The Fluid Society

Review by Patrice Chazerand on “The Digital Challenge for Europe”

There is much to love in Peter Hagedoorn’s vision of a “Fluid Society”. There is also much to question. This is precisely what makes this reading so compelling.

Europe’s self-inflicted wounds
Take the “We-they” stance legitimately portrayed as blocking progress. But what else should we expect from sovereignty or national security raising their not-so-pretty heads around the world lately? Closer to home, what else should we expect from a power structure resulting from careful, detailed split between member States and supranational institutions?
In our region of the world, most politicians keep refraining from making enough room for IT in the political arena. This much is certain: the room they slowly, reluctantly come to conceding is no match to the flood of digital goodies that have been feeding consumers’ expectations across the board for decades. Such a blatant discrepancy begs this question : is digital technology human-centric by nature? If so, policy makers have only to speed up and unlock access to all IT bounties in store. If the answer is not so clear-cut, policy makers are only delivering on their remit by checking how digital technology can support democracy at every step of the way. The question they are elected to ask, i.e. “What’s in it for my people?”, is indeed our most effective shield against abuse or mere negligence by operators foreign to the constraints of a public remit.
The author of course supports this traditional view: “Governments must, together, make rules to prevent misleading or criminal information from being disseminated through the internet and social media.” There’s the rub: democratic and authoritarian regimes won’t easily agree the same rules.

Charting an existential path
This is precisely where Peter Hagedoorn takes us to the most compelling part of his reflection, i.e. possible solutions suggested from Chapter 4.4 “Europe’s digital perspective” onwards and articulated in five key clusters : promoting of a European Industry & Champions; new multilateral European forms of cooperation; legal and legislative frameworks; actions on behalf of citizens, such as reorganizing the labour market; reconsidering Europe’s geopolitical position. Back to above considerations on how rules are made and enforced, the same rules do apply on driving along small roads in the countryside and major tollways, the latter being often run by private operators contracted under “public service concession”. Irrespective of a split reflecting a variety of traffic levels, the onus lies with one single entity, namely police forces, to keep highway robbery, for instance, off-limits to a nation’s entire communication network. Peter Hagedoorn hints at this model on dubbing digital infrastructures “digitilities”, complete with all the public requirements associated with utilities.

Another sunny side is Peter Hagedoorn’s adult take of soft power vs hard power, a theme swept under the carpet more often than not as ostriches would do with their head when danger is lurking around: the European Defence Agenda he envisions is fully loaded with Europe’s brilliant accomplishments in nuclear, aerospace, AI technologies, etc, a clear invitation to the newborn “geopolitical EU” to display assertiveness in a poorly joined-up concert of nations. Why would Europe refrain from flexing its muscle occasionally, whereas military power has been the elephant in the room in whatever conversation or tension is occurring between the US and China ? For all the flak it has attracted so far, the UK’s Integrated Review may well be held as a model for a holistic approach to the regal prerogatives of modern democracies.

It befits Peter’s professional career to fall for business-style, no-nonsense, actionable solutions. In particular, his vision of “A world of sectors” embodies a piecemeal, hence more realistic approach to addressing the steep challenges his book has bravely listed. The way forward is certainly no picnic. But at least if you cut a daunting job into pieces left to true experts to deal with, you stand more chances to meet early success in, say the health sector, until the energy industry is able to take cues from it.

In short, the average reader will learn a lot from this 360° overview of our current world that leaves no stone unturned in its determined quest for a better 2121. This unparalleled food for thought provides a matchless inspiration for the myriad debates that ought to take place, particularly among young Europeans, regarding these existential dimensions of our/their future. Our average reader may well emerge from this immersion in observation-based science-fiction with two beliefs :

  • Our future will as ever be informed by coalitions of the willing. Where there is a will, there is a way and vice-versa, where there is a will to have one single nation “rule the waves”, there is no way that the feeling of belonging in One World might prevail. The challenge is: how to turn life in Marshall McLuhan’s “global village” from wishful thinking into daily reality?
  • Talleyrand once decided that ‘Whatever is exaggerated becomes meaningless’. Almost three centuries on, one of our biggest threats is the belief that a digital magic touch will turn anything into gold. Cutting people down into data may well ease their handling and processing anywhere anytime, but this will always be restricted to the side of us that can be automated and, yes, enjoy a Midas touch, albeit at the expense of humans’ signature flexibility and agility. As everyone of us keeps experiencing day after day, even in times of hardship such as a pandemic, life has better treats in store for us.

Brussels, April 2021, Patrice Chazerand, Director, EU Affairs, The Global Digital Foundation shares his impassioned preliminary take of Peter Hagedoorn’s latest book.

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