Chancellor Lecture Series: Towards a New Social Contract for the Digital Age

On November 16, Trent University hosted an event in the Student Centre for its Chancellor Lecture Series featuring Chancellor Don Tapscott called “Towards a New Social Contract for the Digital Age.”

Chancellor Tapscott is considered to be one of the world’s leading authorities on innovation, media, and the economic and social impact of technology. His most recent book, Blockchain Revolution: How the Technology Underlying Bitcoin is Changing Business, Money and the World, explains why blockchain technology will fundamentally transform the way that value is moved, stored, and managed online.

However, unlike a traditional lecture as the name “Chancellor Lecture Series” suggests, Chancellor Tapscott was interviewed by Dr. Len Epp.

Dr. Epp is the co-founder of Leanpub, an innovative publishing platform for writing and selling ebooks and online courses. He is connected to Trent through his brother, Dr. Michael Epp, who is the Director of both the Cultural Studies Masters and PhD programs.

“I’d like to begin by saying that [Chancellor Tapscott] is typically represented — as he ought to be — as an expert and world leader in thinking about technology and business and the economy, but he also writes about politics,” said Dr. Epp. “So I’d like to you today as ‘Don Tapscott, the political theorist.’”

The conversation began with the crisis of legitimacy in and of democratic institutions.

“Democracy, to me, is the best political system that we have,” said Chancellor Tapscott, as he examined the issues presently affecting politics south of the border. “It has a lot of flaws; it needs some reinvention. But the alternatives are not great.”

Chancellor Tapscott suggested that politicians corrupted by corporate lobbying and the President’s routine dishonesty and attacks on the free press have contributed to youth disenchantment and low voter turnout. However, he also said that new media and technology are enabling this as well.

Like many media scholars writing in the 1990s, Chancellor Tapscott was generally optimistic about new technologies and the cultural changes they would bring.

“Unlike the old media [such as television and radio] — which was centralized, one-way, one-size-fits-all, controlled by powerful forces, recipients were passive — the new media is the antithesis of that,” he said, explaining the collective optimism at the time. “It’s interactive! it’s collaborative! People are active! It has this awesome neutrality! It will be what we want it to be, and surely there are more good people than there are bad people!”

However, more recently technology and social media have caused “a fragmentation of public discourse” in which false claims or “alternative facts” can hold significant weight in social and political circles, he said.

Dr. Epp then asked about Chancellor Tapscott’s writing on “bullshit filters,” and whether there is a generational divide along technological lines when it comes to evaluating credible claims online.

“What we have is what I call the ‘generation lap,’ where kids are lapping their parents on the digital track,” he responded.

“If you lived in a world that was full of BS… then you would start to develop the ability to scrutinize, too. I think that’s so important, because how are we going to inform ourselves in a world where the old ways of doing that are collapsing?”

Dr. Len Epp (left) listens to Chancellor Don Tapscott speak at the Chancellor Lecture Series. Photo by Leina Amatsuji-Berry.

This is one place where Chancellor Tapscott thinks a new social contract would be beneficial: media literacy taught from kindergarten upwards, with skills to manage the “torrent of information” and its effects on themselves as it comes through the web through an increasing number of devices.

The social contract comes from a tradition of political philosophy featuring works of Socrates, Plato, Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. In these works, philosophers theorize that in order to coexist harmoniously, a group of people must agree on terms of mutual welfare.

After World War II, global social contracts were made or renewed to “prevent a war from ever happening again,” said Chancellor Tapscott. These included the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank, the United Nations (UN), the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), and the World Trade Organization (WTO).

“Today, a lot of that is breaking down,” he stated, he stated, alluding back to the crisis of legitimacy he and Dr. Epp had discussed earlier.

Chancellor Tapscott posits that this will only get worse as technology becomes increasingly sophisticated and disrupts the already-tenuous labour market, so new social contracts must be negotiated to make sure people can live dignified lives.

“Another aspect of the new social contract that you propose, in addition to something like universal basic income, is a ‘portable safety net.’ I was wondering if you could talk a bit more about that,” Dr. Epp asked.

The portable social safety net is an idea that Chancellor Tapscott proposes in response to the rise of the gig economy. To do this, one would have to own, store and manage all the data about oneself on their physical person so that they have privacy and therefore autonomy.

“A sovereign identity owned by the citizen, not by big companies,” he mused.

This proposal comes at a time when data has become “the new oil” for big data companies and social media companies with the power to sway and shape behaviour, and politics and culture thereafter.

“Data constitutes the new asset class of the digital age, maybe the biggest asset class ever, and it’s behind the bifurcation of wealth,” Chancellor Tapscott explained.

However, blockchain technology could protect people’s personal data from being mined without consent and/or reimbursement.

Chancellor Tapscott calls blockchain “an internet of value.”

“Where anything of value — from money to stocks to our identities — can be managed, stored, transacted on this platform that in a secure, fully encrypted, private way,” he explained. “Where trust is not achieved by a bank or Facebook or a government; it’s achieved by cryptography and collaboration and some clever code.”

“For the last 40 years, we’ve had the internet of information,” he compared. “If I send you some information — a .pdf, a PowerPoint presentation, a .mp3 of [Dr. Epp’s] podcast — you’re actually not getting the information: you’re getting a copy.”

While this has worked well for sharing information peer-to-peer, sharing assets like intellectual property (IP), stocks and bonds, deeds, votes, and money cannot work with two or more copies without affecting their value, he explained.

“You don’t want someone copying your vote or your identity,” he said. “And if I send you $1000, it’s really important that I don’t still have the money!”

Previously, one would have to go to an intermediary, like a bank or a stock exchange, which would slow the transaction down and expose the asset to data mining while also being hard to physically and financially access.

Blockchain’s decentralized ledgering instead records value exchanges chronologically and verifiably so that intermediaries cannot charge nearly as much for services, slow down activities, or mine them for data.

“Privacy is the foundation of freedom,” he stated firmly.

Chancellor Tapscott explained blockchain’s incorruptibility with his now-infamous metaphor of the Chicken McNugget, which has been featured in a segment on blockchain on HBO’s Last Week Tonight with John Oliver.

“A blockchain is a highly processed thing. It’s like a Chicken McNugget. To hack a blockchain would be like taking a Chicken McNugget and turning it back into a chicken,” he said with a laugh.

As he writes in Blockchain Revolution, “The blockchain is an incorruptible digital ledger of economic transactions that can be programmed to record not just financial transactions but virtually everything of value.”

Alongside Chancellor Tapscott’s suggestions regarding IP, smart contracts, and voting, the portable social safety net is a relatively new idea for using blockchain technologies, as its legacy so far has been Bitcoin and similar cryptocurrencies.

“There are all kinds of really exciting solutions to many of these vexing problems that face us today,” Chancellor Tapscott concluded. “But we need to think differently to make them happen.”

About Leina Amatsuji-Berry 50 Articles
Leina Amatsuji-Berry was Arthur's co-Editor-in-Chief alongside Lubna Sadek for Volumes 53 (2018-2019) and 54 (2019-2020). She was Arthur's Digital Media Coordinator during Volume 52 (2017-2018). She is a Trent University alumna, having completed a joint-major Honours degree in English Literature and Media Studies with the class of 2018. Her interests include intersectional social justice, social media, memes, critical theory & philosophy, and fashion. When she is not working, she enjoys writing poetry, drinking tea, and eating burritos and sushi. Her karaoke skills will blow you away.