Virtually all technologies that humans have invented or will invent present both benefits and risks. The history of humankind is that of invention, development and exploitation of technologies while managing their downsides. However, it is the speed, scope and pervasiveness of digital technological change across virtually every aspect of human endeavour that generate an enormous array of possible implications. Such characteristics undoubtedly set the digital revolution (sometimes called the fourth industrial revolution) apart from past technological revolutions in the way they challenge aspects of human behaviour and social institutions.
Digital innovations – much like previous innovation – are created by individual entrepreneurs or private companies. Thus, while profoundly affecting individuals and societies, these innovations are rarely subject to significant pre-release discussion, societal debate or anticipatory regulatory processes. Instead, ‘trial by market forces’ has been the history of many – but not all – technologies in the last two centuries. However, in situations where there has been anticipatory regulation to limit the use of particular technologies, this has generally been driven by perceived financial risks to existing firms rather than by any other type of risk assessment (even though the arguments may often be dressed as the latter). In other words, it is rare for there to be deliberative societal reflection and debate that goes beyond managerial risk assessment to address instead the normative (‘ought we?’) questions surrounding the introduction of new technologies.
In general, governments are either very precautionary or, conversely, they are rather hands-off with regard to new technologies.