The roaring 20s are long gone. A century exactly. Todays’ Twenty Twenties add to the already existing anxieties of financial meltdowns, downward social mobility, random violence, unwelcome migration, and global warming that of fear of a virus stricken planet. But this fearful narrative knows a silver lining too: Digitalization. In the absence of a medical cure or preventive immunization, digitalization is regarded as the second best option: telework and video conferencing, virus tracking, and digital health.
Well, one might argue that hope is the better option in responding to collective anxieties given that desperation and conspiracy theories around pandemics have in history often ended in outbreaks of barbaric violence. Hope is not to be dismissed but a fundamental feature of continued human existence. Nevertheless, unkept promises and false expectations might exacerbate an already volatile situation. Where does this leave Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) and where lies their relevance in a world of increasing anxieties and digitalization?
Digitalization before Covid-19
In recent years a number of ideas emerged on how digitalization and globalization, as intertwined processes, affect people. Short and sketchy theories were developed, such as on the Globals, Mobals, and Locals.
Stratification, as a result of both digitalization and globalization, has produced winners and losers: « losers of the globalization process seek to protect themselves through protectionist measures and through an emphasis on the maintenance of national boundaries and independence. Winners, by contrast, who benefit from the increased competition, support the opening up of the national boundaries and the process of international integration.»
The industrial revolution of the 19th century brought with it the labour movement, the trade unions, and collective bargaining. The decreasing importance of industrial production in Western Countries, the ascent of a neo-liberal ideologies also helped CSOs to gain importance. These organizations fill the void left behind by a retreating State and a weakened labour movement. Bargaining power was replaced by advocacy while fund raising and private philanthropy took the place of welfare programmes financed by taxes.
The economic consequences of digitalization and neoliberalism have resulted in cultural and political conflict, amplified in digital spaces, whereby one side holds universalistic conceptions of community and advocates individual autonomy while the other emphasizes the right to preserve traditional communities and their moral understandings. In extreme cases this » nativism » combines nationalism and xenophobia. The antagonism between winners and losers of globalization has been described as a conflict between integration and demarcation.
Some scholars suggest that digitalization and globalization lead to a dual labor market: one consisting of insiders and outsiders. Insiders have long-term contracts and secure well-paying jobs; they support status quo. Outsiders, who are unemployed or in temporary work, form of the basis of populist reaction. The social problems of the gig economy have been widely described and researched. The gig economy is the frontline in the battle for the future of industrial relations. It is about the ability of employees to retain rights and benefits for themselves and their families. And there is little hope that advocacy can do the trick: The gig economy needs new power relationships that allow for effective collective bargaining.
In the current Covid-19 crisis new cleavages have been observed between the (privileged) “Remotes” and the more disadvantaged “Essentials, Unpaid, and Forgotten”. In France, the trade unions launched a public debate on the perceived injustice of white collar workers allowed to earn income by distancing themselves from potential infection, while blue collar workers are still called to the shop floor risking their health.
In short, at the outset of the 2020s, digitalization often drives discontent and resentment linked to modernization and globalization. It feeds anxieties. In fact, some analysts go even further and interpret the entire Covid-19 response policies in western countries as guided by the interest of an aging electorate imposing an economic lock-down policy to the detriment of younger and economically active segments of society and their children, for their own physical protection and channel resources into the build-up of extended health sector capacities for groups at risk, which means mainly for themselves.
20th Century Flashback
There have been times of collective anxiety and conflict before. And while we should not overstate the gravity of problems of our generation, such as a pandemic, an economic downturn and a serious ecological crisis, it might help to look back. Let’s remind ourselves that the 20th century wasn’t spared of crisis situations either and offers clues for today and the future. First, during that period of time, technological innovation continued and the industrial revolution wasn’t reversed despite all differences in ideology and governance. It was with regard to the latter, that major differences occurred: On the one hand, authoritarian and violent models that propagated class struggle, racism, and social Darwinism pitching, on the other hand, against capitalist expansion, a new deal and the idea of the welfare state, structural exploitation through markets, and social engineering that maintained democratic and participatory discourses. This in turn allowed for the inclusion of women and social minorities into the mainstream of socio-economic development.
It is important to stress that both 20th century solutions were State driven. It is the “strong State and big Government” that resolves anxiety and conflict weighing on the collective mind of societies.
Why people-centred digitalization?
If the Covid-19 pandemic is the defining moment of a new era of anxiety that will become the 2020s, then CSOs are facing a number of serious challenges: First and foremost, anxiety breeds the desire for a “strong State” which might be tempted to curtail the space for CSOs but not necessarily. Secondly, CSOs need to be aware that digitalization and globalization is not in all cases perceived positively by those marginalized groups they aim to serve. To the contrary, ICSOs may even be seen as part of the “integration camp”, i.e. experience problems of legitimacy, acceptance, and trust.
While it may be true that CSOs have subscribed to digital rights, ethical standards and alike, digitalization can’t be a purpose in itself but must take into account the real and perceived consequences it has on the people for which CSOs advocate, serve and seek to empower. Operationalizing a people-centred approach to digitalization and globalization is the only way to give credence to the universal principles driving the work of CSOs. They must address power imbalances in the digital space and try to create bargaining power. Advocacy that relies on the funds of the philanthropic power holders is unlikely to be successful. Hence, the digitalization efforts of CSOs should focus on advocating for, serving and empowering people. CSOs have an obligation to fight marginalization caused by digitalization. Digital tools have to serve the socio-economic inclusion and self-determination of otherwise disadvantaged and disenfranchised strata of the population. CSOs cannot accept a gig economy that is disempowering and a digital space where the individual is reduced to a digital consumer and/or worker rather than having the attributes of a cyber citizen.
Sectoral Issues: Covid-19 Response and Digital Health
The Covid-19 crisis is often cited as a water shed, showcasing the benefits and, thus, accelerating the digital transformation of our societies. That can only be true if CSOs succeed in operationalizing people-centred digitalization strategies.
Given the critical public health situation most countries are currently experiencing, it seems fitting to choose an aspect of digital health to explain what is meant in practical terms by people-centred digitalization. Well before the Covid-19 crisis, the promotion started of a “Consumer-centric Health Care System”: Rather than the inpatient, the outpatient setting will become the optimal medium of care. One’s home will become an important new location of care, and virtual care will broaden access to healthcare in rural areas, especially in emerging economies. When the Covid-19 crisis hit the Italian town of Bergamo earlier this year, local doctors published an open letter stating:
“The example shows that leveraging innovation in digital health may lead to different outcomes: The term consumer hints towards a concept that regards health care as a commodity, part of a value chain that delivers revenue while the open letter talks about patients and health workers. In the end terminology means little as long as it is understood that only digital health delivered in the framework of universal health care is empowering.« This disaster could be averted only by massive deployment of outreach services. Pandemic solutions are required for the entire population, not only for hospitals. Home care and mobile clinics avoid unnecessary movements and release pressure from hospitals … This approach would limit hospitalization to a focused target of disease severity, thereby decreasing contagion, protecting patients and health care workers, and minimizing consumption of protective equipment … This outbreak is more than an intensive care phenomenon, rather it is a public health and humanitarian crisis. It requires social scientists, epidemiologists, experts in logistics, psychologists, and social workers. We urgently need humanitarian agencies who recognize the importance of local engagement.”
The example shows that leveraging innovation in digital health may lead to different outcomes: The term consumer hints towards a concept that regards health care as a commodity, part of a value chain that delivers revenue while the open letter talks about patients and health workers. In the end terminology means little as long as it is understood that only digital health delivered in the framework of universal health care is empowering.
And what applies to digital health is equally valid for other sectors, such as eLearning, digital identity, the digital labour market, etc., where people-centred approaches aim to empower many rather than generating revenues for few.
 Mayer, Nonna, Allison Rovny, Jan Rovny and Nicolas Sauger. 2015. “Outsiderness, Social Class, and Votes in the 2014 European Elections.” Revue européenne des sciences sociales 1(53)