That is the question at the heart of twelve interviews AMS-IX is publishing over the next year with thought leaders in fields such as quantum computing, democracy, emerging markets, AI, regulation, ESG and MedTech. One thing is clear: what the internet looks like in 2050 will largely determine what the world looks like in 2050. The goal of this series is to provide strategic and applicable insights.
Good policy is not limited to the present, but extends to the future. But what will the future look like? If the recent past teaches us anything, it is that technology is developing at an ever-increasing pace. Which innovations are delivering on their promises? Which developments are we overlooking today that will turn out to be decisive in 2050? These are the questions answered in this interview series.
2050 seems far away, but it’s closer to the present than 1995. By comparison, in 1995 there were only 100,000 frequent internet users in the Netherlands (just over 0.6% of the population). It is hard to believe today, but in 1997, growth in the number of internet users in the Netherlands even stagnated. The developments leading up to 2050 may be just as surprising.
Twelve experts guide us through their fields and help organisations prepare for unexpected developments. These thought leaders take an in-depth look at high-profile innovations and tell us whether we are dealing with hype or ground-breaking change. The first expert in this series is Rudy van Belkom, who expects e-democracy to be the future. Read the full article to find out what he means.
CHAPTER 1 - Democracy
Rudy van Belkom, director of The Netherlands Study Centre for Technology Trends (STT), is hopeful when it comes to democracy. He anticipates a future in which technology drives innovations in democracy in Europe and elsewhere around the world. The author of Alive and Clicking argues that society needs to undergo a cultural shift and embrace technological changes to make democracy future-proof.
I expect e-democracy to be the future. 2050 will probably look a lot like 2023 and many fundamental innovations only follow after 2050. We overestimate shorter-term changes and underestimate long-term ones.
I wouldn’t call myself either an optimist or a pessimist. Optimists assume things will all work out somehow, pessimists think the opposite. I see that democracy is facing real challenges, but I’m hopeful that we can overcome them before it’s too late. Remember the storming of the U.S. Capitol, polarisation on social media and fake news being spread? You may also remember the Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma in which Silicon Valley pundits talk about how they regret their inventions, such as the like button on Facebook. There are plenty of challenges, but they are solvable If only we make different choices.
The Dutch childcare benefits scandal is the most revealing and poignant example of how technology can harm citizens. This political scandal came to light when the Dutch Tax Administration wrongly accused around 26,000 parents of childcare benefit fraud. This left them in serious financial trouble and, in some cases, their children were even taken away from them. The government was using technology as a monitoring tool. Self-learning algorithms were used to determine which benefit recipients were audited more often. One of the variables that that algorithm was trained with is whether someone has a second nationality. You don’t need an advanced knowledge of algorithms to see the impact that has. It makes no sense to make distinctions based on a characteristic like that. But something else was also going on: the government was acting on the basis of mistrust, rather than trust in its citizens. In my line of work, trust is the holy grail. The government can solve so many problems by placing more trust in its citizens.
Democracy is not in great shape at the moment. Citizens are unhappy with the way they’re represented. They don’t feel heard. I think there are digital technologies that can help fix that. I expect e-democracy to be the future. Digital tools can give more people a say, even more than something like a citizens’ council, for example. Citizens’ councils require people to be there physically, which means there’s a risk that they overrepresent the privileged and the activists.
One tool that can help shape e-democracy is Polis. It’s an AI-driven conversation tool that’s already being used in Taiwan to help thousands of people participate in the decision-making process. Its algorithm identifies user groups based on their views, rather than characteristics such as origin or education level. It looks for similarities between their views and helps them to reach a consensus. I’m sure that farmers and environmentalists have certain ideals in common, but you’ll never see that until you get them in one room together. An algorithm like the one used in Polis helps solve that problem.
If technology is really going to play a bigger role in democracy, we’re going to need a more democratic internet. The platforms that currently exist may be user-centred, but they place the interests of shareholders above those of public values. Technology is a design issue. Angry people stay online longer, so they generate more ad revenue. The people who take advantage of that principle to optimise their earnings model are creating a polarised society. I’m not sure if the Metaverse is the solution, but we need to innovate our way out of the grip that big tech has over the internet. A multidimensional internet, where you reside and not just browse, can make that democratic process easier. Virtual voting, for example, is more accessible than physical voting.
Elon Musk proclaimed that Twitter is a town square, which means everyone should always be able to say anything there. Twitter is a commercial company though, so in that analogy, it’s more like the pub in the village square. The problem is that there’s no alternative; there’s no digital village square where we can all come together. Online, we live in a world of bookstores, not libraries or public spaces. I hope we will start building those libraries, and I think Europe will. The United States thinks from a market perspective, China from a state perspective, and we are somewhere in between, both geographically and ideologically. Examples like the Dutch “polder” model – one of consensus-based decision-making – civil society and the most far-reaching legislation for technology companies come to mind. Speaking of libraries, inside the computer game Minecraft, Reporters Without Borders built a digital library, where people could read books that were banned in some countries. Initiatives like that inspire hope, because they help us shake off the heavy weight of the present.
I expect democracy to fundamentally change, and the initiative for that change may not come from Europe alone. At the same time as the internet was becoming available to consumers, Taiwan became a democracy, so the two became increasingly intertwined. Our democracy is a bit older, so it’s more entrenched. Innovation is likely to come from younger democracies anyway. Taiwan’s Minister for Digital Affairs, for example, is a former civic hacker and activist. That also illustrates the differences between our cultures: instead of condemning an ethical hacker, they ask them to help think about the future. This shows trust in citizens. This Minister for Digital Affairs wants to use technologies to not just detect problems but also to help solve them. That ensures a healthier, reciprocal relationship between the government, citizens and technology.
What strikes me in the way we think about the future is that we often think in dystopian scenarios, like something out of Black Mirror. I think the biggest surprise for the year 2050 will be that, for the most part, our democracy has not changed. Perhaps we overestimate the changes in the short term and underestimate them in the long term. Between 2015 and 2020, I asked my students to go offline for a day and keep a diary. True, they were using different platforms in 2020 than in 2015, but not that much changed in those years. I don’t expect flying saucers in 2050 or any big leap into virtual space. I do hope that the world will be a bit more tolerant by then, that we will have learned how to disagree with each other in a friendly way. E-democracy, a more democratic internet and the cultural shift where distrust gives way to trust will hopefully follow after 2050. At least, if we do our best to bring that about, now and in the years to come.
Rudy van Belkom is the Executive Director of The Netherlands Study Centre for Technology Trends (STT) and speaks and writes about the influence of technology on society. He developed the “Technology Kieswijzer”, an innovative voter assistant that guides citizens on tech-related topics such as privacy, fake news and the power of Big Tech. Almost 30,000 people have used this voting tool. The insights Rudy gained during the process form the basis for his book about hope for democracy, Alive and Clicking.