A Reflection by Our Think Tank of Young Economists

Every episode of the online dialogues between visionary economists, organized as part of the Consultation, starts off with a personal reflection by one of the members of the Consultation’s Think Tank of Young Economists. This is the reflection of Sam de Muijnck at the start of the dialogue ‘The New Corporate Power Concentrations‘ (9 November).

We had a digital dream. The hope of creating an online democratic space that would bring people from all over the world together and spread  knowledge. But it has turned into a cold hearted profit-making machine, that is just as willing to facilitate democratic movements as autocratic regimes, hate and corporate manipulation. And it has become just as good in spreading mis- or disinformation as it is in spreading information.

In these strange times in which a pandemic has forced us to live even more in online digital spaces, as we are doing right now, these realities have become even more stark. Even in a country like the Netherlands, famous for its consensual politics, this is becoming increasingly problematic. Politicians are no longer safe to cycle on their bikes to their work because they are threatened by believers in online circulated conspiracy theories.

Unregulated profit-seeking corporations

It’s shocking for me to see how fast these things develop. I remember that about 10 years ago, I was so confident and felt like I was one of the best breakdancers. Yes there were already videos and social media. But it still took someone with an expensive camera and editing skills to make a good video that could be spread. As a result, my reference group was basically only other breakdancers from my region who I personally knew. Today the kids I teach breakdance are at least 10 times as good as I was at their age. But I was at least 10 times as confident as them. They are constantly posting and checking. I feel that every generation becomes more and more addicted, less able to concentrate, more stuck in digital bubbles, and more insecure about ourselves, to the point that
suicides increase.

But technology is not good or bad in itself. It depends on what we do with it. But as long as we let unregulated profit-seeking corporations decide, technology will be used to extract as much wealth as possible, irrespective of the harm it will do to society.So what can we do? How can we take back control over the technologies that shape our lives? And in particular, what should we do in Europe, as we are currently often dependent on foreign companies for digital technologies? Should we try to develop our own big tech? And should the government take initiative to ensure that public interests are leading, rather than ignored? Perhaps with democratically informed mission-oriented public investment as Mariana Mazzucato advocates.

We learn more and more about the impact of digital technologies on our personal lives and behavior, as well as on the public debate and social relations. Combined with the economies of scale of digital platforms giving rise to market concentration, this begs the question whether these digital products should be treated as normal consumer goods or should instead be seen as public goods, similar to utilities? Would putting public interests at the center require a fundamental change in business models and corporate governance? Should we break them up, nationalize them, force them into an open-source model, or just better regulate their behavior? And what should be done to prevent a further fusion between big tech and finance?

Finally, what should we do with data ownership? Over the last years, the European Union has taken steps to better protect people’s data. What next steps should the European Union take to fundamentally alter the ‘data economy’ and move us away from surveillance capitalism as Shoshana Zuboff described it?

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