Towards a digital society

THE Digital Economy Blueprint launched last Friday gives some much-needed structure to Malaysia’s ongoing digital transformation. Its six thrusts are aimed at the public sector, firms, infrastructure, human capital, inclusivity and governance.

These six thrusts make it clear that digital transformation is an “all of society” process.

The digital economy is defined in the blueprint as “economic and social activities that involve the production and use of digital technology by individuals, businesses and government”. This shows that the digital economy is part of a bigger digital transformation taking place globally, a transformation that necessarily includes social well-being and human rights on top of economic development and growth.

As such, this is an opportune moment to expand the digital economy policy framework to a digital society framework. A digital society framework brings a greater variety of community rights and needs to the table.

Having a digital society mindset involves thinking about development and design not just for efficiency but also for inclusivity. Ease-of-use and interoperability principles should drive user interface and user experience design in developing cross-platform, cross-device technology to lower barriers to digital adoption.

For example, state-specific mandatory parking payment apps should not be the only option available to drivers. Requiring drivers to download and register a new app upon crossing state borders is inefficient and excludes drivers who may not have smartphones, forcing them to commit a traffic offence if they have no way to pay for parking.

With broadband being considered a basic utility, the conversation around the digital divide can go beyond access and affordability to meaningful connectivity and use. Providing equitable digital opportunities would include closing gaps in user experience of network performance, types of devices used, and digital skills needed to derive optimal benefits from digital connectivity and technologies.

This would improve digital human capital development, not just in terms of technical skills and social protections for the digital workforce but also in terms of digital and media literacy needed to equip Malaysians to handle social problems such as scams, cyberbullying and misinformation.

Data is rightly spotlighted in the blueprint as a key commodity in the digital economy, and thus a key building block of a digital society. A digital society framework facilitates data governance policies that value data privacy and security as much as open data and big data analysis. Location data collected by ride-sharing apps can be used to predict traffic patterns and customer demand more efficiently, but without proper governance you have situations like an e-hailing company’s drivers using location data to stalk celebrities and exes.

As artificial intelligence (AI) advances, big data, automation, and machine learning are likely to be used more not just in supply chains but also in infrastructure administration (eg, to manage traffic flow) and decision-making processes (eg, in court sentencing).

A “society-first” policy framework recognises the productivity gains of such technologies without neglecting laws and regulations that guard against discriminatory outcomes, such as in AI-dependent hiring practices, placement of rental ads and risk assessments for loans or insurance.

A digital society mindset prepares us to ask questions about the ways digital technologies have become part of our everyday lives and what sort of influence they will have on our future. How much power will we allow algorithms to have in determining what news we read? Does our dependence on technology reduce our resilience? Are these technologies sustainable and can they sustain us through climate change? Understanding the influence and impact of digital technologies on our lives enables us to shape its place in society.

Expanding the digital economy framework to a digital society framework may seem like a matter of semantics, but it gives meaning to recognising that digital transformation is an “all of society” process.

It brings to the table stakeholders with non-economic interests in digital policy issues that can affect many groups, especially those who are marginalised and vulnerable, in unexpected and sometimes damaging ways. It amplifies the voices of those calling for digital rights and those speaking out against digitally enabled injustices.

A digital society framework is the next step in Malaysia’s digital transformation.

DR RACHEL GONG , Senior Research Associate Khazanah Research InstituteNote: The not-for-profit Khazanah Research Institute researches and recommends policies on the pressing issues of the nation.

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digital transformation , AI , sociology


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