The theme of last year’s Davos, the Fourth Industrial Revolution, became the underlying force driving many of the unexpected developments we’ve seen in 2016.
With the rapid and exponential growth of connectivity and networking predicted by Moore’s Law, the Fourth Industrial Revolution is disrupting many fields, but none more strikingly than democracy — and capitalism. Both institutions are based on the freedom to choose a leader, product or service based on the best available information. But only now are we realizing the significance of how this information is created, delivered, modified and consumed — how it has been skewed by the exponential growth in communications technology.
From the advent of language and the alphabet, through the evolution of printing, broadcast and the telephone, the control of communications was historically in the hands of a privileged few.
In fact, the original purpose of the Phoenician alphabet, from which most modern alphabets developed, was to restrict information to those who could read. However, with the advent of the internet and the hyper-connected, interdependent world that now exists, we have only recently begun to fully grasp the power of communications between any group of people, anywhere on the planet at any time — simultaneously.
Compounding that, traditional forms of individual and mass communications are waning. Witness shrinking print newspaper readership, broadcast television viewers and fixed line telephones.
Ancient history: A wounded officer reading The Times’s report of the end of the Crimean War, in John Everett Millais’ painting Peace Concluded.
Until a few years ago, the internet was still treated as a digital version of previous analog broadcast technologies like TV, newspaper or radio. However, with the advent of affordable mobile devices and social networks, we have finally seen a technology emerge that offers interaction, engagement and collaboration across the world in real time, among groups as small as two and as large as millions.
Private-sector social media platforms, such as Twitter and YouTube, allow anyone to transmit information to the masses without gatekeeper approval.This has redefined the broadcaster-audience equation. Previous power-brokers can no longer control the limitless information passing directly through cyberspace to personal smartphones. Entrenched rights are being dismantled, a new power is emerging in the world and ICT is leading this change.
There have been many benefits to society from this change. It’s now much harder to conceal things like political corruption, product defects and inadequate service. When politicians miss parliamentary sessions or make different promises at two different campaign stops, the news is immediately disseminated. For businesses, a “hot mic” moment can go instantly viral or a seemingly minor problem with a product can evolve into a global recall — and corporate scandal — in an instant.
In 2016, a perfect storm of technology advances combined with marginalized voices led to everything from Brexit to the recent U.S. presidential elections. Even with the huge growths in online retailers at the expense of their physical counterparts, we are all confronted with a new world order in which traditional assumptions of everything from news reporting and polling to advertising can be wrong. This is causing every government and business leader to question how to lead effectively and responsibly amid the confusion based on inaccurate information.
When confirmation bias runs the world
These surprises weren’t supposed to happen in the era of big data and artificial intelligence. Both the quantity and quality of information were supposed to get better. But as we became comfortable and confident with technology, the fundamental way we communicate and exchange information also changed.
This era of anytime mobility helps like-minded individuals band together via social media. They share information which isn’t necessarily incorrect, but is definitely myopic and biased, leading to what psychologists call “confirmation bias.” In the last few years, supporters who shared tweets and articles and reaffirmed beliefs that furthered their cause unleashed a populist movement that changed everything from geopolitics to who gets to live in America’s White House and South Korea’s Blue House.
Pundits everywhere have been speculating about how the economy, international politics, immigration and even the environment will change with these surprises. But even before these events, the world was already changing. Just ten years ago, such electoral results would not have been possible. In fact, back then the five largest companies on the planet were oil or oil-related. Today, the five largest are all information-based — data has truly become the “new oil” and, as with oil, it’s a resource that’s full of opportunities and surprises.
Unlike traditional public utilities, communication infrastructure and media, as well as the infrastructure underlying the internet, is now mostly owned by private groups. This is another example of how the balance of power between public and private forces has changed and even transcended boundaries of sovereignty, further complicating governments’ roles and making this a truly global issue.
Today’s biggest companies are based on information
Will all this change affect the ICT industry? The answer is no. ICT played a key role in 2016, and it is clear that the Fourth Industrial Revolution will continue to drive politics and industry. Leaders should interpret the events of last year as a sign that communications have been truly democratized. The technology that allowed electorates to organize and coordinate in unforeseen ways to determine the fate of an economic union, as well as the impeachment or selection of the next leader, is affecting other areas of society in as yet unforeseen and unexpected ways.
This is the new reality, but mainstream media, government and industry is just starting to grasp the ramifications of a mobile, hyper-connected, anytime/anywhere world. It’s also important that leaders grasp this fundamental change in the way we communicate and make decisions. At this year’s Davos, the theme of “Responsive and Responsible Leadership” is a good opportunity to talk about this new context. It’s the start of a new era and the birth of new communication controlled by the many, not the few.
Leaders today must realize that the revolution in communications is not an extension of the old ways, but a whole new paradigm. Anyone can become a broadcaster, pollster or news-maker. The full meaning of this change, evident in the votes of 2016, is only starting to reveal itself.