Dirk Helbing on the Democratic, Participatory Market Society

” the company “Recorded Future” – apparently a joint initiative between Google and the CIA – seems to investigate people’s social networks and mobility profiles.”

After describing a present-future society where all our private data are controlled by corporations (“Google as God“) and governments, Dirk Helbing, a Professor of Sociology at ETH Zurich, proposes the alternative: The Democratic, Participatory Market Society

“In an increasingly unstable world, surveillance, combined with the manipulation or suppression of undesired behaviors, is not a sustainable solution. But is there an alternative to the omniscient almighty state that matches our ethical values? An alternative that can create cultural and economic prosperity? Yes, indeed!

Our society and economy are currently undergoing a fundamental transformation. Global networking creates increasing complexity and instability that cannot be properly managed by planning, optimization and top-down control. A flexible adaptation to local needs works better for complex, variable systems. This means that managing complexity requires a stronger bottom-up component.

In the economy and the organization of the Internet, decentralized self-organization principles have always played a big role. Now they have also spread to intelligent energy networks (“smart grids”) and traffic control. One day, societal decision-making and economic production processes will also be run in a more participatory way to better manage the increase in complexity. It seems the natural course of history. A growing desire of citizens to participate in social, political and economic affairs is already found in many parts of the world.

The Democratic, Participatory Market Society

In connection with a participatory economy, one often speaks of “prosumers”, i.e. co-producing consumers. Advanced collaboration platforms will allow anyone to set up projects with others to create their own products, for example with 3D printers. Thus, classical companies and political parties and institutions might increasingly be replaced by project-based initiatives – a form of organization that I would like to call “democratic, participatory market society”.

To ensure that the participatory market society will work well and create jobs on a large scale, the right decisions will have to be taken. For example, it seems essential that the information systems of the future will be open, transparent and participatory. This requires us to create a participatory information and innovation ecosystem, i.e. to make large amounts of data accessible to everyone.

The Benefit of Opening Data to All

The great advantage of information is that it is (re)producible in a cheap and almost unlimited way, so that the eternal struggle for limited resources might be overcome. It is important that we take advantage of this and open the door to an age of creativity rather than limiting access to information, thereby creating artificial scarcity again. Today, many companies collect data, but lack access to other important data. The situation is as if everyone owned a few words of our language, but had to pay for the use of all the other words. It is pretty clear that, under such conditions, we could not fully capitalize on our communicative potentials.

To overcome this dissatisfactory data exchange situation and achieve “digital literacy”, one could decide to open up data for all. Remember that most countries have also decided to turn the privilege of reading and writing into a public good by establishing public schools. It is well known that this step has boosted the development of modern societies. Similarly, “Open Data” could boost the development of the information society, but the producers of data must be adequately compensated.

A New Paradigm to Manage Complexity

Access to data is essential for the successful management of complex dynamical systems, as it requires three elements: (i) proper systems design to support predictability and controllability, (ii) probabilistic short-term forecasts of the system dynamics, which need plenty of reliable real-time data, and (iii) suitable adaptive mechanisms (“feedback loops”) that support the desired system behaviour.

Managing complexity should build on the natural tendency of complex dynamical systems to self-organize. To enable self-organization, it is crucial to find the right institutional settings and suitable ‘rules of the game”, while avoiding too much top down control. Then, complex systems can essentially regulate themselves.

One must be aware, however, that complex systems often behave in counterintuitive ways. Hence, it is easy to choose the wrong rules, thereby ending up with suboptimal results, unwanted side effects, or unstable system behaviors that can lead to man-made disasters. The financial system, which went out of control, might serve as a warning. These problems have traditionally been managed by top-down regulation, which is usually inefficient and expensive.

Loss of Control due to a Wrong Way of Thinking

Whether a system can be adequately managed or is self-organizing in the way we want is a matter of systems design. If the system is designed in the wrong way, then it will get out of control sooner or later, even if all actors involved are highly trained, well equipped and highly motivated to do the right things. “Phantom traffic jams” and crowd disasters are examples of unwanted situations that occur despite all efforts to prevent them from happening. Likewise, financial crises, conflicts and wars can be unintended consequences of systemic instabilities. Even today, we are still not immune to them.

Therefore, we need a much better understanding of our techno-socio-economic-ecological systems and their interdependencies. Appropriate institutions and rules for our highly networked world must still be found. The information age will revolutionize our economy and society in a dramatic way. If we do not pay sufficient attention to these developments, we will suffer the fate of a car driving too fast on a foggy day.

Decisions Needed to Use Opportunities and Avoid Risks

To meet the challenges of the 21st century and benefit from its great opportunities, a Global Systems Science needs to be established in order to fill the current knowledge gaps. It aims to generate new insights allowing politics, economy and society to take better informed, more successful decisions. This could help us to use the chances of the information age and minimize its risks. We must be aware that everything is possible – ranging from a Big Brother society to a participatory economy and society. The choice is ours!”

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