vendredi 11 novembre 2011

The Occupy Movement:

The tip of the digital revolution iceberg?

Could it be that the occupy movement around the world were simply the first reactions from the street to the socioeconomic changes brought on by the digital revolution? After all, the industrial revolution saw its own share of hard fought rebalancing on the social front.

Indeed, the steam engine completely transformed lives at the time: peasants moved from the countryside to cities, leaving the fields to work in factories. People became waged, blue collar workers. Eventually, child work was regulated then outlawed. The workweek for adults also was regulated, then gradually reduced.

In other words, back in the 1850s, the pressure from the street, from people protesting, wrestled back the socioeconomic pendulum. The new found wealth from productivity gains and innovations was partly shared between the haves and the have nots.

Nowadays, the computer is the equivalent to the steam engine 200 odd years later: a new technology triggering spectacular ripple effects for the last 30 years or so. The early digital revolution has been completely transforming our lives just as in similar ways the industrial revolution did some 200 odd years ago.

Technological innovation and social unrest

What is the common denominator? A phenomenal technological innovation. The difference? Maybe the scale of the changes: at the national level back in the 1850s; at a global, planetary level today.

Another similarity: in both eras, the private sector is always the quickest to adopt the new technologies. Then ensue deep socioeconomic and geopolitical changes. Eventually, civil society, though pretty stunned at first, wakes up and tries to rebalance the situation.

While computer-based information and communication technologies have made it possible for a new wave of globalization to occur in the production and trade of goods and services, the financial sector was probably the first one to seize on these new tools.

In other words, computers have contributed to a greater global integration and have enabled much faster flows of financial exchanges. The global financial networks, symbolized by the so-called global cities such as New York, London, Tokyo and now Shanghai, are the direct offsprings of the digital revolution.

On the other hand, the very same technologies - in particular communication technologies - are now allowing “the people” to share information and get organized more quickly as well. Thus the current protest movements.

Of course, protesters are questioning the toxic excesses of the global financial sector, especially in the U.S. (which explains why this movement was labeled "Occupy Wall Street/ Bay Street" in North America, while in the rest of the western world, protesters are referred to as “the indignants.”)

But at a deeper level, these protests may well be the first signs, the tip of the iceberg (or the canary in a coal mine), of a rebalancing of the socioeconomics in this early digital revolution. Very much so, similar to the social unrests of the 1850s following the profound changes from the Industrial Revolution.

So what if this Occupy movement and other indignants throughout the western world were simply the first rebalancing acts of the early digital revolution? A social reaction to the changes the digital revolution has brought about, very much in the same way the Industrial Revolution triggered spectacular economic and social changes 200 years ago (and long before that the way the agricultural revolution had deeply transformed hunter - gatherer societies 12,000 years ago.)

Finance: early adopters and lightning rod

Many economic sectors are experiencing the changes in this digital era. Let’s not forget though that the financial sector was one of the earliest adopters of digital innovations: current global financial markets were built on the new digital information and communication technologies

Finance has probably become the focus of these protests, the lightning rod, because the excesses of this sector are the most visible (and the most deeply felt in the United States, particularly since the near financial collapse in 2008.)

Indeed, the current economic slowdown was triggered by the real estate crisis in the US, following the deregulation and turmoil in the American financial markets.

In this regard, wasn't the original role of finance in society to gather capital to allow large projects to proceed: projects such as large scale manufacturing operations and infrastructure projects - such as bridges, canals (Panama, Suez) or here in North America, the great railways to the West?

Financiers understandably made money (on top of an interest rate) to pay for their services as well as a return for the risk they were taking, because these large projects had the potential to fail and engulf these monies. In return for the financial profit, financiers were providing society with tangible added value: a physical infrastructure.

These days, however, financial products have become increasingly complex. They end up making money in an abstract way, often without contributing most of the time any tangible wealth in real terms.

Moreover, financial markets are increasingly automated and managed by computer programs. Algorithms buy and sell by the thousandth of seconds, with a short-term gain strategy. These transactions more often than not bear no connection to the underlying assets: the health of the private organizations.

Once again, profit is pocketed without any creation of real, tangible wealth, meaning without creating any positive, added value for communities and nations. (The financial sector argues back all these new tools contribute to managing risk and therefore to eventually increased economic well-being.)

In the end, these protesters are definitely questioning the deepening gap between the rich and the poor, revealed in a growing concentration of wealth in the world - otherwise know as “the 1%”.

But these protests are most certainly arising out of the disconnection between the accumulated financial wealth on the one hand and the lack of real, tangible value wealth in the real world, on the other hand.

Above all, of course, these people are protesting against the toxic excesses of the financial sector. A sector that has not only made massive profits, but has done so with some negative consequences at times (the 2008 financial crisis and ensuing recession) instead of actually contributing to the greater good in a tangible way. In brief, offering no positive repercussions, but actually triggering disruptive ripple effects.

The “bit” generation strikes back

At the dawn of 2012, a mere 25 years since the founding of computer giants Microsoft or Apple, is it not time to take a closer look at the deep changes since the onset of the digital revolution?

Starting with the financial sector, is it not time to start reassessing these new practices, instead of letting our societies speed forward like on a runaway train, only to end up on the brink of a precipice, as witnessed in 2008?

Is it not time to reform this international financial system instead of shoring it up and stitching it back together using band-aid solutions?

After all, isn't money the blood of the economy? In this context, the international financial system may well be suffering from digital leukemia, a blood cancer triggered by the bits, the “1” and “0” of the computer language, that may well have altered its DNA and is at risk of spreading further if left unchecked.

In the end, these protests throughout industrialized democracies could well be the tip of the digital iceberg, a sign of the urgent need not only to go back to the original function of finance, but to review the global changes that have arisen from the computer era.

Isn't this the message we could be hearing, albeit scrambled and unfocused, from the Occupy movement and other “indignants” around the world?

What if these protesters were the first reformists of the current early digital revolution: the “bit” generation waking up in the western world, as they did in the Arab world, and taking on the digital revolution?

Charles-Antoine Rouyer is a Toronto-based independant journalist and course director at York University.

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Computer technology has deeply transformed our lives in the last 30 years; is civil society simply starting to push back ?

What if these protests were simply the bit generation waking up and taking on the early digital revolution?

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Friday 11 November 2011

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