Let’s Start a Conversation About the Technosocial Contract


October 19, 2021 | by Tom Philbeck

The last 30 years have seen a rising tide of technological mediation of individual lives. Half of the planet has Internet access, and international organizations are driving initiatives to connect the rest. The last 10 years have demonstrated accelerating change for artificial intelligence breakthroughs. Investment has reached $40 billion annually and will likely continue to increase heavily.

In the last five years alone, machine-learning algorithms have brought contentious facial recognition systems to the criminal justice system, deep fakes into the public commons, and popular recommendation engines into our homes, labor markets, and human resources departments. And there is no sign of this slowing down.

This era of transformation is still quite young, however, if we think in terms of a human lifespan. Google turned a youthful 23 years old this September. It is just recently out of its teenage years, and it is the planet’s most popular search engine. What is perhaps more striking is that a full 42 percent of the global population has never known a world without it. Meanwhile, 2.8 billion people (35 percent of the global population) are connected through a single social network – Facebook – that, were it a person, would be too young to vote.

The cryptocurrency industry is a mere 12 years old, has a market cap of roughly $2.5 trillion, and 3-4 percent of the world’s population is already investing even without substantial conflict resolution mechanisms in place. Amazon, which started as a website selling books 25 years ago, has grown to over $1.7 trillion in valuation, and its web services power one-third of the entire Internet, supporting the services of the companies and governments that transact on it.

Digital infrastructure and platforms, and the technologies they enable, are everywhere, simultaneously invisible, pervasive, and dominating an increasing share of our mental and physical resources. Lives, liberties, and rights are bound to the technological transformation of the 21st century, even if the effects of this transformation conflict with society’s tacit and concrete agreements for structuring power and obligations among citizens and authorities.

Technologies mediate our lives. This fact is not new. Human beings are, after all, technical beings: the human condition is a technological condition. This was always true: we know ourselves both archaeologically and anthropologically from the presence of tools and symbols. But the depth of this truth has become increasingly visible during the 21st century.

So much so that commercial enterprises have started to grasp this truth as an opportunity to develop concepts for prospective products existing in hybrid-worlds such as the metaverse, an expansive network of persistent, real-time rendered 3D worlds and simulations where people might soon live their daily lives.

Such an existence is already manifest for millions of people. Fortnite – a game that is free to play – generated over $5 billion in revenue through the sale of virtual assets to more than 300 million players in 2020. A small acknowledgment to how substantially smartphones have changed daily life should give some clue as to the potential of such a vision for the future.

Technologies are not separable from the world being created in the 21st century. They aren’t separable from personal and professional lives. They aren’t separable from political deliberation, public deliberation, or the fundamental opportunities for individuals and societies.

Whether debating the costs and benefits of drones delivering transplantable organs, trying to understand the reliability of information and how it is disseminated, or weighing whistleblower testimony about democracy-damaging algorithms, it is time to bring the technologies themselves into the discussion. It is time to talk about how these technologies will be responsibly integrated into the world and how the rights, liberties, and protections of societies will be preserved as they permeate the human experience. It is time to talk about the technosocial contract.

The “Technosocial Contract” is a new content series curated by the Carnegie Artificial Intelligence and Equality Initiative (AIEI) that examines the 21st-century relationship between technologies and society. Join Carnegie Council’s mailing list to receive the latest Technosocial Contract articles, podcasts, and events.

Tom Philbeck

Tom Philbeck

AIEI Senior Program Advisor

Tom Philbeck is a managing director at SWIFT Partners, a Geneva-based technology and strategy firm.