The left must carve out its own vision for the digital age

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV.com PLC.

How can we ensure that everyone has the skills needed to succeed in this new age? Silicon Valley Code Camp, 2013. [Stephen Chin/Flickr]

Computers are becoming more powerful every day and are fundamentally changing our societies. We must act now to defend jobs, wages and equality in the dawning digital age, write Gianni Pittella and Sergei Stanishev.

Gianni Pittella is president of the S&D group in the European Parliament and Sergei Stanishev is the president of the Party of European Socialists.

Being a union of 28 different countries, it is not surprising that the EU can sometimes get overwhelmed by its immediate future. As soon as we have finished an election in one country, our eyes are already turning to the next one. This has reached a new urgency with the rise of populism – will the Austrian election be the next Brexit? What will the consequences be for the French or German elections next year? Is this the next nail in the coffin for Western liberal democracy? Of course, these are important questions and ones that we must take seriously but this constant short-term focus on the next vote or next crisis means we often fail to think about the more profound changes taking place around us.

This is particularly true for the changes that digitisation is bringing to all our lives. Next month, it will be ten years since Apple launched the first iPhone. During that time Europe has gone through a financial crisis, countless governments have come and gone, and all the while smartphones and applications have become an ever more important part of our lives, doing more and more things that we used to rely on humans to do.

As striking as changes have been over the last decade they are nothing compared to what will happen in the next 10-20 years. The principle known as Moore’s Law, that computing processing power will continue to double every two years, means that the rate of change will continue at an ever-faster pace.

It is sometimes hard for us to fully grasp what this means because we are not good at visualising the huge numbers involved. Futurist Ray Kurzweil uses the old adage about rice grains on a chessboard to explain it. If you place one grain on the first square, two on the second, four on the third, and so on, so each square has double the square in front, by the time you reach the 64th square you have more grains of rice than have existed in the history of the world. Kurzweil explains that this is exactly what is happening with computing processing speeds and that we are now in the middle of the chessboard where processing power begins to increase at an almost incomprehensible rate.

What this means for our societies is profound. Computers, smartphones and, increasingly, robots will complete more tasks that we always assumed we were best placed to do. From driverless cars to new medical devices, this can provide huge benefits, helping us to live longer, more fulfilling lives. However, we have to think very deeply about the effects that this will have on our societies – that will be far bigger than a particular election result or even the financial crisis.

Last week, the progressive family met in Prague to discuss precisely this. The Socialists and Democrats (S&D) group in the European Parliament, together with the Party of European Socialists (PES) and our partners across Europe, came together to discuss with citizens what our vision for Europe should be in the digital age. How can we help our citizens to develop the next generation of digital businesses?  How do we protect workers’ rights and wages in new industries and new business models? How can we ensure that everyone has the skills needed to succeed in this new age? And ultimately, how can digitisation help create the more equal and fair society that we want to see?

At the end of the conference, we adopted a Digital Declaration that seeks to answer these questions and outlines the ideas and values that will underpin our work in the coming months and years.

This declaration is just the beginning. If we want to remain relevant in the 21st century, we on the left need to put forward a clear and coherent vision for the digital age. Only by doing this can we hope to shape the world in the years and decades to come.