The Clash of Civilizations

Civilians attempt to subsume the digital world; tech people insist on its autonomy

Paris. It’s a weird sound when politicians and other civilians say the word “digital.” First they say it often: “It should be a digital market in a digital world. We are about the digital agenda—and not just in the digital sector.” There’s a certain drag on the first syllable, as in “dijjj.” There’s pleasure in being able to say it, a kind of unexpected delight. They say it like people who didn’t go to Harvard, say Harvard—with too much respect and lingering far too long.

Technology people do not say it so often, if ever. They wouldn’t, of course. Or they would need to say it almost constantly and run screaming from their digital workplaces. Technology people instead say “platform.” They say it as often as possible. They say it in an adoring sense. And they say it as an absolute: having established a platform, the game is altered. Having a platform is making new rules (models), and establishing new paradigms.

For the former, uttering digital this way, so formally and officially, suggests that digitalization can be incorporated, administrated and rationalized. This view assumes that civil society is secular and policy-oriented—that all things have their place. The latter, with its use of platform, suggests a certain separatism and independent life; it’s a sui generis and even religious world. Lawrence Lessig, an Internet industry gadfly, told the eG8 conference that the “future is not here.” And that the impulses of the non-Internet world could even prevent it from coming.

These are inimical positions. One attempting to subsume the digital world, the other insisting on the autonomy of this new universe.

But, curiously, these two views seem to be in happy co-existence.

This could be because each has an absolute certain belief in its own ultimate dominance. The secular world cannot for a second see a circumstance that does not require legislative oversight and regulation. The new platform world believes it answers to a higher calling and has on its side a more powerful authority (technology).

Or it could be because power likes power.

Yuri Milner, the Russian investor in Facebook, Zynga, and Groupon, acknowledged a “collision between the off line world and online world.” But he noted too that this collision produced the “excitement” that results in high valuations.

The nasty fight between old world and new that is bound to take place is yet held at bay; it’s more flirtation now; boys and girls at a dance.