The evolution that the digital age is experiencing, started only a few decades ago, is taking an unexpected turn, characterized by the affirmation of what is called “surveillance capitalism”, an increasingly invasive system in people’s lives promoted by action convergent of large digital companies and public administrations of states. The recommendation to act urgently to correct the affirmation of this system, in which the many benefits of the digital age are accompanied by strongly negative elements, is contained in an important document – the “Ugra Memorandum” – which was approved by participants in the III international interdisciplinary conference on the state of information and communication in the digital age, promoted by Unesco, as part of the XIII Forum on IT Information Technologies and the Information for All Program IFAP, carried out in a hybrid modality last June 2021 in Khanty-Mansiysk (Ugra – Russia). The focus of the conference, which was attended by more than 150 experts (including the representative of Eurispes) from 58 countries, was to evaluate the socio-cultural and ethical aspects of the impact of digital technologies, in particular artificial intelligence, on individuals and society, the progressive involvement of people in universal connectivity and the parallel disappearance of the borders between the real and virtual world. In two days of intense discussion, philosophers, sociologists, anthropologists, psychologists, linguists, economists, computer scientists, operators in the world of education, the creative industry, highlighted the most complex and multiple aspects of what is commonly recognized as the transition to a new world order with principles and norms of economic development and social relations that are decidedly different from traditional ones, a process that the modern citizen has difficulty understanding in its evolution and implications.
Digital platforms evolved into “gigantic digital monopolies”
The key point of the reflection concerns the fact that digital platforms were initially created to achieve certain objectives or solve important problems related, for example, to the need to facilitate the exchange of information, create social networks, promote efficiency in commercial activities; but they then evolved into “gigantic digital monopolies” which, in particular, encompassed the entire world of industry and services. According to the Memorandum, digital platforms have allowed the organization of entire digital ecosystems, in which giants operate that “are engulfing the communities of the physical world, intruding on government services, reshaping public and private economic activities, disrupting traditional models of business and social responsibility systems”.
Surveillance capitalism is a system that contradicts the rights and freedoms of citizens
This new ecosystem built by digital companies is based on the permanent collection and use of personal data, often obtained without prior consent; a collection of data that has become a source of extraordinary profits and, this is the point to be emphasized, a tool for controlling and managing the thinking and behaviour of individuals and communities. We have thus arrived at what experts called by Unesco have defined as a “surveillance capitalism”, a system that has remained unnoticed for a long time and which in fact contradicts the rights and freedoms of citizens, enshrined in the Universal Declaration of the Human Rights and by the constitutions of most countries in the world. A system, specifies the Ugra Memorandum, which places new constraints on the psychological and intellectual state and the well-being of individuals, aims at the “normalization” of universal surveillance and at an increasingly pervasive and rigid hidden control of human behaviour.
This situation fuels new processes of isolation, social exclusion and radicalization
«The Internet and, in an increasingly broad and pervasive way, digital platforms – continues the document – are increasingly turning into tools for an illicit, massive and unlimited invasion in the minds of citizens, and therefore in their behaviour in civil society, leading, in certain circumstances, to various types of discrimination, attempts to introduce changes to power structures and public policies for the benefit of certain stakeholders». «Digital platforms and social media are also progressively undermining the positive effects of free trade of information through powerful means of re-directing the flow and access to data and information», increasingly locking people up in information bubbles that function as filters (“filter bubbles”). And again: «freedom of expression and information is giving way to a progressive narrowing of the discourse allowed in the digital space, since these platforms become the means not so much to communicate, inform or educate, but to stimulate and mobilize the public. This situation exacerbates the atomization of society and fuels new processes of isolation, social exclusion and radicalization, causing discord between people, social groups and even between states. A massive decrease in the level of critical thinking is accompanied by the emergence of waves of information epidemics (infodemics) on a national and global scale».
Unesco’s “Ugra Memorandum” proposes about surveillance capitalism
To correct the negative effects of “surveillance capitalism”, Unesco’s “Ugra Memorandum” proposes, as a premise, to spread the practice of an interdisciplinary and systemic approach to the maximum in the evaluation of the ongoing processes of the digital revolution and to urgently promote a joint effort, between public and private operators, to define a Universal Digital Code of Ethics, as a tool for: a) defining the limits of the digital revolution, with respect to the values and principles of reference of individuals and communities; b) to direct the digitization processes in a direction of real and equitable political, economic, social and cultural progress of humanity; and c) operate as a fundamental tool for the development of coherent regulatory systems. This fundamental operation must be accompanied, in parallel, with specific initiatives such as, for example, the dissemination of study programs in schools aimed at making young people understand the ambivalent aspects of the digital revolution; the opening of public-private discussions on governance systems of digital systems, in order to ensure the active participation of civil society; constant public-private monitoring of the “socio-humanitarian” effects of digitization processes, also with the support and guarantee of independent public supervisory authorities.
The socio-cutural impact of surveillance capitalism
The digital revolution underway cannot be evaluated only in terms of economic advantages and opportunities but also, at the same time, for the socio-cultural impact it is having on people. We are facing radical changes in reference values and the need to reinterpret rights and freedoms: a challenge that requires, in particular the scientific community, to manifest a precise social and ethical responsibility. This is the message that accompanied the approval of the final document of the conference by the promoters of the initiative: Dorothy Gordon, president of the Unesco Intergovernmental Council and head of the Information for All program (IFAP) and Evgeny Kuzmin, chairman of the Russian Committee of the UNESCO IFAP Program and the ILCC Center.