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The Digital Age and the Modern Social Contract

Hala Boumaiz | Posted : November 15, 2019


The effects of new technologies on the ways in which we think, govern, work and socialize are already posing complex problems for decision-makers, citizens and corporates, leading to reactions of rejection that reflect fear or lack of preparation in coping with digital transformations. Due to these changes, the classical patterns shaping our society - be it within the political, economic, or social spheres - have been rapidly altered. With this fast-paced transformation, the general interest - placed at the heart of the social contract - is at stake; therefore, deeply affecting the core relationship between the state and the individuals living within its bounds.

This has been one of the many topics raised at the 7th edition of the Atlantic Dialogues, organized by the Policy Center for the New South, under the theme “Overcoming the Choke Points.” In a plenary session entitled: “The Digital Age and the Modern Social Contract,” an intellectually diverse panel attempted to overcome the choke points dividing digitalisation and society. By addressing the immense challenges and opportunities of the new disruptive age, we got a step closer to understanding the prospects of the traditional “social contract” in a world that is increasingly digital and data-driven.

A New Social Contract 2.0 ?

Despite the speakers’ diverse experiences, there was a broad consensus that the classical social contract is obsolete in the digital age, with 70 percent of the panel agreeing on the need to establish a new one. The most advanced argument against the Social Contract in the digital era is that it is a vestige of a now closed historical sequence. Looking back at the past industrial revolutions, it is not the first time that a string of new technologies disrupts societies. The transition from hand production methods to industrial production had led to tremendous wealth creation, the emergence of wage labour, as well as the birth of a consumer's society. However, laws of information differ from those of physical productions. Information and communications technologies (ICTs) deal mainly with intangible and abstract assets such as algorithms and databases. In fact, ICTs are growing vigorously at twice the rate of the average in other industries. Internet penetration has increased almost sevenfold over the past 15 years, from 6.5% of the world's population in 2000 to 43% in 2015.”1

By drawing an analogy with the social contract, the prevailing idea would be that the cyberspace is considered as the manifestation of an anarchic and fragmented post-modern society. Some people went as far as naming the cyberspace as the “State of Data” (in allusion to the State of Nature) to portray how ICTs can be limitless – and, sometimes, unethical - but most importantly, how they can plunge the relational concept of "society" into a market-logic based on profit. This poses the problematic of privacy, human rights and security within the cyberspace.

If there really is a need to establish a new social contract for the digital age, how would netizens2 curtail their individual freedom in exchange of security, and which entity would serve as the Leviathan guaranteeing their protection? When thinking about which entity would guarantee our protection in a data-driven society, the main concern would be ‘trust.’ As Lex Paulson, one of the panelists and a professor at Sciences Po. stated: “we cannot create new agreements with people who do not trust each other.” Whether in a written or unwritten form, trust is the main element of contractual agreements. As stated at the very beginning, the trust reigning between the various stakeholders has been broken and people are either rejecting or fearing digitalisation. One of the most prominent examples would be the governmental and corporate approaches towards data. Silicon Valley’s giants (Apple, Google, Amazon etc.), for instance, are using data to power their business opportunities without considering the privacy concerns of individuals.

Is Data the New Oil?

As oil was once called the "new gold," the data can now be described as the "new oil." If ‘’extracted’’ and ‘’refined’’ with the necessary care - not only massively collected, but also subjected to careful analysis - it could create tremendous wealth. However, “data cannot be resourced in the same sense as oil is resourced (…) once we get into that, the government starts to control that resource and that perhaps becomes as dangerous as when Facebook controls it” clarifies Sunjoy Joshi, Chairman of the Observer Research Foundation (ORF).

Moreover, one of the core elements of the social contract is to justify power. Personal data is legitimately used in biometry, which strengthens the “security” individuals are seeking for. Hence, “If governments have access to our data, it would be an entity that we have elected ourselves, whereas corporates do not have this legitimacy” explains Jamira Burley, a 2018 Atlantic Dialogues Emerging Leaders alumna.

The Priority Dilemma: Access or Privacy?

If the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica scandal has stirred the debate on privacy, leading to the immediate response of the European Union with the GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation), developing countries value access as a priority. “The desire is to get as many people connected as they can, digitalisation is becoming closer to governance (…) even the action of calling an ambulance depends on whether you are using a 2G or a 4G phone” emphasized Sunjoy Joshi, by referring to four main pillars of concerns regarding the use of data and ICTs: Privacy, Accuracy, Property and Accessibility -abbreviated to “PAPA.” If we were to establish a new social contract in the digital age, we would have to make sure that every part of the society has access to innovation. There seems to be a huge gap between citizens who strive for a technology that would respect their personal data, and citizens who would demand more technology for better governance. Today, Africa is hopping on the bandwagon of technology by creating tech hubs in Kenya, Morocco, Nigeria, Rwanda… etc. African countries also aspire to build "African Valleys" which will inevitably contribute to achieving a model of development similar to the "Silicon Valley" model.

1 Adapted from remarks delivered by Angel Gurría, Secretary-General of the OECD in Cancún, Mexico, on 21 June 2016 | OECD Observer No.307 Q3 – 2016

2 “Netizen” is a term coined by author Michael F. Hauben meaning "citizen of the net"

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