Digital knowledge is booming — but at what cost?

Digital knowledge is booming — but at what cost?

(File/AFP)
One area that seems to be booming today is digital knowledge (File/AFP)
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Lots of trade areas are flattening. While 2021 saw global growth recover well after the COVID-19 pandemic, the World Economic Forum predicts a drop in growth from 5.5 percent to 4.1 percent in 2022.

With so much uncertainty due to rising fuel costs, growing inflation in many countries and increased damage from climate change-related natural disasters, people are likely to be conservative with their spending. The Association of Chartered Certified Accountants’ “Global Economic Conditions Survey: Q3 2022” suggests business confidence is low, with concerns around increased costs, decreased consumer spending and fluctuating foreign exchange rates.

However, one area that seems to be booming is digital knowledge. Of course, this has been vastly influenced by pandemic-related lockdowns around the world. With people unable to leave their homes, many sought to help their children with home schooling, stimulate their minds and interact with others, use their time to learn and develop, or even take the opportunity to develop new skills and change career direction. One wonderful way this was seen was with free interactive courses — primarily for children but not exclusively — teaching computer programming and coding. This has boosted the spread of digital knowledge by teaching the next generation how to create and communicate digitally.

Knowledge being available digitally is wonderful; it makes the sharing of information and knowledge widely and easily available. Scientific advances are made so much easier now that academic papers can be quickly catalogued, searched and shared. Information is there for others to build on and develop. The same is true of legal cases, ideas and DIY tips. It is easy for us to hear other people’s stories, to help us understand one another and build empathy, hopefully allowing us to treat one another more humanely and to learn more about ourselves in the process.

But, of course, there are negative aspects too. Knowledge can be exploited. We are pressured to share information about ourselves in order to access tools or social pages or to interact with others. Those without social media are often seen as unsociable or as outsiders. In an increasingly busy world, it is hard for people to pin down communally convenient times to pick up a phone and chat, and even harder to meet face-to-face in a cafe or someone’s home.

We are reliant on governments to set the policies governing privacy laws, but big business has a lot of influence

Dr. Bashayer Al-Majed

Social media offers a communal space to peek in on the lives of our family and friends, to indicate we care and are paying attention by giving a “like,” a “share” or even an appreciative comment or GIF. But what do we give up in return? Do we even really know or understand how much of ourselves we give away to the algorithms and the advertising companies that process and sell our data in return for letting us make very personal videos to make our friends laugh or to let them know that their struggles are not theirs alone?

You only have to click the drop-down menu in the “manage cookies” tab on each page you open to see the vast list of companies your data is being shared with. Data is big, big business. And the more we trade online, the bigger it gets. We are reliant on governments to set the policies governing privacy laws, but big business has a lot of influence and there are also complications thanks to the international nature of websites and trading. And what if the government itself is corrupt?

There is also an impact with regards to where labor is located, as digital knowledge can be based anywhere. Now that working from home is much more the norm, corporations do not even have to pay for offices to locate staff and they have the luxury, in many cases, to employ workers from the lowest-paid nations, not only exploiting poorer countries and workers with fewer labor rights and benefits, but reducing employment in richer nations.

And the cheaper a company is to run, the larger it can grow. Yes, this makes products cheaper, we hope, but on the other hand large corporations hold more influence over the industry, consumers and policymakers. If two or three big tech firms control the majority of data flow globally, there is much less choice for consumers and therefore much less consumer power over whether or not to hand over personal data.

It is in everyone’s best interest to ensure everyone, globally, is paid a fair wage for their work, with safe conditions and benefits. The world is now a truly global place, with people everywhere interconnected by knowledge and technology. This empowers us all, builds a global community and speeds development and scientific and health advances. Companies should employ the best workers for the job, regardless of where they are from, but they will only do this if everyone is paid an equal and fair wage.

Shared knowledge is power and is a wonderful thing, but governments need to ensure privacy policies are in place to protect citizens, with real options to deselect data sharing. It also needs to be much more transparent what data is being kept or sold and to whom. There is currently too much exploitation of customers’ data, of employees in richer nations, who are losing their jobs because they expect a fair wage, and of employees in developing countries, who do not.

As the richer nations struggle economically over the next year, this is an opportunity for developing nations to establish more of a foothold in manufacturing, but also in IT and digital knowledge. However, these nations are also likely to be the ones that suffer most from climate change-induced natural disasters. It is definitely time for some more global thinking and collaboration. The world needs to work together so we can all succeed.

  • Dr. Bashayer Al-Majed is a professor of law at Kuwait University and visiting fellow at Oxford. Twitter: @BashayerAlMajed
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