The Fluid Society

Review by Indrasish Banerjee on “The Digital Challenge for Europe”

Originally published on Reedsy Discovery

Loved it! 😍. Like me, if you are fond of making sense of a changing world through facts and arguments, this one is for you.

Just like the industrial society had to be governed differently from the peasant society, the digital world increasingly demands other forms of governance. Traditional laws no longer function properly, governments are losing grip on internet and digital developments, tech giants increasingly dominate the digital playing field, economies are rapidly changing from traditional to digital and cybercrime is given free rein. Digitalization also offers excellent opportunities to achieve the necessary global changes and improvements in numerous areas, such as migration, climate, good education and good healthcare for all.

This book takes an in-depth look at possible new forms of governance in the digital world. Europe has been taken as the starting point. First of all, because the author is most familiar with the state of the art in Europe, but also because Europe has already been taking a number of important initiatives in the field of digital legislation. Nevertheless, Europe is in many ways still very much behind large countries such as the US and China. This book makes suggestions to strengthen the European digital position in coming years. This is badly needed for the future prosperity of Europeans and for Europe’s position in the world.

We are on our way from a classical world to digital world, but it’s not easy to make the transition because it means changing how societies have functioned for so long. According to Peter Hagedoorn, the biggest challenge facing us is that the classical world functions based on barriers and means to enforce those barriers. And since the beginning of society, laws and institutions have been framed such as to support this physical form of existence, a rigid form of existence, which places limitations on humans moving across borders and being governed by the same laws universally. The nation state is a byproduct of this system.

This form of existence, by extension, creates a ‘we-they’ mentality which only strengthens the physical barriers and creates a sense of separateness among people based on physical and cultural boundaries. Conversely, according to Peter Hagedoorn, a digital society requires absence of borders so that there can be seamless movement of people and ideas. Peter compares the classical society to ice cubes and the digital society to a fluid form.

The Digital Challenge for Europe is a sequel to A Plea for a Digital World, also reviewed by me sometime back. As I mentioned in the review of the first book, I was left a little underwhelmed by it. It had left me feeling the subject had much more to offer than the book delivered. Its scope was too large – global – and therefore the arguments had sounded specious. The issues discussed had mainly centered around the Western world but for the sake of the scope, there was a visible effort to pass off as global issues.

The solutions to digital challenges proposed in the book reeked of lack of knowledge about the world beyond West. The West was shown as a benefactor and the rest, beneficiaries.

However, in The Digital Challenge for Europe, Peter Hagedoorn has got one very important thing right. He has restricted the scope to Europe. The book first deals with the differences between the classical and digital world, then slowly moves into the benefits of a digital world, meandering into challenges facing Europe when it comes to transforming into a digital world, ending with what Europe can do to overcome those challenges and how some of the practices and structures in the classical world can be used for the digital world (like Global Parliament of Mayors). Along the way, Peter has discussed larger issues mainly related to technologies, security and geopolitics. The digression is pleasant giving the narrative heft and context. It reads very natural because none of these issues are disconnected.

According to Peter, unlike the earlier centuries when countries had to be superior in many areas to be a superior power, in the 21st century technological superiority will determine which country has global leadership. Peter rues that, in this regard, Europe has fallen behind the two global giants, China and the US, which are determining the global tech narrative for other nations.

Home grown technologies have helped the two giants be ahead of others in the race. Of course, the US still has an edge over China, since China doesn’t have some of the technologies the US has, but China is fast catching up by sending its people abroad to acquire technological knowledge and encouraging growth of indigenous technologies by placing restrictions on foreign players, particularly those from the US, Google, Facebook etc. You cannot fight that strategy, Peter affirms.

The vision of a digital world projected by Peter at times seems like a communist utopia which is unlikely come to pass in its entirety. In fact, there is evidence to suggest that countries are going in the opposite direction: using technologies to enforce national barriers. China, for example, has come up with a digital passport which validates whether those going to China from abroad have received covid vaccine and has said only those who have received the Chinese vaccine will be allowed to come in.

But admittedly, we are inexorably moving towards a digital world. However, whether a digital / barrier-less world will replace the classical world or we will forever stay in transit is another matter. I think both worlds will survive and one will support the other.

The book is very informative and if, like me, you are fond of making sense of a changing world through facts and arguments, this one is for you.

Indrasish Banerjee is knowledge management specialist with an IT company, a blogger, fiction writer and professional reviewer.

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