in the context of Angus Maude’s critique of ‘society’ as a statistical abstraction, which comes, erroneously, to be taken as an agent in its own right, able to take on the responsibilities of individuals to their communities and ‘little platoons’, and ultimately to become the end of policy itself. This digital modernity, nascent in Maude’s and Thatcher’s day, is becoming increasingly influential, thanks to data-based policy and data-driven agency. The chapter argues that Maude’s subtler analysis still yields a conservative critique of digital modernity, whereas the less nuanced neoliberal individualism valorised by Thatcher may be seen as one of its enablers.
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The rapid growth of race hate speech on the Internet seems to have overwhelmed the capacity of states, corporations or civil society to limit its spread and impact. Yet by understanding how the political economy of the Internet facilitates racism it is possible to chart strategies that might push back on its negative social effects. Only by involving the state, economy and civil society at both the global level, and locally, can such a process begin to develop an effective ‘civilising’ dynamic. However neo-liberalism and democratic license may find such an exercise ultimately overwhelmingly challenging, especially if the fundamental logical drivers that underpin the business model of the Internet cannot be transformed. This article charts the most recent rise and confusion of the Internet under the impact of the Alt-Right and other racist groups, focusing on an Australian example that demonstrates the way in which a group could manipulate the contradictions of the Internet with some success. Using an analytical model developed to understand the political economy and sociology of mass media power in the later stages of modernity, before the Internet, the author offers a series of proposals on how to address racism on the Internet.
Surveys suggest an erosion of trust in government, among individuals, and between groups. Although these trends are often thought to be bad for democracy, the relationship between democracy and trust is paradoxical. Trust can develop where interests converge, but in politics interests conflict. Democracy recognizes that politics does not provide a natural terrain for robust trust relations, and so includes a healthy distrust of the interests of others, especially the powerful. Democratic systems institutionalize distrust by providing many opportunities for citizens to oversee those empowered with the public trust. At the same time, trust is a generic social building block of collective action, and for this reason alone democracy cannot do without trust. At a minimum, democratic institutions depend on a trust among citizens sufficient for representation, resistance, and alternative forms of governance. Bringing together social science and political theory, this book provides a valuable exploration of these central issues.
This book presents the emerging paradigm and methodology, Open Innovation 2.0 (OI2), which aims to help drive significant structural changes and benefits through digital innovation to society and industry. It highlights how new services and markets can be co-created in open ecosystems and how this leads to a transformation from win-lose to win-win situations for all stakeholders. Organized around a number of core patterns of OI2, such as shared purpose, partnering and platforms, this book leverages more than five years of research by the EU Open Innovation Strategy Policy group. Popularized in the early 2000s, open innovation is a systematic process by which ideas can pass among organizations and travel on different exploitation vectors for value creation. With the simultaneous arrival of multiple digital disruptive technologies and rapid evolution of the discipline of innovation, it became apparent that an entirely new approach to innovation was needed that incorporated technological, societal and policy dimensions. Unlike other innovation methodologies, OI2 is an innovation paradigm and methodology with a purpose: to seek and deliver innovations that move us collectively on to a trajectory towards sustainable intelligent living. OI2 is a paradigm advocating for disruptions, seeking the unexpected and providing support for rapid scale-up of successes. As a method, it provides a safety net for both innovations and innovators, inspiring innovators to have the confidence and courage to innovate. Featuring case studies from domains such as energy, telecommunications, transportation, and finance and from companies including Intel, Lego, Alcatel Lucent and Alstom, this book is useful to industry executives, policy makers, academics, and students of innovation and innovation management.