Digital transformation is an imminent reality in the modern world. Increasingly more economic, political, and social processes are leveraged by digital technologies. Currently, over half of the world’s population has access to the Internet. Over 4.6 billion persons acquire and share information online, as well as connect with others via social media . What does this mean for social and political life? What is already happening and where is it going? What are the powers and perils of this development? These questions are addressed in this overview article. To highlight regional specialties, here digital tendencies are conventionally viewed in three dimensions: on a global scale, in the European Union, and in the Eastern Partnership.
Digitalisation on a world scale
Probably, the most characteristic advantage of this process is access to digital data on the Internet. This global network hosts 1.9 billion websites  containing an astronomical amount of 64 trillion gigabytes of digital data . This colossal amount of big data requires sophisticated technologies for processing it. For this purpose, cloud and edge computing by distributed computers across remote data centres are employed. In the future, such calculations will be performed by technologies capitalising on the unique properties of the quantum world enabling much faster and more secure data computing and transmitting. Big data is massively utilized in marketing, governance, education, and research. For example, in an online game players navigate across open space collecting valuable resources and by doing so structuring elements of fragmented health data and helping advance cancer research .
Not always do people have a clear idea of where to go online, therefore, 93% of Internet activities start with a search engine . There, people predominantly check out video streaming services, social media networks, and email providers, read news and weather updates, do online shopping and gaming, and look for translation and education .
Over the last 10 years, online education has progressed enormously. As a result, in 2021, 950 universities provided over 19 thousand massive open online courses (MOOCs) and educated 220 million students . In the modern dynamic and distracting world, there is a tendency of turning to mobile learning on portable devices and practicing micro-learning short courses organised in small units of information and assignments. It is foreseen to be enhanced by machine learning (ML) for personalised learning. Artificial intelligence (AI) will analyse a student’s profile, behaviours, and performance to recommend videos, games, or simulations.
Digital technologies also transform the work realm. Digital nomads benefit from computer technologies and the Internet working remotely and enjoying a highly mobile lifestyle. As many as 47 countries offer digital nomad visas for such workers . Moreover, the honoraria of digitally remote workers are sometimes paid in decentralised and protected cryptocurrencies.
The area of cultural consumption for primarily aesthetic purposes is also reshaping. Regular digital art, music, and films have become commonplace, yet there are fast-growing rivals. One is the expanding market of artwork in the form of a non-fungible token (NFT). Recorded in blockchain, such unique digital identifier cannot be copied, substituted, or subdivided thereby certifying its authenticity and ownership. For instance, the NFT of the “Disaster Girl” meme of a girl with a burning house in the background was sold for 180 Ethereum cryptocurrency worth around 250,000 euros . Another competitor is an artificial neural network imitating the functions of a human brain to compose classical music, write poems, and create artwork.
New technologies immerse users into extended reality (XR). It includes virtual reality (VR), the experience when a user’s entire field of vision is filled with the device’s display as well as augmented reality (AR), which captures live video of a device’s surroundings and adds visual elements to it. For example, AR is created by an app using a smartphone’s camera and the angles of the walls and floor to project a 3D model of a furniture item allowing one to see how it fits a room. When connected, individual XR worlds merge into a unified immersive virtual world named Metaverse. This mostly occurs in online video games but will scale up, especially with the advent of 5G and 6G technologies connecting mobile devices to faster Internet.
Even without the Metaverse regular Internet is already connecting humanity. In the spirit of the social peer-to-peer approach, people exchange news and emotions and unite in collaborative teams and civic tech initiatives. While strong ties of kinship and friendship often invoke feelings of belonging and security, weak ties of occasional acquaintance tend to unveil the infinite world of ideas and opportunities . Multiplied by further connections of human webs, especially on social media, such interactions launch transnational grassroots e-campaigns of crowdfunding, petitioning, and advocacy. The unprecedented humanitarian, financial, diplomatic, and military support for Ukraine is a powerful and evocative case.
Yet, digitalisation comes with a price. It has opened Pandora’s box of multiple challenges.
In the individual dimension, the endless flow of online news may trigger the fear of missing out (FOMO)—the anxiety and regret of missing some information, event, or experience. Hence, such people are absorbed by their smartphones and miss real-life experiences. Deep dive into the digital world and the subsequent virtualisation of social life or individual isolation may provoke psychological issues such as deficient emotional and social intelligence, that is, troubles managing feelings and difficulties with interpersonal communication.
In the online platform dimension, there are numerous cybersecurity risks. These include malware (software that installs itself on a user’s system causing unusual behaviour such as deleting files or stealing information), ransomware (that installs itself and prevents using device apps until a ransom is paid), phishing attacks (emails requesting sensitive data, such as a password), and social engineering (attempting to deceive users into giving away sensitive details, for example, via social media) . Because of cyberattacks, individuals lose 4,476 dollars on average, while small and medium businesses lose from 120,000 to 1.24 million dollars . Cyberattacks are also used to destabilise whole countries. In 2017, the NotPetya computer worm attacked the websites of Ukraine's government ministries, banks, and electricity firms . The worm also spread to other European states. Total damages exceeded 10 billion dollars.
In the social media dimension, people enclosed in filter bubbles do not receive news challenging their own and their social groups’ views . Furthermore, people affected by confirmation bias seek out only information they agree with. Amplified by social media algorithms, these tendencies polarise social groups even more. On top of that, big data of user profiles provide sufficient information for microtargeting individual voters with personalised messages and thereby influencing their behaviour in unprecedented ways. For example, automated analysis of people’s Facebook likes was able to identify their demographic information and basic political beliefs and was used for microtargeting specific voters in the United States during the 2016 presidential election and probably affecting the election results.
At the country level, authoritarian political regimes often seek to control information flows in a polity and resort to filtering, blocking, and censorship thereby becoming digital autocracies. For instance, China regulates domestic Internet through the Great Firewall. The country also exploits social credit system that covers all aspects of life and judges citizens’ behaviour and trustworthiness . Not paying a court bill or playing loud music on a train may result in losing rights, such as booking a train ticket. Moreover, some regimes misuse digital technologies for repressive practices such as pervasive surveillance, social blacklists, and rigged elections.
Digital policies in the European Union
The European Union’s digital policies provide a number of advantages.
First of all, they introduce unified industry standards. For example, the 2018-enacted General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) guarantees the digital rights of individuals in the areas of personal data protection and privacy in the European Union (EU) and the European Economic Area (EEA).
While personal data is protected, public data is open. Open data is collected, produced, or paid for by public bodies and made freely available online in an open format that can be freely used, re-used, and shared by anyone for any purpose. The official portal for European data provides over 1.5 million datasets from 36 countries . This data both ensures transparency of government activities and allows practical applications. For instance, the Open Data Science project created a tool that uses a map and ML-based predictive analysis to display the geographic distribution of air pollution data .
Furthermore, digital technologies allow the introduction of cross-border e-services. The most evident case is the issuing and verifying of COVID-19 vaccination and recovery certificates. Besides, Estonia, Finland, Croatia, and Portugal have mutually recognised e-prescriptions . There are other prospective projects, such as simplifying the value-added tax (VAT) payments on cross-border e-commerce transactions .
Also, there are promising perspectives for bureaucracy automation. In fact, as of 2020, there are as many as 230 initiatives of AI use in the EU Member States . Notably, as early as in 2012, the Polish Ministry applied an automated profiling system for unemployment.
Not only governments can make use of digitalisation, but also citizens. Held in 2021-2022, the Conference on the Future of Europe (CoFoE) empowered European citizens to debate on Europe’s challenges and priorities. Its consultation e-platform crowdsourced 19,000 proposals from 50,000 active users across the entire EU . These inputs were considered during the consequent EU and national citizens’ panels and the plenary with decision-makers. CoFoE’s report with 49 proposals and 320 measures was presented to the EU institutions.
However, the reverse side of the coin is that digitalisation in the EU bears some risks. Specifically, although GDPR was introduced with serious law enforcement measures, some companies do violate the regulation. In 2021, Amazon was fined 746 million euros due to the way it collected and shared personal data via cookies and WhatsApp—225 million euros for failing to properly explain its data processing practices . In 2022, Google Ireland was fined 90 million euros for improper implementation of cookie consent procedures on YouTube, while Facebook—60 million for failing to obtain proper cookie consent from its users.
Digital transformation in the Eastern Partnership
Eastern Partnership countries started digitalisation later, yet the resulting low baseline under competitive economic conditions and favourable political settings enabled a streamlined and fast-track digital transformation. Remarkably, in 2021, before the full-scale war, Ukraine with its workforce of 212,000 IT specialists and the best value/cost ratio celebrated being the top IT outsourcing market in Eastern Europe . The country’s vibrant digital ecosystem gave birth to digital 4 unicorns, privately held startup companies with a valuation of 1 billion dollars or more (Genesis, GitLab, Grammarly, and People.ai—all providing online services) .
Further, innovation manifests itself in digital democracy. Thus, the 2014-founded Ukrainian StopFake is the world’s first civil society organisation to perform digital fact-checking for fighting international disinformation through debunking—to counteract Russia’s disinformation campaigns. In Moldova, in 2017 active citizens employed an online platform for anticorruption monitoring and control resulting in criminal investigations and court trials. In 2020 Belarus protesters used a number of collaborative e-tools for mobilisation, coordination of activities, and mutual help.
However, digital technologies also come with complications. Specifically, uneven socio-economic development causes a digital divide in terms of internet access, affordability, and skills. Ignorance leads to misinformation, that is, false or inaccurate information, such as rumours and hoaxes, particularly about the COVID-19 pandemic. Corrupt individuals resort to malinformation, deliberately publishing inaccurate private information for personal or corporate interest. Russia exploits trolls (humans who post online to provoke others), bots (autonomous programs that run accounts to spread content), and cyborgs (hybrid accounts in which humans periodically take over bots) to wage hybrid warfare. This is often organised in botnets that bring massive waves of disinformation in the form of fake news and deepfakes.
To sum up, digitalisation is a pervasive trend that takes multiple forms. Technically, it is merely a tool that can be used for good or for bad, depending on underlying intentions. It is our responsibility to ensure proper usage and protection of digitalisation for development.
The German language version of this article was published in OST-WEST. Europäische Perspektiven: https://www.owep.de/ausgabe/owep-1-2023.
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