The digital revolution is one of the great social transformations of our time. How can we make the most of it, and also minimise and manage its risks? Jon Crowcroft and John Thompson discuss the challenges as we commence a month-long focus on ‘digital society’.

There is no better moment to bring together social scientists and computer scientists to tackle the big questions raised by one of the most profound and far-reaching revolutions of our time

Jon Crowcroft and John Thompson

New information and communication technologies are having a profound impact on many aspects of social, political and economic life, raising important new issues of social and public policy. Surveillance, privacy, data protection, advanced robotics and artificial intelligence are only a few of the many fundamental issues that are now forcing themselves onto the public agenda in many countries around the world.

There have been other great technological revolutions in the past but the digital revolution is unprecedented in its speed, scope and pervasiveness. Today, less than a decade after smartphones were first introduced, around half the adult population in the world owns one – and by 2020, according to some estimates, 80% will.

Smartphones are, of course, much more than phones: they are powerful computers that we carry around in our pockets and handbags and that give us permanent mobile connectivity. While they enable us to do an enormous range of things, from checking and sending emails to ordering a taxi, using a map and paying for a purchase, they also know a lot about us – who we are, where we are, which websites we visit, what transactions we’ve made, whom we’re communicating with, and so on. They are great enablers but also powerful generators of data about us, some of which may be very personal. Do we know who has access to this data? Do we know what they do with it? Do we care?

The rapid rise and global spread of the smartphone is just one manifestation of a technological revolution that is a defining feature of our time. No one in the world today is beyond its reach: the everyday act of making a phone call or using a credit card immediately inserts you into complex global networks of digital communication and information flow.

In fact the digital revolution is often misunderstood because it is equated with the internet and yet is much more than this. It involves several interconnected developments: the pervasive digital codification of information; the dramatic expansion of computing power; the integration of information technologies with communication systems; and digital automation or robotics.

Taken together, these developments are spurring profound changes in all spheres of life, from industry and finance to politics, from the nature of public debate to the character of personal relationships, disrupting established institutions and practices, opening up new opportunities and creating new risks.

In Cambridge, an ambitious new interdisciplinary collaboration around ‘digital society’ is being forged to bring together social scientists and computer scientists to tackle some of the big questions raised by the digital revolution.

The key idea underlying the collaboration is that some of the most important intellectual challenges in this emerging area require both a firm grasp of technology and a deep understanding of processes that are fundamentally social and political in character.

Cambridge is uniquely well-placed to tackle these challenges. As a world-leading university in computer science and technology, the University has been at the forefront of some of the most important developments in this field. Cambridge is also a leading research and development centre for the IT industry. Several significant technology companies are based here, including Microsoft Research, ARM and a sizable number of smaller companies and start-ups. There is also a large group of scholars and researchers in Cambridge in the social sciences and law who are working on aspects of the digital revolution.

By bringing together social scientists and computer scientists on specific research projects, we are forging a new form of interdisciplinary collaboration that will enable us to grapple with some of the big challenges posed by the digital revolution (see panel).

These endeavours dovetail well with research initiatives that are already under way in Cambridge, including the Leverhulme Centre for the Future of Intelligence,  the Cambridge Cybercrime Centre and the University’s Strategic Research Initiatives and Networks on Big Data, Public Policy, Public Health and Digital Humanities. Cambridge is also a key partner in the UK’s national centre for data science, the Alan Turing Institute, and in the Horizon Digital Economy programme, which aims to tackle the challenge of harnessing the power of ubiquitous computing in a way that is acceptable to society.

While the collaborative work carried out in Cambridge is primarily research-oriented, it is also likely to have significant practical implications. Cambridge has a strong track record in producing world-leading research that feeds directly into real-world applications. As examples, software systems Docker and the Xen hypervisor developed in the Computer Laboratory now run much of the public cloud computing infrastructure, and Raspberry Pi is widely used in technology education in schools.

We are living through a time of enormous social, political and technological change. On the one hand, the digital revolution is enabling massive new powers to be exercised by states and corporations in ways that were largely unforeseen. And, on the other, it is giving rise to new forms of mobilisation and disruption from below by a variety of actors who have found new ways to organise and express themselves in an increasingly networked world. While these and other developments are occurring, the traditional institutions of democratic governance find themselves ill-equipped to understand and keep pace with the new social and technological landscapes that are rapidly emerging around them.

There is no better moment, in our view, to bring together social scientists and computer scientists to tackle the big questions raised by one of the most profound and far-reaching revolutions of our time.

Jon Crowcroft is the Marconi Professor of Communications Systems at Cambridge’s Computer Laboratory and Professor John Thompson is at the Department of Sociology.

Key challenges for digital society

  • What are the consequences of permanent connectivity for the ways that individuals organise their day-to-day lives, interact with others, form social relationships and maintain them over time? 
  • What implications do these transformations have for traditional forms of political organisation and communication? Are they fuelling alternative forms of social and political mobilisation, facilitating grass-root movements and eroding trust in established political institutions and leaders?
  • What are the implications for privacy of the increasing capacity for surveillance afforded by global networks of communication and information flow? Do individuals in different parts of the world value privacy in the same way, or is this a distinctively Western preoccupation?
  • How is censorship exercised on the internet? What forms does it assume and what kinds of material are censored? How do censorship practices vary from one country to another? To what extent are individuals aware of censorship and how do they cope with it?
  • Just as the internet creates new opportunities for states and other organisations to exercise surveillance and censorship, so too it enables individuals and other organisations to disclose information that was previously hidden from view and to hold governments and corporations to account: who are the digital whistleblowers, how effective are they and what are the consequences of the new forms of transparency and accountability that they, among others, are developing?
  • What techniques do criminals use to deceive users online, how widespread are their activities and what can users do to avoid getting caught in their traps?
  • What impact is the digital revolution – including developments in artificial intelligence and machine learning – having on traditional industries and forms of employment, and what impact is it likely to have in the coming years? Will it usher in a new era of mass unemployment in which professional occupations as well as manual jobs are displaced by automation, as some fear? 
  • What are the implications of the pervasive digitisation of intellectual content for our traditional ways of thinking about intellectual property and our traditional legal mechanisms for regulating intellectual property rights?
  • How widespread are new forms of currency that exist only online – so-called cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin – and what impact are they likely to have on traditional financial practices and institutions?
  • How are new forms of data analysis and advanced robotics affecting the practice of medicine, the provision of healthcare and the detection and control of disease, and how might they affect them in the future?

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