This conversation took place in July 2017 with Don Tapscott, best-selling Author, Futurist, Associate at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University, and CEO of the Tapscott Group.

Clips from the interview


Decentralizing Media

Don Tapscott: “I wrote the first best seller about the web in business, and it was called ‘The Digital Economy’. I invented that term, I coined that term in the book of that title. The book also had some other very big ideas that are just part of the vernacular today. Now, the book held up very well. It argued that this technology, the Internet, the web, would have a huge impact on not just the way that we sell things and the way we communicate between each other, but it would bring about some profound changes in our industries and in our institutions like the corporation or the government. There are chapters on each of those in the book. The problem is that I said overall, I’m very positive about this. This is an age of vast new promise and opportunity. The old media was centralized; radio, television, print media, even mainframe computers, they were controlled by powerful forces they were one-way, one-to-many, and the recipients were largely passive. I said the new media is the antithesis. It’s interactive, it’s one-to-one, it’s many-to-many. The recipients are not just recipients, they’re users, and they are not inert, they’re active. As such, new media has an awesome neutrality, and it will be what we wanted to be, and I think that that can be wonderful. But I also said that some bad things could happen, seven of them actually. Unfortunately, every single one of them has happened.”

Downsides of the Digital Age

Don Tapscott: “I said, we could lose our privacy in a near remarkable way. Check. I said it’s possible that this digital age will be captured by some powerful forces, big companies, governments, and that the benefits could be asymmetrical and that we could have growing wealth creation but declining prosperity, and that ocial inequality would grow. Check. I said, it’s possible the technology would be so powerful that it will wipe out whole sectors of the workforce. Well, partial check on that. The number one job type in the United States in 48 of 50 states is truck driver. I think most of those will be gone in a decade. I said, I think this technology will bring us together because we’ll all have access to the truth. But it’s possible people could follow their own point of view and we’d all end up to be self-reinforcing echo chambers where the purpose of information would not be to inform us, but would be to give us comfort and that there would be a fragmentation of public discourse. Check. So, I won’t go through the rest, but it’s kind of worrisome that the person who sold more books according to my publisher about the digital age than anyone else, and who’s been its biggest champion, is now writing that we have a problem, Houston, and that there are some big big social issues that we need to deal with. This has been a big theme of what I’ve been working on now over the next period is basically to draft a new social contract for the digital age.”

The Capture of the Digital Age

“Have some of the changes surprised you?”

Don Tapscott: “Well, they all surprised me. I said they were possible, but I didn’t say this is a likely occurrence on any of them. It’s very difficult for someone like me to say that. I have a lot of my technology utopian friends unhappy with me, but I’m not a technology determinist. I don’t think that technology creates social structures, people do. I don’t think technology creates good models of governance and democracy, people do. I don’t think the technology enables rich public discourse or not, people do. Unfortunately, the digital age has largely been captured by some very powerful organizations and companies. This is not irrevocable, and it’s one of the reasons I’m so excited about blockchain technology.”

Data as an Asset Class

Don Tapscott: “The digital age has been captured by some powerful forces and its largesse has been asymmetrically distributed. What’s occurred is that this technology has generated a new asset class called data. This asset class may be more important than previous asset classes like land under the agrarian economy, industrial plant under the Industrial Age, or even money. This data is created by all of us quite democratically, actually, but it has been captured by a handful of companies and governments. The problem with that is not just that we can’t monetize it. We can’t use it to plan our lives better, and our privacy has been undermined. That fear that I had in 1994 was justified. That’s where blockchain technology comes in. because it’s not an Internet of information, it’s an Internet of value, where value can be exchanged peer-to-peer without powerful intermediaries or big companies that can capture the value.”

A New Social Contract

“What do you think could be done about this?”

Don Tapscott: “As we transitioned from the agrarian age to the industrial age, we developed a social contract. We figured out that people living in a city needed a social safety net, because they can’t just grow things to stay alive. We figured they needed to be literate, so we created public education and made it a law. You have to go to school, it’s the law. We figured out that you can have one oil company owning all the oil, so we created anti-monopoly legislation. I don’t think that we’ve done any of this as we move to the digital age. We need to come up with a new understanding. I talk about a number of dimensions for that social contract that are required and that we’re going to need to do some work. The old social contract talked about jobs and full employment. It’s the primary vehicle to distribute wealth and other benefits like health care and Income Security and so on. That’s now being disrupted, we have a new period of structural unemployment that’s about to emerge. We talked about inquality being managed by governments through policy, tax, redistribution of wealth, and so on. We create social safety nets to protect people and enable them to retire, to be unemployed, sick, disabled, or old. That’s now being broken down, too. A third one was the whole issue of power in society. We had business and labor, these pillars of the social contract. Organized labor was viewed as an important component ensuring the voice of labor in decision making and so on. We had sovereign governments that set policies within the jurisdiction that were in the public interest with a reasonable expectation of their effect to make a fairer society. That’s now been broken down, too. Corporations have become all-powerful. Our governments are being viewed since Ronald Reagan as ‘the best government is no government’. The whole labor movement in the United States has pretty much been wiped out. I think we’re going to have to move to a new kind of contract where we talk about more democratic ownership of the economy. A fourth one was democracy. We have this view that people can vote in fair and open elections to get governments that represent them in the public interest. That’s now totally broken. In the United States, for example, these institutions are increasingly accountable to their funders, not to citizens. We’re going to need to use blockchain technology to move towards a new model of participative democracy or to smart contracts. Politicians and elected representatives are accountable to citizens, not the big money. This goes on, there are a whole number of these big transformations that are underway. Just consider the idea of our individual freedom, that we have the right to personal privacy, security, autonomy of the individual. That’s broken now. We have a loss of control of personal information, identity, growing cyber crimes, and all kinds of fraud, identity theft. We have a large-scale commercialization of personal data often without our knowledge. We increasingly spend time in this digital world, where the underlying algorithms are not clear to us. In the physical world… I’m holding a wallet right now. If I drop that wallet, it’s going to fall down because I’m aware of the forces that govern that, in this case gravity. But in the digital world, I post something on Facebook I have no idea what’s happening to it. I have no idea why things are appearing on my screen that influence me.”

Challenges of the Digital World

“Some people tell me they think the biggest challenges of the future aren’t technological. What do you think about that?”

Don Tapscott: “I would formulate it differently. I would say that this new paradigm in technology that we witnessed over the last few decades and the rise of the Internet and the web, social media, the mobile web, big data, and so on, have enabled powerful forces to strengthen their position. While having many wonderful characteristics and benefits, grandparents and their grandchildren can see each other over a distance and talk, the overall economic effect in the developed world has not been a positive one. We have declining prosperity for the first time in modern history and technology is at the heart of that. It’s not the cause, but it’s a big enabler, that number one enabler. The solution is not technology. The solution is a new social contract made between people. However, the technology, now that for the first time ever we have a peer-to-peer medium for value, the technology can be the single most important enabler of a whole new kind of society and a new kind of organization of civilization. The Internet of information was about information, and we publish it. If I send you a PDF of PowerPoint, I’m sending a copy. Even with a website, I keep the original. That doesn’t work well for assets. It’s wrong to copy an asset like money or like someone’s song or like a vote. Now we have a medium where assets can be managed peer-to-peer, can be transacted peer-to-peer. That creates a whole new set of exciting and historical opportunities. This intersection between technology and society and our economy is a big one. It’s a complicated one, and it’s one that I’ve been working on since 1978, when I began doing research on it. I think that most people don’t get it. You have technology determinists who are wrong, and then you have people who say, ‘no, it’s got nothing to do with technology.’ That’s wrong too. There are complex interplay between the two.”

Getting Our Identities Back

“Do you think people understand this though? Many people tell me they don’t really care if a tech company records their data and mines it.”

Don Tapscott: “It’s naive, it’s dangerous, and it’s based on ignorance. Privacy is not some nice-to-have characteristic. It’s the foundation of freedom. Our identities consist of data, and increasingly, that data is not owned by us, it’s owned by others. One of the greatest historic challenges for this next generation will be to get their identities back so that they own them, they control them, and they can manage their own identities responsibly. This is one thing that I’ve not changed my view [about]. I wrote a book about privacy in 1995 that basically said that. I co-authored a book called ‘Who Knows: Safeguarding Privacy in a Networked Age’. That was almost 25 years ago and people people looked at me and they were like, huh? What are you talking about. it and that was a book that did not so well either.”

Finding A Balance

“It seems it’s a pretty fine line between taking advantage of digital services and giving up privacy.”

Don Tapscott: “Not really, because when all is said and done, you need to look at macro measures. What’s going on in society today? We have declining prosperity in the developed world. We have the emergence of structural unemployment. We have at the macro level a very dangerous thing, which is the destruction of our basic right to privacy. We have unquestionably a fragmentation of public discourse that ends up with 20 percent of Americans thinking vaccinations are a bad idea because they read it on the Internet. We’re going to have to have another plague before people figure out that science is actually not a bad idea. We have climate change deniers in the face of the strongest evidence since Newtonian physics and the concept of gravity. We have we have the rise of fake news, where the president can say that his predecessor, the President of the United States, wiretapped him. This of course is preposterous, every law-enforcement agency says it’s not possible, let alone did it occur, yet 40 percent of Americans think it’s true because he sent out a tweet. So tell me tell me that everything is rosy. It’s not rosy. The world is deeply in peril right now. You don’t have to be a Luddite to say that technology and more importantly, the people who increasingly control technology, have a role to play in that.”

Waking Up

“What has to occur that more people understand this is happening?”

Don Tapscott: “Over time, I’m hopeful that enough experience will cause people to change. That ultimately, people will act in terms of their own objective interests. Right now, that’s not occurring. Tens of millions of people in the United States who have been denied adequate health care oppose universal health care. Based on weird ideological reasons, they do things that are antithetical to their own material interests. If this is a permanent trend, then we’re doomed. It means demagogues and ideologues can cause people to do things, they now have the tools to cause people to do things, that are against their interests. [This] ultimately will lead to some big social disruptions and maybe even a breakdown of civilization. I’m hopeful overall that the truth will [come] out in the end. Ultimately, the injurious effect of some of these things, like the undermining of our basic right to informational privacy, causes people to behave and to think differently. I think that we’re going to see a period of deeper and growing disruptions and dislocations in society before people wake up. My life right now is very much consumed by this question. In the years that I have left to be effective and productive, what steps can I take to ensure that this smaller world that my grandchildren inherit might actually be a good one and be a better one than we have today?”