The rise of technonationalism. Diverging regulatory regimes. The spread of “walled gardens.” Polarization like nothing we’ve seen before. The confluence of several trends is poised to completely fragment our real and digital worlds. For companies, this raises a host of new risks, from cybersecurity threats to reputation risk—which, in turn, will require new responses and approaches.

The techonomic cold war

A “techonomic cold war” is already under way—an ongoing, often-invisible state of conflict at the intersection of technology and geopolitics.

Competition to dominate the next generation of technology infrastructure—such as electric vehicles, 5G networks, and quantum computing—is becoming increasingly heated. It’s a high-stakes contest and the countries setting the rules for these technologies could secure significant economic advantage, much as the United States benefited over several decades from pioneering the personal computer and the internet.

At the same time, populist and nationalist leaders have been ascendant in much of the world. These leaders have protectionist and interventionist instincts, and a willingness to buck established norms. It’s a combination which has resulted in the deployment of unconventional tools to favor domestic companies—not just tariffs and trade wars, but company bans and new forms of cyberattacks such as weaponized disinformation.

All of this is leading to the partitioning of both the real world (e.g., trade, labor mobility, and investment) and the digital world (e.g., tech platforms and standards). In this fragmented future, companies once used to operating on a global stage will instead find themselves restricted to operating within the spheres of influence of their home states. (For more, see “Techonomic Cold War” in EY’s Megatrends 2020 report and MIT Technology Review’s “Technonationalism” issue).

Regulators aren’t the only ones fragmenting the digital world. To a large extent, tech companies have been doing it themselves.

Divergent social contracts

Technology platforms are today’s basic infrastructure, increasingly inseparable from the economies and societies in which they exist. These platforms are increasingly where citizens get news, engage in political debate, network professionally, and more.

But while tech companies might seek to create seamless, integrated global platforms, they in fact deliver their offerings in vastly different societies. The social contract of the US is fundamentally different from that of China, Saudi Arabia, or even the European Union (EU). So, governments and regulators in different markets have been moving to recast tech platforms in the image of their social contracts. An early example was China, which developed its own platforms that better align with its social contract than do US-developed offerings.

Meanwhile, the EU has become increasingly active and visible in regulating technology. The most prominent recent example, the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), is a precursor of things to come. The GDPR tackles privacy and data protection, but much bigger regulatory issues loom, from the explainability of algorithms to the safety of autonomous vehicles (for more, see EY’s Bridging AI’s trust gaps report). As these technologies come of age and become more prominent in the lives of citizens, expect governments in different regions to become more active in regulating them. Over time, increasingly complex regulatory issues and divergent ideologies will create either separate platforms, or platforms that ostensibly have the same name but deliver fundamentally different user experiences in different geographies.

Walled gardens

Regulators aren’t the only ones fragmenting the digital world. To a large extent, tech companies have been doing it themselves. Walled gardens—closed, self-contained tech platforms or ecosystems—have endured because they are good for the bottom line. They allow companies to extract more value from customers and their data while offering a more curated user experience. In recent months, there has been a growing fragmentation of “over-the-top” media streaming services, with individual studios and networks developing their own subscriber platforms. Instead of streaming platforms that hosted content from a wide variety of creators, platforms will offer exclusive access to their own content—fragmenting the streaming media experience.

Hyperpolarization

It’s no secret that political polarization has been growing at an alarming rate and that social media platforms—while not solely responsible—have been fueling the trend. Filter bubbles in social media platforms have enabled the spread of misinformation, leaving platforms with the tricky and unenviable task of policing the truth.

Worrying as it may be, everything we have seen so far may be nothing compared with what lies ahead. As social media platforms become more active in stemming the flow of misinformation, its purveyors are starting to seek new homes free from policing. In the weeks since the recent US Presidential election, a growing number of Trump voters have started leaving mainstream social media platforms for alternatives such as Parler and Telegram. By the time the next Presidential election rolls around, it’s not farfetched to anticipate that we could see today’s social media filter bubbles replaced by entirely separate social media platforms catering to conservatives and liberals.

At that point, we will have moved from an era of polarization to one of hyperpolarization. For anyone worried social media platforms are doing too little to curb misinformation, imagine how much worse things will be with platforms that don’t even try.

Risks and challenges

The techonomic cold war necessitates a new approach to cybersecurity. “Companies need to guard against not just malware and phishing attacks, but weaponized disinformation,” says Kris Lovejoy, EY’s global consulting cybersecurity leader. “We’ve seen disinformation used to attack elections, but there’s no reason it couldn’t be used to target companies. Most companies today do not have the safeguards and protections they will need in the next frontier of cybersecurity.”

A second challenge is lack of transparency. Commerce thrives on transparency, yet instruments such as company bans are opaque and seemingly arbitrary. To the extent these instruments undermine transparency, they create uncertainty for businesses.

The regional fragmentation of platforms by regulation and divergent social contracts increases the complexity of regulatory compliance and the risk of regulatory noncompliance. Beyond mere compliance, companies face significant brand and reputation risk if consumers perceive platforms to be misaligned with societal values.

A hyperpolarized future will create some of the most significant challenges of all. Losing the last tenuous bridges between our divergent echo chambers would threaten everything from social stability to the future of democracy and the very existence of a shared reality.

This content was produced by EY. It was not written by MIT Technology Review’s editorial staff.

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