What promises has the digital revolution yet to deliver?

The Internet has upset former power structures, flattening organizations and empowering individuals, resulting in more democratic, open, and responsible ways of doing business… Or has it? The Internet is indeed a technology with the potential to drive these changes, but whether or not the digital economy is moving in these much celebrated directions remains far from clear.

Most modern, progressive business leaders embrace the dominant narrative around the Internet: “It is a technology that liberates, informs, and empowers people.” The prevailing wisdom for organizations is to invest in digital infrastructure, promote engagement with digital tools, and make accompanying shifts towards flatter structures and more open cultures. The focus is on the opportunities and potential of the digital age for engagement, innovation capacity, and performance. Amidst all the enthusiasm around the powerful capabilities of these technologies, however, their dangers may be getting overlooked. In her compelling book, documentarian and activist Astra Taylor exposes many of the myths around the transformative power of digital technologies, urging recognition of the fact that these are merely tools, which will not magically create better ways of doing business all on their own. “Technology alone cannot deliver the cultural transformation we have been waiting for; instead, we need to first understand and then address the underlying social and economic forces that shape it,” she writes. “Only then can we make good on the unprecedented opportunity the Internet offers and begin to make the ideal of a more inclusive and equitable culture a reality.”

Myth n°1: The digital revolution promotes diversity
The Internet supposedly empowers a diverse array of individuals to have a voice and connect online; however, as Taylor points out, there are significant indicators that the Internet is not the “level playing field” that it has been made out to be. In fact, the Internet’s lauded “open” online communities so far tend to exhibit even greater insularity, discrimination, and homogeneity than traditional offline communities, with huge disparities in online user behaviors along class, race, and gender lines. “Well-educated white male professionals” are heavily overrepresented in virtual spaces; for example, on Wikipedia, a celebrated model of the digital “golden age” of sharing and collaboration, “women write less than 15% of the articles,” reports Taylor. Similarly, in a 2009 Harvard Business Review study of Twitter user patterns by Bill Heil and Mikolaj Piskorski: “We found that an average man is almost twice more likely to follow another man than a woman. Similarly, an average woman is 25% more likely to follow a man than a woman (…) These results cannot be explained by different tweeting activity – both men and women tweet at the same rate.” As Taylor writes, “There’s a troubling segmentation in virtual life; familiar prejudices exist online without vital checks and balances; there’s an increasing bias toward what scholars call “homophily” (the inclination to seek out the familiar) with a corresponding threat to diversity.” Given the dependence of collective intelligence on diversity, the fact that discrimination is exacerbated within external digital spaces suggests that organizations may need to take strategic action to ensure diversity on internal digital spaces as well. In addition, since it is now common to demand that employees actively promote and manage their own individual online brands, organizations also face a responsibility to counteract the different obstacles and risks that women and other discriminated-against groups face in public online spaces.

Myth n°2: The digital revolution lends itself to democratic governance
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What promises has the digital revolution yet to deliver?

astra-taylorBased on the book The peoples’s platform : taking back power and Culture in the Digital Age by Astra Taylor (Metropolitan Books, April 2014).