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In the hands of the state?

Digital revolution
Forfatter: Hilde Nagell
Forlag: Res Publica (Norge)
DIGITALIZATION / Who has the right to move "freely" on the digital highways, and who is waved to the side by the police or the state intelligence service because their data profile appears on the radar?


"We are in the middle of a digital revolution", writes the Norwegian political scientist Hilde Nagell in the introduction to her book Digital Revolution. The book is an extension of a number of international publications, all of which emphasize that we are in the midst of a time of upheaval, where artificial intelligence, the Internet of Things (IoT) and Big Data will fundamentally change our lives and everyday lives: «Soon the self-driving bus will pick get up wherever you are and go when the passengers want to leave. " The image of the future is well known, a self-driving bus in a «smart» city.

But what when public transport is operated by private multinationals competing for market share in an increasingly deregulated platform economy? What if a nation's critical infrastructure – and Nagell makes a strong argument that the Internet should be included in this category, in line with eg water and electricity – is sold to the highest bidding commercial player, who then achieves monopoly-like status and can freely «set conditions for among other uses and prices »?

Nagell's stated mission with the book is to take back power and democratic control from the technology giants that define the global digital rules of the game: "In the United States, a few technology companies have grown dominant without much government intervention or regulation. Over the past ten years, Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Microsoft and Google (Alphabet) have come together at the top of the list. While many companies are struggling financially after the corona outbreak, they increased their earnings. The total market value of these four companies was a staggering $ 500 billion. "

The four tech giants

For Nagell, the growing concentration of power and capital among private actors is a worrying aspect of the digital revolution. But in terms of the total size of the four tech giants, Norwegian Nagell has a trump card up its sleeve, because "by comparison, the Norwegian oil fund is worth about $ 1000 billion". Bum. And in this small economic comparison, Nagell's core argument seems to be embedded: for it is not just anyone who must take back power over the digital infrastructure, it is none other than the Norwegian state.

The X-tee serves as a road, railway, square and platform for digital services in Estonia.

Nagell's notion of a nationalization of critical digital infrastructure draws on the history of the railway in the nineteenth century, when anti-monopoly legislation sought to break the power of industrial barons: “Should we think of platform companies like Amazon as the railway of our time? It is appropriate to have only one railway line. Historically, this was handled by the public sector operating the railway. Then you get the advantages of only one network without getting the disadvantages of a private monopoly. "

With the Norwegian state's billions in oil behind it, Nagell wants to enforce a free, transparent and "non-discriminatory" approach to critical infrastructure, modeled on the small Baltic nation of Estonia. Since 2001, citizens of Estonia have had access to a national data platform called the X-tee, which is “based on open source code and constitutes the very digital backbone of the country. X-tee functions as a road, railway, square and platform for digital services in Estonia, both public and private ». On the X-tee, citizens and businesses can handle almost everything from student loans to voting via a supposedly secure, encrypted connection. Nagell's vision is that Norway's own platform Altinn develops in the same direction, so that citizens have self-control and insight into the purposes for which their personal data is used: «Can we do as Estonia and expand Altinn to become a digital platform for everything ? »

Asian Sanz (Sp) -Human Robots. See Libex.Eu

Nostalgic longing

A digital platform for everything. In the hands of the state? It must be said that Nagell has an unusually strong confidence in the state. In this way, her project is a clear extension of the Nordic tradition of considering the state as a natural and totally depoliticized part of society. It is difficult to imagine a book like this in, for example, France, where the relationship with the state is much more antagonistic. Also at the title level, one of the most central political concepts ever, the revolution, has become an empty content marker for technological development. Admittedly, Nagell is trying to repoliticize the concept by pointing to the need for political regulation of global data markets and democratic control over critical infrastructure. But the presented solution model, the Nordic model, shares the obvious political limitations of social democratic reformism.

However, it is more difficult to follow Nagell's embrace of the nation state as the framework for these reforms.

It is so far sympathetic that Nagell wants to limit the big ones techpower of companies, and arguments about free data sharing and open source certainly make sense. However, it is more difficult to follow Nagell's embrace of the nation state as the framework for these reforms, just as the nostalgic longing for a strong trade union movement and a social democratic class compromise seems out of step with current global reality – of which even Norway is inevitably a part.

As Achille Mbembe, among others, has pointed out, the digital revolution is closely linked to the emergence of a brutal planetary frontier regime. Just as was the case with the industrial revolution, one can say that the digital revolution evokes and sharpens the contradictions that already exist in global capitalism. Now the lines are being drawn up, who is a citizen, who is not? Who has the right to move "freely" on the digital highways, and who is waved to the side by the police or the state intelligence service because their data profile appears on the radar for opaque (algorithmic) reasons?

Nordic exceptionalism

If you look a little over the mountain, beyond the Nordic countries and Fort Europe, you may see that the problems – and thus also the solutions – are global. As Aron Benanav describes in his new book, Automation and the Future of Work (see MODERN TIMES), we are now in a new phase of capital accumulation, where a significant part of the earth's population is permanently underemployed or even made redundant as a result of automation and deindustrialization.

As long as the digital revolution is spun into capital's global commodity logic, even the strongest Nordic bulwark will inevitably collapse under the pressure of the platform economy's cheap commodity prices. In that context, $ 1000 billion is just a drop of water in the ocean. Capitalism is – for better or worse – closing the brackets in history that we can call Nordic exceptionalism.

In this way, we are dealing with a highly topical book, the analysis of which has already been missed at the same time.

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Dominique Routhier
Routhier is a regular critic of Ny Tid.

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