”To a large extent, we determine our own digital future. The Rathenau Instituut helps the public, politicians, policymakers and civil society organisations come to terms with this idea
Introduction by director Melanie Peters
The COVID-19 crisis that shook our everyday existence in 2020 did not fully disrupt society, in part because we shifted much of our lives to the digital domain. While this shift had already been happening for some time, it gathered enormous momentum owing to the pandemic. The consequences will likely only become clear in a few years, says Rathenau Instituut director Melanie Peters.
Making choices in a virus-haunted world
On 4 March 2020, we sent our employees an email in the ‘unlikely event’ that the spread of the coronavirus would cause our office to close temporarily. The email offered them tips on working from home if necessary and advised them to wash their hands as often as possible. We had yet to recognise the importance of social distancing then and the email concluded with what is now a somewhat laughable suggestion: ‘You might consider not shaking hands with anyone for a while.’ Twelve days later, seven million Dutch people watched Prime Minister Mark Rutte address the nation on television. Shortly thereafter, offices and school buildings were practically deserted. For weeks on end, much of the Netherlands worked from home or studied at the kitchen table. Since March last year, some people have only seen their colleagues on screen.
The coronavirus crisis is once again highlighting the importance of science and innovation. The Dutch Government took all key decisions after consulting scientists in the Outbreak Management Team (OMT) and, in most cases, followed their advice. The end of the pandemic is in sight because scientists succeeded in developing vaccines faster than expected.
On two occasions, we sent insights to the Dutch House of Representatives on its approach to COVID-19. In both cases, we warned against focusing unilaterally on technology. Technology – whether that means a vaccine or an app that tells you when you have been in close proximity to an infected person – is never more than one element in a broader solution that must also address how society has organised healthcare. Ultimately, human behaviour is also critical.
Shortly after Pfizer became the first drug manufacturer to publish hopeful results about a possible vaccine, we reminded the House of Representatives of the importance of developing a social roadmap for exiting the crisis. That roadmap must include adequate planning for communication and measures to ensure that the public trusts, and continues to trust, the vaccines. We emphasised that we can only overcome a global pandemic by making a sufficient number of vaccines available in poorer countries.
”We pointed out that it is important for the government to consult with unions and employers about limiting the use of digital technology in the employment relationship.
The COVID-19 pandemic suddenly made trends and developments that we had already been observing much more significant. A few weeks after the Dutch started working from home en masse, we published Valued at work, our report on the growing role of digital monitoring in the workplace. Digital monitoring tools often serve a noble purpose in the workplace, but they can also lead to breaches of privacy, discrimination in recruitment and selection, and more work pressure. We wrote our report at the request of the House of Representatives’ Social Affairs and Employment Committee. During the report’s presentation, we pointed out that it is important for the government to consult with unions and employers about limiting the use of digital technology in the employment relationship.
When schools closed in the spring, around 100 teachers and parents agreed to share their initial experiences with distance learning with us. We used their input for our blog series Leren digitaliseren, in which we examined how digitalisation in education affects values that we consider crucial to our society. Digital tools offer wonderful opportunities to better attune education to the needs of individual pupils, but such tools can only be effective if learning is teacher-centred (and of course, pupil-centred).
Digitalisation is also making rapid strides in other domains. We published studies on two increasingly popular immersive technologies. Speech technology allows us to talk to computers, and a growing number of smartphones, smart speakers and other smart devices are listening to what we say. Augmented reality adds digital layers to our experience of reality. Virtual reality, the subject of one of our reports in 2019, takes us to an entirely simulated world in which all the images we see and sounds we hear are computer-generated.
To help society maintain its grip on the digitalisation process, we drafted the Rathenau Manifesto, in which we identify ten design requirements to implement now for tomorrow’s digital society. They include designs that allow us to remain in control of our digital body, to remain anonymous if we wish to be, and to take control of our virtual identity.
”It is, by definition, difficult to say how innovative technologies will ultimately affect society
At the request of the House of Representatives’ Temporary Committee on the Digital Future, set up to investigate how the House can better manage the desirable and undesirable consequences of digitalisation, we presented the report More grip on digitisation. We scanned the working methods that parliaments in ten different countries employ to address digitalisation and used the outcomes of our study as a basis for identifying various ways in which the Dutch parliament can tighten its grip on this process. One recommendation was to establish a standing committee for digital affairs, which the House has now adopted.
At the start of the coronavirus crisis, Prime Minister Mark Rutte regularly pointed out that his Government had to take 100% of its virus-related decisions based on 50% of the necessary knowledge. That has in fact long been the case for most of the subjects that the Rathenau Instituut studies. It is, by definition, difficult to say how innovative technologies will ultimately affect society. For that very reason, it is important to have a clear idea of where we wish to go as a society. What values do we cherish most?
”It will always be important to avoid hasty decisions and to make our own choices
To identify those values, we need to engage with the public. Surveys often fail to reveal what people really think about complex issues; what we need is to have real conversations. Despite the restrictions on physical encounters imposed by the Government’s COVID-19 policy, we were able to talk to members of the public in 2020 about the modification of human embryo DNA, trust in science, and the role of the internet. The latter was the topic of the United Nations’ Global Citizens’ Dialogue on Internet, ‘We the Internet’. As part of its 75th anniversary celebrations, the UN organised dialogues in more than one hundred countries about the future of the internet. We organised the dialogues in the Netherlands with our partner Radboud University Nijmegen.
The merger between our physical and digital worlds accelerated by the coronavirus crisis in 2020 will certainly not be reversed completely in 2021, not even if vaccines and treatments succeed in rendering COVID-19 harmless. But digitalisation is not something that simply befalls us, like an unknown virus. That is equally true of other innovations. What the future holds is largely up to us. The Rathenau Instituut helps the public, politicians, policymakers and civil society organisations come to terms with this idea, because it will always be important to avoid hasty decisions and to make our own choices.