"It's the Society, Stupid"

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The debate that we need today is not one about economic models. The demise of communism has marked the end of ideological argument as we used to have it. The debate today should rather be about the goal of economic activity. What is its ultimate purpose? What is the price society and the individual are prepared to pay for the optimization of economic efficiency? What are the necessary trade-offs? Most importantly, what kind of society is being created by the forces of the information technology and biotech revolutions combined with continuing globalization? There are quite significant differences in the answers that Americans, Europeans and Japanese would offer to these questions.

Much is said about the new business models generated by the e-economy. But there is more to it than that: the cumulative impact of these "models" affects economic policy as a whole. It affects fiscal policy, the issue of what is left of privacy in the Internet world, the way we relate to each other and to society, and the way governments think about policy, formulate it and are able or not to enforce it. While business is busy e-engineering and reinventing itself, who will create the new social or political models needed as a counterpart?

Of course, new political concepts and new schemes of societal organization have always emerged as a result of economic and technological changes, and always with a lag time. But the new element today is the speed with which the momentum for change is accelerating, aggravating the pervasive sense that our social and political structures are becoming more and more out of synch with the new economic realities. Business leaders and technology pioneers must lead the debate over the new social and political models needed. But leading figures from politics, academia and civil society also have an important role to play.

The need for new social and political concepts and a new generation of political role models is urgent. The changes affecting our lives, our jobs and our society are happening by stealth, or by default. For instance, do we accept that the Internet and e-business must be left to their own momentum, and that the loss of privacy is just an unavoidable result of technological and economic change? Or should our approach be that, even as the e-economy needs to continue booming ahead, privacy is a crucial value to be protected?

In another domain--the kind of megamergers proliferating today--are we sure that the antitrust legislation and safeguards in existence in the U.S., Europe and elsewhere remain relevant and effective? The magnitude of global concentration, the gigantic size and power of the entities created and the sectors affected mean that we are no longer talking about the ability to control the terms of access to a product or a commodity. These megacompanies could conceivably achieve an unacceptably high level of control of services, particularly in the field of communications, that are essential to the way we live, operate, think and behave.

Also, how should we interpret and address the increasing backlash against genetically modified organisms, which began in Europe and Japan and is now gaining ground in the U.S.? Blaming ignorance or misinformation does not fully address the issue. We are talking here about culture, about identity. The fact that all the companies and authorities involved had overlooked the possibility of such a backlash illustrates the risks involved in focusing almost exclusively on the economic and business dimensions of the new technological and economic revolutions in our globalized world.

These are society's choices, but they are also business and public policy decisions awaiting action now, and at both the national and international levels. Failing to consider and to address the social, psychological and ethical dimensions which must be integrated into the globalization process is to invite a backlash from groups which will not easily accept that their values--what they perceive as the core of their identity--and their right to cultural diversity be sidelined. Ignoring the debate over which values should take precedence over blind obedience to pure economic efficiency will mean that a wide variety of interest groups will feel legitimized to force such a debate, and on their terms. That will not necessarily be the most effective way of reaching conclusions that benefit society as a whole.

Each technological and economic revolution generated its own type of violent social and political backlash before new political and social models could emerge and integrate the concerns, interests and values of the different groups involved. The last example of that happened as the transformation of society, started by the Industrial Revolution, accelerated at the turn of the 20th century. Of course history actually never repeats itself. But we should be smart enough this time to avoid the temptation of complacency and arrogance. We must make sure that the promises and potential of this new revolution can be fulfilled in an inclusive way.

Claude Smadja is managing director of the World Economic Forum