The Digital Revolution — a phenomenon driven by the conjunction of the personal computer, the Internet and the mobile phone — has now been under way for half a century. In the process it has triggered the most comprehensive transformation of our information environment since Gutenberg’s invention of printing by moveable type. It has unleashed a wave of ‘creative destruction’ through our economies, triggered the emergence and rapid growth of powerful new global corporations, enabled governments and companies to engage in the most intrusive kinds of surveillance and enriched the lives of billions by giving them access to knowledge, communications and networking facilities that were once the exclusive preserve of elites.
Despite all that, it’s still early days. The Internet is just over 40 years old, and it didn’t become a mainstream communications medium until 1993. So we’re about the same distance into the Internet revolution as the citizens of Mainz were in 1477, two decades after Gutenberg launched his revolution. And just as they had no idea of the ways in which that technology would shape the world for the next 400 years, we are likewise largely in the dark about what the digital future holds.
The goal of this philanthropically-supported project — which is led by John Naughton and David Runciman — is to explore the implications of digital technology for society. Questions in which we are interested include:
- Are we living through a ‘third industrial revolution’, akin to the other technology-driven upheavals which have shaped the world in which we live?
- In what ways are digital technologies different from earlier disruptive forces? Are they increasing rather than diminishing inequality?
- Will computing and advanced robotics displace many categories of middle-class employment, as some scholars now predict? If so, how will democracies cope with the ensuing disruption?
- What are the implications for democracy of the pervasive surveillance now practised by governments and corporations? Can privacy — and personal data — be protected in such a world?
- Is the pace of technological development now too rapid for society to absorb the disruption that it brings? If so, how could we enhance social adaptability?
- How can the gap between the pace of technical change and that of legislative and regulatory adaptation be closed?
David Vincent is Emeritus Professor of Social History at The Open University, and Visiting Professor at Keele University. He is the author or editor of sixteen books on British and European social history. His publications include Bread, Knowledge and Freedom. A Study of Nineteenth-Century Working Class Autobiography (Methuen, 1982); Literacy and Popular Culture. England 1750‑1914 (Cambridge University Press, 1989); The Culture of Secrecy: Britain 1832‑1998 (Oxford University Press, 1998), The Rise of Mass Literacy. Reading and Writing in Modern Europe (Polity Press, 2000); I Hope I Don’t Intrude. Privacy and its Dilemmas in Nineteenth-Century Britain (Oxford University Press, 2015). His next book is Privacy. A Short History (Polity, January 2016).
Charles Arthur is a freelance Tech Journalist and previously was technology editor at The Guardian. He has also written for The Independent and the New Scientist about technology, science and the environment.
Christena Nippert-Eng ( visiting March to April 2017) is a sociologist and Professor of Informatics at Indiana University Bloomington. Her scholarly interests include cognitive and formal sociology, everyday life, privacy, culture, technology, user-centered design, and multi-species research.
Lawrence Quill (visiting March to April 2017) is Professor of Political Science at San Jose State University. His books include Secrets and Democracy: From Arcana Imperii to WikiLeaks.
Frank Pasquale (visiting May to June 2017) is Professor of Law at the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law. His research agenda focuses on challenges posed to information law by rapidly changing technology, particularly in the health care, Internet, and finance industries. His book The Black Box Society: Technologies of Search, Reputation, and Finance develops a social theory of reputation, search, and finance.
The Cambridge Centre for Digital Knowledge
The Cambridge Centre for Digital Knowledge (CCDK) constitutes an ambitious response to the current state of digital knowledge, in a form that enables swift, scalable and dynamic response to rapidly changing intellectual, cultural and technological conditions.
The premise of CCDK is that we are now entering the third phase of Digital Humanities. The first phase prioritized the digitization of analogue materials. The second phase involved the growth of a digital humanities discipline, which has promoted new working practices in the humanities and social sciences. One result of these two phases has been the facilitation and increased speed of access to data. The third phase now urgently requires new forms of understanding that will use new technologies to transcend rather than perpetuate well-worn approaches in the humanities and social sciences. The CCDK is structured around two strands of research which represent the two most pressing concerns of digital humanities: Digital Epistemology and Digital Society.
The Cambridge Centre for Digital Knowledge comprises of the Technology and Democracy project, the Concept Lab and the Digital Society project.