Not very long ago, the World Economic Forum (WEF) released a promotional video that immediately went viral – triggering intricate Reddit conspiracy theories, extensive YouTube commentary, and an all round internet backlash. This eventually led to clarifications and backtracking on the organization’s part. The cause? Largely, one of the first frames of the video, which boldly proclaimed – “in 2030, you will own nothing, and you will be happy”. In seeking to imagine a brave new world eschewing ownership, the creators, it seems, were comically oblivious to the pushback such a projection may invoke in popular sentiment, not least from its resemblance to the worlds of dystopian literature.
While amusing, the mishap also confronts us with a sadder truth. More often than not the WEF doesn’t get caught out this way. Rather, its discourse – expertly messaged as “future preparedness”, “social responsibility”, and “helping the poor”; all buzzwords of contemporary business – succeeds in shaping key agendas. This far-reaching agenda-setting power of the WEF on global economic affairs demands critical attention and scrutiny, especially with respect to emerging debates on the digital economy.
The narrative around the ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’ as a panacea for contemporary development problems, and as the driving force of the future economy, has been one of the central pillars of the WEF’s vision.
The narrative around the ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’ as a panacea for contemporary development problems, and as the driving force of the future economy, has been one of the central pillars of Klaus Schawb, Founder and Executive Chairman of the WEF, and the WEF’s vision in recent years. This was more than evident in the Davos Summit’s virtual ‘State of the World’ sessions that concluded this past week. For all its avowed allegiance to progressive values, this narrative has served as a dangerous vehicle for the consolidation of corporate power, and it continues to hold sway in the larger conversations shaping the trajectory of our digital future. Thus, it is crucial that its most recent manifestations be unpacked and critiqued.
From Inclusion to Cooperation: WEF’s Shifting Rhetoric of Status Quo
The recently formed (and WEF-affiliated) Edison Alliance, a multistakeholder coalition that ostensibly works towards mobilizing a ‘global movement’ to prioritize digital inclusion as foundational to the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), was announced at a session dedicated to discussing the fourth industrial revolution. Upholding the coalition as the model for change, panelists at the session – Samir Saran, Sunil Mittal, Hans Vestberg, Paula Ingabire – validated its key focus areas of health, education, and financial inclusion as the main avenues for the next phase of the digital revolution. Zeroing in on the challenges of building the necessary infrastructure to achieve the ambitious goal of digital inclusion, they identified the need for strong government investment to support private enterprise in this endeavor.
Since the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS), the rhetoric of ‘digital inclusion’ has been used to give Big Tech firms not only the power to normalize connectivity as a market good but also directly influence policies in the Global South. More recently, mobile operators have demanded that states prioritize the release of spectrum, with an eye on 5G networks and Internet of Things (IoT) applications to allow the market to build new, smartified innovation environments. Simultaneously, the ideas of digital public goods (DPGs) and digital public infrastructures (DPIs) are gaining currency as critical to the future of digital inclusion.
In a recently published article by the WEF that coincided with the Davos sessions, it was argued that when building their digital infrastructure, governments have three main options: 1) Build their own solutions, often too costly and technically challenging, 2) Lease or buy proprietary technology, which can limit customization, 3) Deploy digital public goods (DPGs), including open-source software that meets the UN-governed DPG Standard, allowing customization and digital sovereignty. However, the conception of data sovereignty in this discourse on DPGs is completely decoupled from any framework for global governance of data resources that can ensure public interest in the deployment of these new infrastructures/goods, prevent capture of open data by big players, and safeguard human rights. Rather, it ends up open-washing the public-political right of people to self-determine how to govern their data.
‘Cooperation’ for the exchange of digital solutions, without an international framework for democratic data governance, only legitimizes Big Tech firms as saviors of developing countries.
The WEF article also points to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and Modular Open Source Identity Platform’s (MOSIP’s) initiatives to build and use DPIs and DPGs through “digital cooperation”, yet another term with dubious content. ‘Cooperation’ for the exchange of digital solutions, without an international framework for democratic data governance, only legitimizes Big Tech firms as saviors of developing countries. Solutionistic cooperation conflates the technical with the political by hijacking the WSIS mandate for “enhanced cooperation” among nation states for the public governance of the global digital paradigm.
The WEF formula for the fourth industrial revolution leaves unanswered the question of inequalities and injustices arising from hierarchies of digital intelligence, which continue to stratify the world. Our digital commons may be recognized as global public goods; yet, the stakes are unequally divided between governments and Big Tech firms, and the Global North and South. The large-scale privatization of the data commons effectively implies a loss of democratic, collective control which ought to be the premise of global digital cooperation. It is imperative that we trace the WEF’s agenda of fostering digital cooperation within its own logic – endorsing private control over digital ecosystems at the expense of public interest. DPGs and DPIs cannot be alibis for data extractivism. Rather, what we need is the digital capability and decisional autonomy of countries systematically marginalized in the global discourse.
Agile Governance: Old Wine, New Bottle
A central argument in the Davos session on ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’ was the need for states to prioritize agility and restraint. The discussion emphasized the pace of technological change as a justification to negate “too much regulation”, which it was claimed could stifle innovation. What was proposed, instead, was ‘agile’ governance – legislative frameworks that would do no more than restraining the misuse and abuse of new technologies. Moreover, when pressed about the fact that the regulation is indeed necessary to tackle large-scale disruption to jobs and the swallowing up of small and medium enterprises by Big Tech players, panelists Hans Vestberg and Sunil Mittal posed these as problems of “technological inclusion and technical integration”. They claimed that investment in digital skills and the digitalization of smaller businesses can address these woes.
The society-wide disruption of traditional economic sectors unleashed by digital platforms, particularly in the Global South – be it in agriculture, ride-hailing or retail – cannot be remedied by promoting digital literacy or upskilling.
Such a perspective is problematic on several levels. To begin with, it clearly elides the true issues by framing the problem as one of access. The society-wide disruption of traditional economic sectors unleashed by digital platforms, particularly in the Global South – be it in agriculture, ride-hailing or retail – cannot be remedied by promoting digital literacy or upskilling. The problem is one of market-power, whereby the Big Tech behemoths are able to leverage network effects and data-based service optimization to destroy competition. The only genuine possibility of mitigating this dynamic is through robust regulatory interventions that curb the unique forms of monopolistic behavior pertaining to digital platforms.
Moreover, the idea that the pace of technological change necessitates a minimalist approach is well contested. The World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), for example, argues that the rapid pace of technological change is precisely an imperative for policymakers to think more systematically and comprehensively about regulatory frameworks. Indeed, looking at the key domains of health, education, finance which the WEF’s Edison Alliance aims to target in its quest towards accelerating digitalization for development, there is considerable evidence to show that unregulated digitalization has caused significant problems in these areas. The digitalization of education is mired in problems of access, pedagogy, and children’s rights that have been damaging of actual educational outcomes in many instances; and fintech’s expansion has often resulted in debt bubbles, gambling addictions, predatory lending and the extraction of sensitive financial data. While prescriptions of ‘agile’ governance may sound alluring, the idea of leaving it up to large oligopolistic actors to act responsibly is but a recipe for the kind of problems noted above.
The unspoken upshot of this proposed regulatory minimalism is an endorsement of the current status quo, where large tech companies from the Global North can consolidate their gains. This was brought into stark relief in 2019 when the WEF became the launching platform for the plurilateral negotiations on e-commerce by 76 members of the World Trade Organization (WTO). Driven largely by the US, this agenda aims towards binding rules that institutionalize the free flow of data undergirding Big Tech’s business model, making it harder for countries to control their data, tax Big Tech, and to hold Big Tech accountable on their shores.
Challenging the Neoliberal Core of the Davos Vision
As the discourse of the WEF returns to long standing, over-simplified debates around access and connectivity, the financing of infrastructure, the relative roles of state and private actors, and their prescribed forms of alliance, it is crucial to note the silences that mark the framing of these issues.
While the need for government financing may indeed be paramount to building connectivity, especially in the Global South, questions around how developing countries will raise resources towards this, within the global political economy of development, and without conditionalities/dependencies, remain unanswered. Indeed, even as the importance of public infrastructures and forms of digital sovereignty at the national level made way into the Davos sessions, the larger questions of global data governance without which such frameworks would continue to be co-opted by Big Tech, were conspicuous by their absence. Moreover, while the need for upholding the privacy and security of personal data was acknowledged, there was no engagement with the economic stakes of data, and how its extraction and concomitant generation of economic value could be made more equitable.
This last issue serves as the key to the neoliberal underpinnings of the Davos imagination of the fourth industrial revolution. From the perspective of the economic control of data, the quest for ‘digital inclusion’ appears as a crusade to secure new pastures from which to extract vital resources; and the call for governments to finance the growth of ‘connectivity’ appears as a self-serving push to have governments subsidize big business.
While the WEF speaks extensively about the economic potential of the fourth industrial revolution, it does not espouse a conception of data and digital technologies as the site for building and safeguarding a new commons, one that can genuinely be harnessed for economic development, equity, and public good. Consequently, it remains wedded to the relentless expropriation of data by private enterprise, portending that this dynamic will somehow yield progress. Much in the way the selfishness of the capitalist will eventually bring about the collective good, as the old Mandevillian fable goes. Such a perspective is at odds with the actual interests of the Global South.
What is needed, then, is a genuine engagement from an equal footing and a negotiation of ideas that can institute an equitable and just global order based on a transformed, people-led, multilateralism.
The fundamental changes to the core structures of our socio-economic reality are closely tied to developments in the digital realm. As these transformations occur, nations and people are pitted against each other in a race to capitalize on their potential, which will help them secure key places within emerging value chains, and gain invaluable comparative advantages.
We live in times where antagonisms are most pronounced, and inequalities are stark. What is needed, then, is a genuine engagement from an equal footing and a negotiation of ideas that can institute an equitable and just global order based on a transformed, people-led, multilateralism. The type of ‘inclusion’, ‘cooperation’, ‘publicness’, and ‘progress’ being propagated at Davos is an attempt to ensure such engagement and negotiation do not occur.
This is a synthesis based on inputs also contributed by Anita Gurumurthy, Satyavrat Krishnakumar, Deepti Bharthur and Shreeja Sen.