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The World of Ones and Zeros

Social Consequences of Digitalization. New Working Paper by the Research Group on the Global Future

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01.06.2000 · Research Group on the Global Future


Ones and zeroes, the basic positions of computer switches, in their trillions make the digital revolution. Signals, switches, packets set the ones and zeroes in motion, making them more productive for the people who build, maintain and use the networks of digits. These networks, from the simplest cable connecting a computer to a printer or a sensor regulating fuel flow into an engine up to the private networks that speed billions of dollars around world financial markets or the public internet make the digital revolution beneficial and inescapable. Like DNA assembling proteins into cells and organisms, the simplest elements of the digital world give rise to unexpected complexity and consequences at the human scale. Ones and zeroes shape our lives today as surely as DNA does; the institutions of our societies could as little function without digital information as our bodies could function without oxygen. Coming to grips with the digital revolution is a question of survival as well as an opportunity for prosperity; it is simultaneously necessary and liberating. Fortunately, the benefits far outweigh the dangers for both individuals and societies.

What makes the process of digitalization, the conversion of information into computerized form, revolutionary? First, digitalization allows duplication with an unprecedented degree of accuracy at an extremely low cost. Second, it allows transmission of copies with no loss of contents and without destroying the original. Third, within the confines of the earth, copies can be transmitted effectively instantaneously, eliminating many of the barriers distance had previously posed to commerce, culture, and even personal relationships. Fourth, the capabilities of the machines necessary for digitalization are growing rapidly, setting up a cycle of increasing usefulness. Fifth, the costs of participating in the revolution’s benefits are sinking, broadening greatly the number of people who stand to gain from digitalization. Finally, as with industrialization, each of other five processes of digitalization reinforces the others, increasing the contrast with non-digital approaches while spurring the further evolution of digital methods.

Each of these propositions deserves individual exposition, as well as demonstration of how it plays out in practical terms. One useful way of assessing the digital revolution, after clarifying some of its general aspects, is to consider its impact on four concentric circles in modern societies: finance, business, government and society as a whole. These realms are obviously interrelated, but also nested within one another; that is, finance is more a subset of business than vice versa. In general, the digital revolution is further advanced in the smaller circles than in the larger ones, thus providing a preview of possible effects when changes wrought by digitalization reach the larger scale. Approaching concentric circles of change shows the time lags involved in coming to terms with digitalization and some of the disruption and misunderstandings that arise from those lags. With general propositions established and cases examined, it is also useful to point out areas of potential opportunity and conflict.

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