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Why people need to shape our trusted online future

Kenny MacIver & Rae Ritchie— November 2019

Award-winning speaker and author Andreas Ekström highlights the threats to the integrity of the global internet — and why we need a ‘Greta Thunberg for digital.’

• Fujitsu Forum Munich 2019 keynote speaker •

Across the arc of history, the introduction of a revolutionary technology — the steam engine, the printing press, the telephone and aviation, for instance — has typically been followed by a long period of uncertainty and disruption, when societal, government and business forces work out the true value that new technology brings and the direction it should take.


According to Andreas Ekström, the digital revolution fueled by the internet, now used by 4.4 billion (57%) of the world’s population, is no exception — it’s just the chaotic period is a little faster.

“There’s always been about 100 years of chaos when something revolutionary happens,” says the journalist, author and keynote speaker in our exclusive Big Thinker video series. “We think about 1995 as the starting year for the digital revolution because that’s when people really started to have internet in their own homes.”  But by his calculation — and that of his favorite thinker, New York University’s new media professor and author Clay Shirky — the exponential growth of digital means “everything happens faster.” That puts us about halfway through what is a 40 t 50 years period of revolutionary uncertainty.

For Ekström, that upheaval currently manifests itself in three major ways: the geographical fragmentation of the internet (he points to China, Russia and even the EU as actors here), the dilution of trust in the information presented on the web, and the attempts by certain governments and business to abolish net neutrality.

As such, he argues humankind is now at an inflection point where it needs to shape the direction of internet and the digital world it wants for the future — the alternative, he says, will be the end of the free, open, borderless internet as we have known to date.
 
There is certainly a lot at stake. “The 2020s are going to be an incredibly exciting time to be alive. But there are so many things that we have to figure out. Somehow, we need to define a truly global internet again. We need to look at freedom of speech, at freedom of commerce, at the civility of how we talk to each other online.

“So we need to do everything we can, at every level of all things digital, to create a global internet again.” If we don’t, he says, business and governments will progressively take control of the channels and scope of the internet, which will breaks it down from “an ocean to a set of puddles” of online activity, each governed by separate rules.
People power

This situation is not going to be resolved easily — or by a single organization or action. “We can’t look to one particular company or one brilliant law to solve this,” says Ekström. “This is going to have to be something that we do collectively; we the people have to do this.”

Certainly, more people are aware of how the internet and the personal data it gathers are being manipulated by powerful forces. “What we’ve been seeing for the past five years or so is a larger public awareness of just where the power is and who [needs to] be held accountable for the actions and the decisions that are being made? It is much the same as the climate issue, where we are waking up to the reality that we the people need to do something about it.

“We can do this, it’s up to us. And if we don’t, somebody’s going to be come and completely change the terms for [the internet’s role]. We’re just going to have to be really alert as citizens,” he says.
Activists for digital

As with action against global warming, Ekström believes defining an internet of the future that is pluralistic, diverse, democratic and a catalyst for innovation needs multiple active players. “We look at all these things that we have to address, and maybe governments are going to take the lead or businesses are going to do it. But what I would want first of all [is] a Greta Thunberg for digital.”

He says of the 16-year-old Swedish environmental activist: “That is the highest level of integrity I’ve seen in a person in I don’t know how long. I’d like to see that with digital. I’d like to hear people saying, “Stop, we’ve got to make sure that we get this right.’”

• Photography by Jonatan Fernstrom

First published
November 2019
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About: Andreas Ekström
An author, keynote speaker and commentator on the digital revolution, Andreas Ekström serves as a partner on all things digital to business and public service leaders. His passion is to educate for digital equality and to understand the companies and behaviors that have become the culturally, technologically and commercially drivers of digital change at all levels of society.

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