Behind the Great Firewall. (Credit: Mike Licht/Flickr)
Behind the Great Firewall. (Credit: Mike Licht, 'Google in China'/Flickr licensed under ) (via: bit.ly)

For a long time, a drastic new chapter for civil society –  digitalisation – was indelibly linked to the United States. The socio-normative force of new technologies seemed equally dependent on US business models and the American way of life.

In the 1990s, the ‘mediatisation’ of society became clear. Canadian philosopher Marshall McLuhan’s phrase ‘the medium is the message’ became reality, as did his concept of the ‘global village’ with the advent of the Internet. It was the beginning of a deeply American story, where the now-legendary Silicon Valley provided inventors spirit, technological heights, and new formats for the distribution of information. A seemingly infinite number of new communication tools revolutionised the horizon of the digital age.

The consumer-oriented character of digital communication was combined with an exploding media market because the digital economy changed the relationship between investment, production, and commercial value. For example, it astronomically boosted the yields of the so-called ‘big five’. Unsurprisingly, they have become the most valuable companies in the world.

The undisputed leader is Apple. The iPhone manufacturer is worth over $800 billion dollars on the stock market. Google’s search engine now represents at least $600 billion dollars of market capitalisation. Together, the big five have a stock market weight of nearly three trillion dollars – more than twice as much as all DAX-listed companies put together.

At first, focusing on technology and markets, the beginning of the new media economy was accompanied by promises of open platforms without borders and the potential of greater democratisation through the Internet, which increasingly came to offer innovative instruments for citizen participation in politics. The reader, listener, and viewer could have access to more information than ever before. We were even confronted with the artificial term, ‘prosumer’.

The dominance of the United States in this first phase of digitalisation also led to a familiar feeling in the ‘old world’. A polarisation between unconditional US confidence in the growth of digitalisation and Western European culture-critical pessimism has arisen regarding the digital future. Doubts about the preservation of informational self-determination and genuine social participation have been a determining factor in this negative position.

Even in the early days of digitalisation, the rapid development of technology and markets became more and more of a reality. Social and scientific discourses were heavily dominated by the new digital reality. In the long-run, this was supposed to include the demolition of current political practices and norms.

The first euphoric phase of digitalisation ended when the internet bubble burst in 2000.

The American digital dream, balanced between an almost insatiable market and a permissive society, has threatened to become a gloomy vision of the future, fearing the loss of the civil society’s traditional values. Talk has turned to monitoring and manipulation, fuelled by the excesses of open social media. Fake news, echo chambers, and filter bubbles have displaced the promises e-governance and self-determined communities.

The broader dimensions of digitalisation, with their drastic implications for society, are beginning to be felt: the control of living conditions, and the production and distribution of goods. Doubts as to the preservation of informational self-determination and genuine social participation are becoming more and more of a reality.

How much digitalisation relativises and alters civil society’s traditional values is becoming clear, as is the way its new forms of control and production fundamentally influence social and economic realities. The Internet of Things, for example, even promises to alter the public space by promoting the use of artificial intelligence.

A discussion is also emerging about the future of social order and social conflict zones. This includes the substitution of ‘human work’ with robots and even the ultimate fear of cyber wars.

Despite the increasingly existential pessimism, the initial digital euphoria will not turn into an apocalypse by digitalisation.

Today’s elites are beginning to determine the consequences of digitalisation and attempting to find solutions. In contrast, someone like Donald Trump tries – in a politically destructive way – to fuel the mood of his countrymen by replacing conventional politics with Twitter. The matadors of so-called social media must be taken to task in public debate to thwart such destructive developments.

Fake news, filter bubbles, or echo chambers generate and manipulate civilised society. Even Mark Zuckerberg has been forced to try to incorporate ethical safeguards into Facebook. Topics such as free access to the Internet or antitrust enforcement are at the forefront of political debates and infrastructural projects, prioritised due to fears of the digital divide.

Increasingly, discussions have turned to previously underestimated questions. Topics like educational or intercultural differences, and access to modern and electronically mediated communication, are becoming increasingly important. The public discourse then begins to question the dominance of Silicon Valley.

The horizons of globalisation are shifting as the American model of market democracy is weakening. This is no longer a feature of East-West relations, but relates to multipolar models and the potential, for example, of digitalised BRICS countries.

The group of five emerging economies, first referred to as the BRICS in 2001 by the chief economist of Goldman Sachs, Jim O’Neill, is slowly gaining its own economic profile and demonstrating how the tectonics of the world economy may shift.

According to Statista (2015), the share of the global economy managed by respective groups of countries has changed significantly since the mid-1990s. The share of the BRICS grew from 18 percent in 1995 to 31 percent in 2015. The EU’s share shrank from 25 to 17 percent, while that of the United States shrank from 20 to 16 percent.

It is true that the developments in the BRICS economies should be assessed differently from one another, in order to understand the potential of their digital infrastructures. But socially deficient emerging markets, or ‘new’ big players in the global economy like China, could bundle their growing economic potential into a common strategy for global digitalisation. Emerging markets such as India can also compensate for their rapid economic growth by developing digital infrastructure in medical care, for example.

The digital outlook for Chinese society is currently a subject of much discussion. For political and cultural reasons, China has developed its own digital cosmos, but it also sees its path as a new exportable model. At the Digital Dialogue of Civilizations conference in Berlin in March 2017, a Chinese colleague made a presentation with the title The digital storytelling of China’s Belt and Road initiative. The presentation explained a conceptual model that drew connections between economic concepts and digitalisation. At present this is of course still merely a hypothesis and by no means a reality.

Currently, the dynamism of digitalisation is not reflected globally. But it is manifesting itself in the local integration of communication around public space, for example, in the construction of the ‘smart city’. Yinchuan in northern China, the first Chinese model of a smart city, is a digitally designed home for two million people. The initiative is the result of a national plan for the construction of new cities to respond to China’s rapid urbanisation and exhibits the aspirations of the Chinese government to innovate in its management of growing urban populations.

Traditions and cultures, both rural and urban, are sacrificed in favour of new, urban, digitally designed communities. A new set of collective norms is beginning to dominate, resulting in collateral damage to older traditions.

China is looking to export the full range of Web 2.0 technologies to the Internet of Things. At first, Chinese media industries sought to expand into new territories, identifying mechanisms by which Chinese cultural and media products could be traded and consumed like finished content, co-productions, formats, and online platforms. China is also considering the value of overseas location shooting for domestic television programmes, and the acquisition of international media assets.

Soft power communication has expanded to become a digital economic ‘power export’. Inspired by China, fellow-BRICS member India is also following the smart city model. The largest of these smart cities is to surpass those in Mumbai. Gujarat International Finance Tec City (GIFT City) is the first edition.

In view of the shifting potential of the global economy after the effective digital dominance of the US, a new social form of digitalsation seems likely to emerge. The social megatrends shaping the future of civilisation – technology, economics, and value systems  – are also shifting, becoming more interculturally differentiated and increasingly evaluated according to ethical standards.

The digital discourse is currently characterised by mutual misunderstanding. Western views are often condemned in favour of the collective models of Asiatic digitalisation. In the ‘old’ Western European world, the fear of the loss of one’s own individual identity also plays a role. The fear is that the individual is consumed by a new identity based on a collectively designed algorithm. The critical view of social digitalisation since the end of American dominance seems to flow into a new and more fundamental discourse about the foundations of society.

Digitalisation is not a self-reliant development that inevitably results from technical invention, commercial evaluation, and social, as well as individual, self-realisation. The new value chain and its digital currency do not simply lead to a new economic and social order. Digitalisation is certainly not the key to some kind of liberation technology.

Rather, digitalisation raises the previously neglected question of how individual societies are constituted. The present geopolitical situation, with its multipolar conflicts, has led to a deterioration in social discourse. The fact that academia has concentrated on the so-called ‘applied sciences’ is also an issue. However, the geopolitical shift away from ‘East and West’, towards multipolar positions and approaches, offers an opportunity for more diverse discourse, perhaps even a constructive competition over digital social models.

The digital system change is taking place globally under conceivably different conditions. Only basic objectives should be analysed through a universal lens: securing medical care, educational participation, mobility, and the creation of meaningful work that will inevitably be provoked by artificial intelligence.

The differences are intercultural: on one hand, deriving from Confucius, we have the collective concept of social development based on collective innovation, the heirs of which see censorship or control of communication as necessary. On the other – Western – hand, communication derives from the origins of bourgeois society.

The ideal of civil society promoted the necessary separation of the private sector and the state, with civil society ideally playing an independent mediatory role in society.

This is a central issue in Western discussions of the digital future. For instance, the German social philosopher Jürgen Habermas sees a paradigm shift facilitated by digital mass communication, in which the old mainstream media are being replaced by self-organised communication in the form of social media. This newly created meaning of (civil) society collides with the traditional machinery of power, politics, and business.

Structural aberrations that first manifested in social media make clear how much dialogue is necessary. The geopolitical shift of digitalisation away from American domination towards multipolar approaches offers new opportunities. For this, a new dialogue of civilisations is required.

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Jens Wendland

Foreign Professor, Faculty of Journalism, Lomonosov Moscow State University; Professor, University of Arts, Berlin, DE

Jens Wendland is a cultural and media science specialist, a lecturer at University of Arts, Berlin; and visiting professor for the chair of media science and media economy at the journalist faculty of the Lomonosov Moscow State University (MSU).He has authored articles on culture and media for newspapers and broadcasters including FAZ, Süddeutsche Zeitung, West German Radio, and Nomos publishing company.He has worked as an editor and program manager at Public Radio, Berlin, and until 2012 he was the German manager of the free Russian-German institute of journalism at MSU.