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Exponential View

Azeem Azhar's Wondermissive: Future, Tech & Society
  This issue has been supported by our partner, OnePlus
Welcome note

Today's EV is guest-curated by Toomas Hendrik Ilves, the first digital head of state.

As President of Estonia from 2006 to 2016, Toomas rode the bow-wave of what sovereignty means in the networked, information age. From introducing Estonia's path-breaking e-residency programme to digitising public services, and regular cyber-skirmishes with a resurgent Russia, Toomas has been a president from the future handling the opportunities and threats of our increasingly digital world.  


I've got to know Toomas, both as a subscriber to Exponential View, and through the many profiles of his work.

We’re honoured to have him on board. I hope you enjoy his Exponential View.

Azeem

Two cultures, colliding

Hi, I’m Toomas Hendrik Ilves, former President of Estonia. I currently divide my time between Stanford, serving as the co-chair of the WEF’s Global Future Council on Blockchain, and a member of Munich Security Conference Advisory board. You can follow me @IlvesToomas.

While we revel in – or at least enjoy – the technological advances, from social media to ride services, we have yet to understand or come to terms with what all this entails for electoral democracy as well as our privacy. Geeks and techies rarely think about the ethical and political implications of their products; politicians, law and policy makers often lack the basic skills to even understand how technology has changed how democracies work.

The exceedingly small Venn diagram intersection set between technology companies’ understanding of democracy and democratic governments’ understanding of technology has been a concern, both professional and now academic, for at least a quarter-century. This edition of Exponential View is largely devoted to this.

Nonetheless, governments and tech, despite living in nearly separate worlds will inevitably collide. To lessen the clash, each realm will need to educate itself about the other.

This 1959 essay by C.P. Snow, Cambridge University physical chemist and literary novelist (who inter alia coined the term “the corridors of power”) spells out what the divide between the humanities and the sciences meant for the university. Back in 1959, however, technology was hardly ubiquitous and all-encompassing as it is today. You could watch television but it could not watch you. If you left the room with your fixed-line phone, no one knew where you were. Today, there is little in your life that passes without technological mediation. The problem of the university in 1959 is today a problem of contemporary life.

Dept of meddling

While Russian meddling in elections troubles the US and Europe, this piece by the former Facebook employee and best-selling author Antonio Garcia Martínez argues that Facebook’s pricing policy had no small role in the US elections of 2016. He writes: “In essence, Clinton was paying Manhattan prices for the square footage on your smartphone’s screen, while Trump was paying Detroit prices. Facebook users in swing states who felt Trump had taken over their news feeds may not have been hallucinating.”

🇮🇹 A look at recent Russian meddling in social media in Europe in the lead-up to the Italian elections last week and the problem of governments’ handling of the meddling. With a more granular report from El País… and a postmortem on interference and echoing in the just held Italian election.

Russia’s Troll Factory is now trolling Russia itself, mostly with insults. “Kremlebot says [...] there is no point in trying "to persuade opponents of the current policies and we don't bother. Now the struggle is for the mass of the population”.”

As we begin to understand how powerful social media networks can be in democracies, Christopher Mims argues that distributed networks can easily be exploited by small groups to become vertical hierarchies: “Even when networks aren’t architected for this kind of control, they tend to organize themselves in ways that lead to disproportionate influence by a handful of their members. When any new person or entity joins a network, it is likely to attach to the most visible hubs, making them even more influential”

🏭 Shelby Holliday and Rob Barry write about how Americans’ personal data was extracted from Facebook by the Kremlin’s “Internet Research Agency” (a video included).

The US’ longest-serving diplomat, Daniel Fried, now retired takes on defending democracy against disinformation.

Meanwhile, it should be increasingly clear that digital threats, often from the same actors affect many, primarily democratic countries and that this requires liberal democracies to act in concert. On this same theme, I recently wrote a piece myself. Carnegie Europe published a different take, questioning officials’ readiness and appetite to strike back.

💯 And finally, the journal Science has published two articles on “fake news”, one on its role today and the second on how it travels relative to real news. Great reads.

Dept of regulation & digital state

Governments are beginning to move on these issues, mainly in the European Union. The European Union’s GDPR – General Data Protection Regulation – will come into force in May. The implications of this new legislation will be far-ranging, affecting media agencies, domain-name system administrators, and ultimately, tech companies, as it is the “biggest shake-up of European privacy laws since the 1990s.” It will probably affect you, too.

✊ Regulators are coming from various sides. This is important as cyber-security is a multi-faceted affair, with threats emerging from a number of corners, including the financial system, healthcare organizations, and election systems. This piece covers the complexity well. At the same time, it has been great to see the US states taking more agency. Two recent examples: Maryland leaders advancing legislation to regulate tech giants, and Washington state passing laws to protect net neutrality.

Author Andrew Keen in his new book How to Fix the Future does see a role for government in the digital era, and inter alia sees Estonia as a possible model.

💥 Since my country is constantly discussed for its digital governance, this is the best article I have read about what it is that Estonia has done in the past quarter-century since re-establishing its independence. And since we just celebrated 100 years since Estonia first became independent, this is an especially appropriate piece for Exponential View on how government can play a positive role in technology. “A tenet of the Estonian system is that an individual owns all information recorded about him or her. ”

I do think the relationship between government and the digital world is one of the biggest we face as we are only now beginning to grasp its complexities. Hence, my hope is that this Exponential View will get you thinking how we might constructively work through these issues.
What you are up to

🚀 EV reader, Dr. Noah Raford, Futurist-in-Chief at the Dubai Future Foundation has announced the launch of the Space Settlement Challenge. A seed grant-supported challenge calls for exploratory proposals from all areas of research pursuing new concepts, solutions, and business models for living and working in space.
End note

The purpose of guest editions of Exponential View is to let you hear from an alternative (and expert) voice.

I agree that questions of sovereignty, the social contract, governance, the nature of the relationships between the state, the corporation and the individual are of utmost importance. These relationships will change over the next decades and not all our institutions will be adaptable to survive that change.

I’m grateful to Toomas to give up his time to give us his perspective. Please take a moment to thank him.

See you next week!
Azeem

P.S. If you liked this issue, please forward to a friend, share on Twitter, Facebook or LinkedIn.
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