The digital economy is everywhere. This is obvious, at least if we stick to regular monitoring of the economic press, conferences and government declarations. The digital economy is everywhere in people’s minds, in the plans made by companies and public authorities, and in economic policies.
Rehashing this chorus does not go far, it should be noted that the digital economy is the economy of data or, using an anglicism, data. Modern societies are gradually gripped by a universal imperative: to bring out, capture and process data that other universal imperatives imposed on themselves long ago, namely electricity, which required significant capital and caused social transformations, and total economy. Before that, the mastery of the energy provided by steam caused deep ruptures and transformations. And even before that, the water and wind revolutions that brought traditional societies into the pre-industrial world.
The digital economy would thus be the fourth or fifth industrial revolution: a radical revolution. It is in the name of this revolution that all the political and economic actors, companies or private agents, states and public authorities are using increasingly significant budgets, plans and investments.
Digital economics, computer economics
Should we prefer the “digital economy” term “data economy”, the famous data? Perhaps in the French formulation of this new revolution we would find a better distinction between what comes out of materials and the technological breakthroughs that pertain to them and what belongs to “intangible” technologies and ambitions.
Ten years ago, the data universe was strictly speaking “a term used in the telecommunications sector”. This term has been generalized, expanded and elaborated: data relates to all that is information, yet information affects all sectors of human activity or human environments, whether it is the biological sector, energy, climate, population movements, viral circulation, financial currents, ocean warming, astrophysical research, etc. The new global economy is basically an economy of information, its recognition, its capture, its storage and its processing. Does this mean that “data”, the brand of our time, did not exist before? Of course not! What has changed is the ability to bring it out massively and draw tremendous new forces from it.
The actors in this new economy, the states but also the companies and all the economic actors have to face the obligation to respond to this wave of information but also to act to ensure the development and control.
It will be repeated that it has been so since the dawn of time, offering the eternal image of the sword and shield.
But before one evokes the conditions under which this image acquires its full meaning, a word must be said about the human contexts in which the data revolution takes place.
The three universes of the digital economy
Three universes confront each other and mark three societal perceptions and three types of constraints. These universes are the powerful ones today: (in alphabetical order) China, the United States, and the European Union.
The European Union is the perfect example of the constraints that underpin the implementation of a data policy. It was only after several years of discussion that the Union was able to reach agreement between the countries that make it up on the conditions for implementing this policy. It faced a double problem that lies in its cultural and political constitution: to bring together 27 countries whose demographic size varies in a share of 1 to 140! Of course, there is strength in unity, but there can be no unity without everyone’s commitment to a common project. Recent meetings on the subject of cybersecurity gave rise to this comment: “A few key words resonate: ambition, upscaling, cooperation, solidarity, digital sovereignty. Intentions that only ten years ago were not so intuitive. The European Union is a method of cooperation for to develop the data economy, combining the principles of a proactive policy and the constraints associated with the diversity of the nations that make it up.In July 2021, the European Central Bank (ECB) announced the launch of a two-year pilot project to introduce a digital Euro.
China faces another complexity: it is a land world by size, diversity of cultures and local economic situations. As stated in its XIV five-year plan (2021-2025), China will continue to invest in research and development in the digital economy. We will mention two emblematic features of the importance it attaches to the data economy. China’s lead is significant in the world of sovereign digital currencies characterized by their technological complexity and their strong social and economic impact. Where most developed countries are in the study stage or at best in the experimental stage, China is in the implementation phase, especially thanks to the People’s Bank of China (BPC, the country’s central bank) and its digital yuan. In fact, on April 2, BPC announced that its digital yuan pilot program will be expanded to more cities across the country following its successful operation over the past few years. Chinese digital currency, or e-CNY, will thus be available in the municipalities of Tianjin (northern China) and Chongqing (southwest), the cities of Guangzhou, the capital of Guangdong province (south), Fuzhou and Xiamen in southeastern Fujian province and six cities in eastern Zhejiang Province, which will host the Asian Games in 2022. On the other hand, China is on track to create a whole new economy based on the construction of gigantic infrastructures: gigacomputers, quantum data transmission technologies and – protection, allocated computing power. to all social and economic domains.
Finally, the United States must also face economic and societal challenges, which are all the more acute because it is in them that the computer economy has emerged and taken on a revolutionary form. The great difference with the EU and China is due to the almost completely “private” origin of this movement and the fact that creators, companies and consumers are constantly appearing there and they are integrating very quickly into the “computer economy. This process where we see the American state giving giant conglomerates the freedom to handle whole parts of the state’s properties and powers is not in itself original: the great American economic transformations have come from this entrepreneurial initiative and its liberal roots.On the other hand, it is not just that companies, coming out of the computer economy, changing the scope of private power and seeming more and more likely to “challenge” the US public authorities, but they are also expressing themselves as new multinational corporations in the above states.
The world of the digital economy is not “neutral”
Let’s have no illusions, the digital economy, the computer economy is not “neutral and scientific”, it is gradually becoming an eminent battleground for the supremacy of cultures and social values. It transforms the way in which the major cultural and political groups perceive man and propose to shape his future, both individually and collectively.
In a world that is fragmented, where national internet has begun to fragment the digital universe of the early internet, digital economies will have unrivaled weapons at their disposal, the fight for true ethics will very quickly require new shields.
Trapped between the two current powers of China and the United States, ancient Europe can still achieve the feat of freeing itself from the American Internet and building a digital economy around its humanistic values.
Europe’s strength lies in the contribution of new values, deep reflections on ethics, legislation to propose a united and humanistic civilization. Could these be their own “Digital Silk Roads”? Above all, these would be routes that would deviate from the pure and worst search for short-term returns and would promote the idea that the digital economy should follow “a real route” in the service of man.
* Pascal Ordonneau is an essayist and general secretary of the Institut de l’Iconomie.