The health crisis has speeded up the technological revolution. The USA, China and Europe are on a war footing.
We now know who the winner is of the Covid-19 big prize. It’s not China, or even Asia. It’s digitization. The pandemic has speeded up the technological revolution and immersed human beings in the digital era. Digital apps have played a major role in public health policies, from tracking to vaccination – going as far as China’s totalitarian control of the population by cross-referencing personal data. Health measures, notably lockdown, have caused a huge rise in teleworking, e-commerce, marketplaces, and online services – foremost among them being healthcare and education. Digital penetration and the ability of people to handle it have become the criteria that determine a nation’s resilience. They underly all the revolutions caused by the Covid epidemic: the reorganization of labor and value chains, the new partnership between government and companies, the new geographical distribution of people and activities, or their new distribution because of ecological transition. They have a central role in recovery and will be determining factors in the way companies, nations and continents will rank when the epidemic is over.
Digitization has grown but its very nature has also changed. Apple is capitalized at over $3,000 billion and the GAFA overall total $11,125 billion, i.e. 26% of the valuation of the S&P 500 and 55% of the Nasdaq 100. The metaverse project launched by Facebook aims to create a virtual universe accessible to all. The great leap forward of the digital economy is accompanied by massive investment and brings with it a renaissance of the space that makes up its critical infrastructure, becoming the testing ground for an entrepreneurial government that serves the innovation that companies provide.
There are many problems involved in this boom:
- Industrial problems like the shortage of components, or the challenges faced by Taiwan, South Korea and Japan in responding to the demand for materials needed by the metaverse.
- Ecological problems, because the indispensable transition of information technologies in view of climate transition, uses a great many dirty metals.
- Social problems, arising from the fact that there are gigantic inequalities in terms of training and equipment, both between nations and within them.
- Political and ethical problems, for it is absolutely necessary not to make the same mistakes as were made when the internet was born, and to deal with the crucial issues of privacy, individual freedom, inclusion, prevention of bullying, aggression, calls for hate and violence, and fake news.
- International problems, since digital regulation has to be worldwide, but is still a black hole because of geopolitical tensions – with the exception of a breakthrough made with regard to minimum levels of taxation for platforms in developed countries.
Above all, digital technology is at the heart of the new Cold War between the USA and China, in which the USA seems set to take its revenge. The partition of the digital world has been decided by the withdrawal of American companies from the Chinese market, and by the fact that Chinese companies have been banned from being listed abroad. China and the USA are fighting for access to the metals crucial to the digital and ecological revolutions, with Beijing making supply of raw materials a condition of long-term contracts in the context of the new silk roads. But the advantage is swinging to the USA, which has committed itself to updating its infrastructures under the $1,200 billion Biden plan. It is making impressive technological breakthroughs in the fields of artificial intelligence and space, thanks to the vitality of its entrepreneurs and researchers. On the other hand, when the Communist party, under the thumb of Xi Jinping, suddenly took back control of the technology, media, entertainment and education sectors, this put a stop to development and innovation because entrepreneurs are paralyzed with fear and talented people are defecting to state-owned enterprises.
Digitization is the focus of the hopes and risks that are involved in emerging from the Covid epidemic. It is the key to inclusive, sustainable growth, just as it is for the reconciliation of security and freedom or for the re-establishment of trust between the people and their representative institutions. It is a good thing that the USA has woken up to the problem. This awakening must extend to Europe, which cannot claim to regulate in the long term without producing or innovating.
(Article published in Le Point, 13th January 2022)