Editorial - June/July 2019

James Lewis

Progress: it’s a fascinating word.

Evidence of dramatic change is all around us, and it’s happening faster than ever – mobile supercomputers, artificial intelligence, the internet of things. In 2015, Professor Klaus Schwab, founder of the World Economic Forum, called this the fourth industrial revolution.

The previous three – the steam engine, the age of science and mass production, and the rise of digital technology – all fundamentally transformed the world. Commenting on the original industrial revolution two centuries ago, French novelist Gustave Flaubert expressed the view that he hated the railway as it flattered people with the illusion of progress. What’s the point of scientific advance, he asked, without moral advance?

The same question is front and centre as we enter the fourth industrial revolution. Or at least, it should be. Schwab’s aim has been to learn how the world can benefit from this latest industrial revolution while addressing its challenges. The growing influence of technology on all aspects of our lives has been a recurring theme, both in various feature articles published in Global Insight and across the IBA in general: in the work of the Global Employment Institute and of the Legal Policy and Research Unit, for example.

To some degree, the cover feature of this edition – ‘The internet and human rights’, takes up Schwab’s theme and addresses the question asked by Flaubert. At best, the internet can be a force for good, addressing fundamental human rights concerns and making positive contributions to the world’s most pressing challenges, such as climate change, growing inequality and the increasingly widespread and disruptive migration crises (see features ‘Trouble at the border’ and ‘Latin American migration crisis’). At worst, the current advances in technology will continue to undermine democracy and the rule of law, becoming a dehumanising and repressive force used to spread disinformation and suppress free expression, as well as accelerating already fast-growing and unacceptable levels of inequality.

So, what is our digital future? It’s our choice.

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