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Internet and the new media: how democracy is changing

Rome, 13/11/2019, Roundtable for Aspen University Fellows

The third Aspen University Fellows round table focused on the digital revolution’s impact on democracies. The world is currently experiencing a sort of mingling of physical and digital continents. In its early years, the web was seen as an extraordinary invention that would have made it possible to govern existing communications systems by fostering the birth of a more pluralistic society. However, this promise went unfilfilled once the algorithms underpinning the web gained the upper hand, effectively limiting the possibility to make choices based on initial individual preferences and facilitating the interface of users with similar opinions and backgrounds.  

Concern was expressed over the many non-democratic countries on the Asian continent using new technologies as extremely effective population surveillance and control instruments. Indeed, it is in the areas of the planet where democracy has least taken hold that de-centralization of the internet is perceived as most urgent, with a view to restoring citizen/users control over their own data. Particularly relevant in the debate was the topic of blockchains, a system that could easily be used by governments to incentivize virtuous behaviour.

Nevertheless, this scenario does not appear to represent the truly radical nature of the evolution that the web could undergo. While the moment is approaching when half the global population will be connected to the web, the principal sector corporations have already declared their intention to eliminate the smart phone within the next decade in anticipation of a transition from the concept of on-line to “on-life”. Thus, a utopia/dystopia of permanently connected citizens, which will be all the more difficult to govern and contain within an institutional and value-based democratic framework if governments, beginning with those Western liberal democracies, fail to make the effort to understand the phenomenon fully.

Essential to governing the digital revolution will be the implementation of regulations regarding how social platforms operate, investments in permanent training, especially in information and communication technology, and focusing on how to preserve the centrality of the person in the technological evolution – i.e. how to trigger a new humanism in a non-humanistic era.