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Václav Klaus: Digitalization needs politics (or vice versa: do politics and society need digitalization?)

English Pages, 28. 1. 2020

 I don’t pretend to be an expert on digitalization, on information technology, or computers. I don’t even use a smartphone. I am not the right person to address this topic. I tried to explain this to David Ungar-Klein but as you all know him, you’ll probably agree with me that it is impossible to change his view once he’s made up his mind. When he decides to make me one of the introductory speakers of this panel, there is no way to resist it. At least this is my experience.

I have a problem understanding the title of this session. Digitalization of politics, of business, of government, of society is in a normal situation – as it is the case with all other technological processes – an evolutionary process which doesn’t need any specific politics, a process which doesn’t need political support or political promotion. At least in a democratic society. It is different in totalitarian regimes – such regimes usually want to dictate everything, including technical progress and the implementation of new technologies.

 I have to remind the representatives of the younger generation in this room of a famous statement made by the Russian leader Vladimir Ilyich Lenin one hundred years ago: “Communism is Soviet government plus the electrification of the whole country”. This dogma formed part of my education in the elementary school in Prague some seventy years ago. Lenin´s totalitarian state did start a massive electrification of the vast territory of the Soviet Union. I hesitate to say that but the slogan “Digitalization needs politics” suggests to me a dangerous parallel that “Europeism means large scale digitalization plus a transnational, not democratically elected European government”.

I suppose we don’t want to discuss digitalization in a technical sense. Digitalization is a process in which – I quote – “sound, images or text are converted into a binary characters system so that they can be transmitted, processed and stored electronically easily and very quickly”.(1) We should be more concerned with the consequences of such processes. They have an undeniable effect upon us as individuals, on society and on our culture. And this is what bothers me.

Critics of digitalization speak about the growing social isolation of individuals and about their growing disorientation in the enormous amount of data. They are afraid that the currently undergoing processes of isolation, exclusion and impoverishment of personal relationships will continue to increase. That – due to digitalization –people will lose the capacity to concentrate over a longer period of time and that they’ll develop an aversion to reading books. That they will not be able to think deeply, reflectively and creatively. This poses a threat to the quality as well as the substance of education because information does not by any means equal knowledge.

Some other critics are worried about the impact of digitalization on democracy. They are – like myself – convinced that China’s digital social credit system represents a dangerous version of a digital society. We see its coming not only in China. I belong to a minority of those who don’t believe that digitalization supports democratisation and decentralization of society and the formation of a “participatory culture”. On the contrary. Digitalization unnecessarily and dangerously centralizes a vast amount of data in unknown, uncontrolled and uncontrollable hands.

Others speak about the danger of flattening our thinking by our moving from “a linear book culture to kaleidoscopic digitalization”. Digitalization also helps to create “a secondary reality, which is steadily displacing the primary reality” of our life.   

Some of us are afraid of entering a digital “brave new world” because the process of digitalization seems to be unstoppable and irreversible.

I would summarize my position in the following way:

- Society needs freedom and free markets more than digitalization;

- Digitalization also needs freedom and free markets to be available to everyone but the companies connected with digitalization are eager to get government support, subsidies and especially barriers against the market entry of new competitors. I am, therefore, afraid of increasing government intervention and intrusion in the life of all of us;

- European politicians expect that digitalization will bring about an economic revolution without any fundamental economic liberalization and deregulation. This is a wrong assumption. There is also another problem. I belong to the group of economists who are convinced that the huge investments made into the digital industry in the last decades represented an unnecessary misallocation of scarce resources. This brought about a slowing-down of economic growth (and of productivity growth) as compared to the long term trend;

- Let’s enjoy the benefits of digitalization but let’s not become its victims.

Václav Klaus, Vienna Congress Com.sult 2020, Vienna, January 28 2020

(1)Otto Peters, Critics of Digitalisation, BIS-Verlag, Universität Oldenburg, June 2013


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