Digitization as a Challenge for Global Governance and Cooperation

In a time of increasing tensions between an awareness for the urgency of concerted action on socio-political issues on one hand and re-nationalizing affects on the other, we would like to shed fresh light on a development that is ongoing, almost unnoticed within these debates: the seamless digitization of ever more aspects of life in the Anthropocene.

The digitization of social and economic interaction triggers rapid change in the way life on earth is organized, experienced, maintained and transmitted between generations. It is about to change the organization of labour, health and the production of goods. It will change the ways we organize the human environment locally and globally, on land, in the oceans, in rural and urban areas. It will also change our ability to communicate even if we are reduced in our bodily capacities, for example when we are disabled or old. Digitization has and will, as all technical innovations did, change our strategies and possibilities to cope with challenges for the (trans-)human body, for societies and environmental systems.

The impact of digitization is now scrutinized and projected in 'Towards our Common Digital Future', a flagship publication of the German Advisory Council on Global Change, co-chaired by the Centre's co-director Dirk Messner. The expert report foresees a 'great transformation' towards a sustainable society and aims to operationalize digitization to serve this transformation through a broad and far reaching approach. The effects of innovation and rationalization are welcome, but the publication projects that the socially equitable distribution of the profits will be a challenge. Efficiency gains will be possible almost everywhere, from logistics to sustainable food production and consumption and from development cooperation to the distribution of healthcare capacities. Digital literacy and equal access to data will be a challenge in education and research. A data tax is also discussed within the report, but not recommended.

In a similar vein, the World in 2050 Initiative links The 'Digital Revolution and Sustainable Development' and calls for the adoption of a complex adaptive systems approach. This study, recently presented at UN Headquarters in New York and authored by Nebojsa Nakicenovic, Dirk Messner, Julia Leininger,  and Johan Rockström (among others) values the 'disruptive revolution toward a sustainable Anthropocene' possible via digitization, but sees this also as challenging 'the absorptive capacities of our societies, possibly multiplying the already alarming trends of eroding social cohesion'. Nevertheless, 'the Digital Revolution opens new doors to a quantum leap of human civilization'. Scientific scenario building is at the core of this exercise and was also the topic of the Centre's masterclass with Nebojsa Nakicenovic in 2017.

The Centre's research is interested in pathways and mechanisms of this development and also in the polycentric arrangements that develop from new technology management possibilities. Not in the least, questions of legitimacy raised with regard to the increasing call for a regulation of digital platforms and technological possibilities by public authorities in different political systems, are at the core of this research focus. At a workshop on 'Contested Power and Authority in Internet Governance: Return of the State?' many of these questions were scrutinized by experts in internet governance, among them many attendees at the Internet Governance Forum (in itself a topic of interest for polycentricity scholars, see Jan Aart Scholte for an appraisal of the IANA transition and other developments; references below).

Regulation in this regard is perceived as coming in very late to the scene. In Europe it has been predominantly the EU institutions that have been bringing internet and fake news regulation to the fore. It is also the EU, more than any other regional or national legislating institution that has started to regulate US digital heavyweights in Europe. Even some fact checkers have been funded by the EU (Rone). Is internet regulation social engineering (Stender)? Workshop organizer Blyane Haggart (together with Natasha Tusikov)  recalled that many non-EU countries discuss whether regulation should happen at all. Cultural aspects also come into the debate at such junctures. Lianrui Jia stressed that in China, technology is a signifier for 'power'. But is this different from elsewhere? Russia did focus its regulatory vigour on content so far but could end up eventually regulating infrastructure (Stadnik). 'Cyber security' in China is framed as 'information security' in Russia. Is platform governance also internet governance or is it something else? The Internet Governance Forum is a multi-stakeholder platform, with this year's annual meeting expected to be held at the end of November in Berlin. French President Emmanuel Macron had only platforms in mind when claiming a third way for Europe beyond the prevailing 'California' and 'Beijing' internet models. The term of the French data tax 'Gafa' is kind of explicit: an abbreviation for 'Google', 'Apple', 'Facebook' and 'Amazon'.

The impact of digitization on international (non-)cooperation can also be felt in the new ways of communication with systemic repercussions within society. Twitter content by the acting US President can be correlated with mounting violence on the streets of Los Angeles and elsewhere in the USA. A similar correlation was found between rising populist ´violence and German AfD tweets (Müller/Schwarz, Briefing 'Online Defamation). The adoption of the role of an influencer is also part of a bargaining approach by actors in the international sphere, a trendy strategy that uses the announcement of economic pressure and other smoke grenades of sort. This aspect has already been scrutinized by an international academic panel (Larry Crump, an alumni fellow of the Centre, contributed 'Trump on Trade').

Finally, it is worth noting that digital diplomacy has developed into a new kind of political communication. It is performed by using social media platforms, for utterances of a vague liability, not different from the earlier utterances of many politicians and public figures. Digitization provides for a  nebulous authenticity,  not in the least blurring the line between fact, opinion and fake news or misinformation. Twitter, for example, changes the liability of 'official' communication, providing office holders with a stream of dissemination that is legally non-binding although obviously not without effect. Some Chinese diplomats have started to find some utility in it (Cappelletti).

Transforming today's societies into a sustainably organized environment by applying digital options, which are legitimized and controlled by transparent guardrails of global governance: this is the task and it is a tough one, as almost all experts agree. But in the light of AI systems establishing cooperation between humans and machines, 'based on large amounts of data embedded into complex routines of algorithmic decision making', a new data ethics is pending (Bieber). 




WBGU – German Advisory Council on Global Change (2019): Towards our Common Digital Future. Summary and Recommendations. Berlin: WBGU. https://www.wbgu.de/en/publications/publication/towards-our-common-digital-future.

TWI2050 - The World in 2050 (2019). The Digital Revolution and Sustainable Development: Opportunities and Challenges. Report prepared by The World in 2050 initiative. International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA), Laxenburg, Austria. www.twi2050.org.

'... it is not created by any specific actor', Interview with Jan Aart Scholte about Internet Governance, Democratic Participation and the Language of the Game,  GCR21 Newsletter 3/2018: 6f.

All Things Internet, and the Internet of Things, Interview with Blayne Haggart and Natasha Tusikov, GCR21 Quarterly Magazine (2) 2019, 4–5.

Christoph Bieber, Humans and Machines: Cooperation in Digitization Research, GCR21 Quarterly Magazine (2) 2019, 6–7.

Governance of Climate Change: Centre's Unique Research Position, interview with Dirk Messner, GCR21 Quarterly Magazine (2) 2019, 8–9.

Larry Crump (2019). 'Trump on Trade', Negotiation Journal, Vol. 35 (1), January, 141-145.  Online available here: https://doi.org/10.1111/nejo.12250.

Alessandra Cappelletti (2019). ‘Between Centrality and Re‑scaled Identity: A New Role for the Chinese State in Shaping China’s Image Abroad. The Case of the Twitter Account of a Chinese Diplomat in Pakistan’, Chinese Political Science Review: 1–26.

A monograph by Blayne Haggart and Natasha Tusikov on 'Knowledge Governance' is forthcoming.

Participants of the workshop on 'Contested Power and Authority in Internet Governance: Return of the State?' mentioned in the text: Julia Rone, Mathana Stender, Lianrui Jia and Ilona Stadnik.

The Fourteenth Annual Meeting of the Internet Governance Forum (IGF) will be hosted by the Government of Germany in Berlin from 25 to 29 November 2019 under the overarching theme: One. World. One Net. One Vision.https://www.intgovforum.org/multilingual/content/igf-2019.

The Centre's 'Briefing: Online Defamation' referenced two studies on the impact of social media communication on real life levels of aggressive behaviour or violence:

Karsten Müller and Carlo Schwarz (2018a). 'Making America Hate Again? Twitter and Hate Crime under Trump', SSRN Electronic Journal, http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3149103.

Karsten Müller and Carlo Schwarz (2018b). 'Fanning the Flames of Hate: Social Media and Hate Crime', SSRN Electronic Journal, http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3082972.