Rethinking value

Our values shape our views of life, of good and bad, of right and wrong. We hold our values dear as guiding stars that give us fundamental orientation. They are the long-standing core of our cultures, traditions, and beliefs. And over time, we have constructed our social, economic and legal institutions on the foundation of shared values.

We want peace, freedom, and prosperity for everybody; and in our individual interactions, we expect civility, integrity, and respect for each other. These values are articulated through concepts like human rights, democracy, individual liberty, and the rule of law. While we are moving forward to apply these concepts universally across humankind, we still must realise that the underlying values, no matter how enduring they have been, are in no way immutable.

The existence of values predates written laws or constitutions, it even predates the invention of script. Hence it shouldn’t surprise us that values have changed drastically in the past. I’ll argue that they will morph again in the near future as the Digital Revolution is in full swing. With such changes, we can expect a long-ranging, deep-reaching transformation of society. Today I’ll look at some of the weak signals that foreshadow this transformation.

Past – How values have changed

To get a concrete idea of how societies and their value systems have changed over time, we can turn to Stanford historian and archaeologist Ian Morris once again. In Foragers, Farmers, and Fossil Fuels, he argues that different methods of capturing energy ultimately lead to different sets of core values. Over very long periods of time and many, many generations, societies were fundamentally transformed through mutually reinforcing gradual changes: As new energy sources slowly emerged, a few people with a sufficiently open minds employed them for good use. Over time, as more people followed the example, the demand for that energy source grew, which lead to gradual changes in societal structures and organisations. With these changes, the set of core values slowly shifted as well.

Such transformations occurred as long-drawn evolutionary processes rather than quick, dramatic revolutions; hence their effects become fully visible only with the benefit of hindsight. Morris compares the core values of foragers, farmers, and fossil-fuel users along four categories: political inequality (Who is involved in decision-making?), wealth inequality (Who owns how much?), gender inequality (What are the role differences between men and women?), and violence (How are conflicts resolved?).

  • Foragers live in comparatively small and mobile communities, usually built around families or clans. Their hierarchies are flat, allowing for broad participation in decision-making. Ownership is shared amongst the community members. Some gender-based specialization does occur. And a degree of violence is accepted in solving conflicts. Morris summarises foragers’ attitudes towards political inequality, wealth inequality, gender inequality, and violence in just for words: bad, bad, middling, and middling.
  • Farmers require large sedentary communities to organize and orchestrate the production and distribution of food and goods. Consequently, farming societies are based on articulate hierarchies that focus decision-making at the very top. Few members of such societies own a lot, while most farmers own very little. Gender-based differentiation is another essential condition for farming societies to succeed. On the other hand, farmers accept violence only within limits. Morris boils down farmers’ attitudes to: good, good, good, and middling/bad.
  • Fossil-fuel users live in multi-layered communities. Whether consciously aware of it or not, they are connected through vast and often global distribution networks to exchange information, goods, or services. They prefer broad participation in decision-making and promote gender equality. Conflicts should be resolved without violence. However, significant differences in wealth are accepted. In Morris’ summary of attitudes: bad, middling, bad, and bad.

These condensed descriptions of three types of societies and their core values naturally gloss over the differentiation that exists within each of them. However, this brief comparison makes visible the fundamental differences in core values that developed over many generations. And these differences still play a vital role today.

Present – The landscape of values

Today, we can consider the transformation from foraging to farming complete, as only a tiny fraction of the global population still lives in foraging societies. However, we must realise that the transition from farming to fossil fuels is – again, globally speaking – still work-in-progress. Some societies, especially the industrialised nations, have accomplished that transformation already. Others, for example many developing nations, are still at the beginning. And yet others, like India or China, are faced with considerable internal tensions, as some regions have completed the transformation to fossil-fuel values already while others still adhere to farming values. Hence, today’s global map of core values is very heterogeneous.

Given that the Industrial Revolution started just a quarter millennium ago, this patchwork is no big wonder: parts of the planet still live in communities that adhere to farming values, while other have fully subscribed to fossil-fuel users’ values. However, most often these different values are not consciously acknowledged, even though they have significant impact on our social dynamics.

In order to fully comprehend how stark the contrast between farming values and fossil fuel values is, let’s reframe what we see as regional differences and understand them as temporal differences. Take an extreme case: consider an Afghan refugee in Europe. Of course he experiences the physical relocation – the 6000 km distance is obvious. But in addition, his value system is actually subject to time travel – 200 years fast forward – as he transplants his farming values into a society of fossil-fuel users. Many of the refugee’s values are disregarded in his new environment, and some even openly rejected. In this example, and in many other cases, conflict is pre-programmed as two fundamentally different sets of core values exist at the same time.

Today’s modes of travel and information exchange make it easier than ever before to bridge distances in space and – implicitly – in time. Long-distance travel and the internet facilitate the exchange of ideas between people of different backgrounds and values. Such exchange is the source of much improvement, but it does allow for clashes of convictions that can spark conflict. Such conflicts are seen through a number of different lenses: urban vs. rural, developed vs. developing, progressives vs. traditionalists, early adopters vs. laggards, haves vs. have-nots, and many, many more. However, at the heart of such conflicts, we’ll often find fundamental differences in values. In order to resolve these conflicts, we must first acknowledge their origin. And that will become even more difficult in the future, as we are about to add a new set of core values to the overall map.

Future – Why values will change again

To my mind, there’s a pattern working at global scale and unfolding over long periods of time. Though not immediately obvious, it is still essentially simple: the Grand Revolutions cause fundamental changes of core values.  The transformation from foraging to farming was marked by the Agricultural Revolution. The next transformation from farming to fossil fuels was marked by the Industrial Revolution. Today, as we live through the beginning of the Digital Revolution, we have every reason to expect another transformation to occur.

A year ago I argued that these Grand Revolutions have a lot in common: each has the power to transform our society in every aspect, not the least the underlying value system. Including the Digital Revolution in this list presents a mild extension of Ian Morris’ understanding that changes in energy capture were the main reason for the transformation of societies and their value systems. I suggest a slightly wider frame, based on the use of key resources: first food, then energy, now information.

Of course the outcome of the Digital Revolution is in no way predetermined, but we can already see initial signals of change. This is the time for us to make conscious decisions: Which trends to follow? Which technologies to embrace? Which standards to upholdWhich policies to devise? Few generations ever had such far-reaching choices. We live in truly interesting times.

Weak signals of the future – Gaining strength today

There are already several indications of what the future might hold for us as the Digital Revolution unfolds. The following four developments are more about economy and politics than about technology, more about how we deal with technology than technology itself.

1 – The corporate world gradually opens up to a new business ethics that goes beyond the famous bottom line. As a prominent example, Kickstarter decided to become a Public Benefit Corporation (PBC), thereby acknowledging the responsibility its actions have for the wider society, and making positive impact on society a concrete part of the company’s business goals. That is a clear step ahead, moving away from the corporate focus on (monetary) shareholder value, on maximising profit, and on immediate return on investment. PBCs are still for-profit companies, but profit is not their sole reason for being. That’s a small but encouraging example, and hopefully only the beginning of a shift towards a socially inclusive understanding of corporate responsibilities.

2 – The relationship between politics and the technology industry is maturing, as new communication channels are implemented, and new regulations are signed into law.

  • The appointment of the Danish Technology Ambassador is a promising approach to establish a direct channel for consultation between government and technology industry. Expanding the traditional concept of diplomacy (between governments) to reach out to the global technology giants offers new ways for addressing challenges and identifying opportunities to maximise societal benefit of new technologies (rather than just maximising profit).
  • At the same time, new regulations respond to recent technology developments. The most prominent example is the European General Data Protection Regulation that will come into force in May 2018. That’s a major statement of values in the digital domain: personal data are protected, they are not just fair game for whoever has the best business-model to capitalise on them.
  • You might even add last week’s ruling by the European Court of Justice that Uber is not a tech company, but a transportation company, hence must comply with the strict regulations for the transportation industry. The message is clear: technology companies cannot choose the regulations they prefer to comply with; they must comply with the concrete regulations for the specific business they are in.

Add the discussion on the “techlash“, and you might conclude that the honeymoon is over. Governments stopped viewing the technology giants through the rose-tinted glasses of job creation and tax revenue; the laissez-faire attitude that technology is inherently good (hence does not need regulation) is an element of the past. Instead, we see the beginning of a mature relation: techplomacy as a means to facilitate direct consultation, combined with an assertive stance emphasising societal needs and public interest. Existing rules are applied to the extent possible, but if necessary, new regulations will be issued and enforced. It will be interesting to observe how governments around the globe engage in this development and follow some of the examples.

3 – It will be equally important to watch how the technology giants adjust. And that’s not just a question of their reaction to the changes in public opinion and novel policies. That’s first and foremost of question of the tech industry’s own vision of the future and the role of social media platforms therein. This vision has evolved over time and is still emerging, as the case of Facebook exemplifies.

  • You might recall that Mark Zuckerberg declared of the end of privacy back in 2010, when Facebook was still focused on connecting friends and families. He expressed his conviction that privacy was not a social norm any longer. And he was right insofar as social norms are not static, they evolve over time. However, Zuckerberg was utterly wrong in the specific case of privacy. Even though a small circle of social media entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley will have agreed at that time that the demand for privacy was on the decline, the majority of social media users around the globe did not subscribe to that bold claim.
  • More recently, in February 2017, Zuckerberg posted his ideas about Building Global Community. He describes his views how Facebook should contribute to building supportive, safe, informed, civically-engaged, and inclusive communities. Time will tell whether this broad vision is realistic, but reading Zuckerberg’s manifesto, I doubt that the very idea of a global community based on common values can be made coherent with the diversity of values around the globe. Even more importantly, Zuckerberg defines Facebook’s role as developing social infrastructure for communities, which rings –intended or not– many connotations of a quasi-governmental role. Such ambiguous terminology could easily be seen as corporate overreach, and if no further clarification is offered, I’m sure it will stir considerable pushback.
  • Finally, and over the last few weeks, two former Facebook executives voiced severe criticism of the social network’s negative impact on its users: Sean Parker highlighted how social media exploit vulnerabilities of human psychology, while Chamath Palihapitiya pointed out how these new tools rip apart the social fabric of how society works. These statements are the first signs of a beginning realisation that social networks, like Facebook, take actions that have impact, and that the corporations bear responsibility for the intended as much as the unintended effects of what they do. However, it’s too early to say whether the tech giants are willing, or even able, to change their course. For right now, “the only real consequences they face are bad PR and not loss of market share or legal liability“, as Ingrid Burrington pointed out in Could Facebook be Tried for Human-Rights Abuses? (the answer is: not really).

It’s safe to say that the tech giants have lost their initially innocent, you might even say, naïve optimism. Today, they are grappling with acknowledging the full impact of what they are doing, and with defining a positive mission for themselves. Society should exert its double influence to keep the technology giants on their toes and remind them of their responsibilities. The individual user should make conscious choices which services to use (and which ones to abandon), while the electorate, i.e., the collective of users , should use the ballot box to promote policies and regulations that either keep or make the corporations accountable for what they do.

4Where is technology taking the economy? That’s the big question behind the Digital Revolution, and it is exactly the title of Brian Arthur’s latest paper. He is looking into the history of information technology, the advent of Artificial Intelligence, and its impact on the economy. Extending the ideas he presented six years ago in The Second Economy, he argues that we are entering a new period that “is not so much about production anymore […] it is about distribution – how people get a share in what is produced“. In this new distributive era we are entering, access to what is produced is the key question. And jobs will not be the answer anymore. Arthur points out that “jobs have been the main means of access for only 200 or 300 years“, that means of access had changed before, and that “now access needs to change again“. Most importantly, he argues that production is an economic and engineering problem, whereas distribution is a political problem. In this new era, “politics will change, free-market beliefs will change, social structures will change”.

Summarising Arthur’s views (and including the three developments addressed above), you might say that technology is taking the economy to a place that is gaining shape as we are getting closer, and it requires society to express and exert political will to shape that place.

What next …

For sure the Digital Revolution will transform society only gradually, slowly. But it won’t be so slow that we could leave it to our children and grandchildren to sort out. On the contrary, I believe we bear unique responsibility as we are the first generation in human history to know in advance that such a transformation is coming. We are also the first generation to know the precedence of earlier transformations, so that we can draw comparisons and learn from the historic experience of our forebears. We are the ones to make smart decisions today that pave the way into the future, reinforcing positive trends while preventing negative outcomes. In doing so, we shall remember that we only borrowed this planet from our children and grandchildren. We shall act as the prudent stewards of their best interest and prepare them to take over their responsibility in due time. For we will only set the initial stage for this transformation that is for the following generations to complete.

That’s a pretty tall order in this very abstract notion. We can give it some structure along the four core values proposed by Ian Morris. In this grand scheme, we should promote equality in all its facets (political, economic, and gender) and the peaceful resolution of conflicts. Together with the preservation of natural resources, we get a good set of objectives. Next to these global guidelines, there’s a second layer of orientation. At this more personal level, we need to consider our interaction with society, what we can give, and what we need: What gives us meaning, a purpose in life, a sense of being valued? How much privacy do we want? And how do we engage with Artificial Intelligence? Answers to these questions will give us more specific orientation how we could achieve the global objectives.

Taking together, these two layers could offer a frame to rethink our values in the face of the Digital Revolution: what our society is, what we want it to be, and how we want to live.


This post is the last of a short series on how we might rethink society, or rather, rethink some of the core concepts our society is built upon. Previous posts addressed ownershiptrust in humans, and trust in technology. The need and opportunity for such a fundamental re-orientation arise from a cluster of disruptions emerging all around us: in politics, economics, Big Business, energy and production. These disruptions are themselves driven by mega trends like urbanization, globalization, digitization, and decentralization.

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