18.1 The Digital Economy

The science, the technology and the applications of AI have developed rapidly in the era of ubiquitous digital communication and the Internet. The world economy has been transformed by these developments. Most of the ten largest global corporations, measured by market capitalization, rely heavily upon AI applications. Those companies are centred more on the use of information than on the production of material goods. The shift from matter to information is characterized as dematerialization.

Physical mail has been disrupted by email, texting, and social media. Incidentally, email was overwhelmed by spam until AI methods were used to filter it out. Printed books are now supplemented by e-books. Analog photography, film, and video are supplanted by digital media. Some travel in planes and cars has been replaced by digital communication. CDs have been replaced by streaming audio and newspapers by news websites. This process, the atoms-to-bits transformation, allows transactions with less friction and more speed. It is easier, quicker, cheaper, and more material and energy efficient to stream music than to go to a store to buy a CD.

Digitalization, in turn, leads to a general temporal speedup of society and the economy. It also shrinks distances through telecommunication. We all live now in a global village, as characterized by Marshall McLuhan [1962]. Furthermore, the digital revolution reduces or eliminates the need for intermediaries, such as retail clerks, bank tellers, and travel agents, between the producers and consumers of goods and services – a process known as disintermediation.

The digital revolution and AI are transforming the world economy. These effects are beneficial for some but harmful for others. The benefits, and the harms, are far from evenly distributed in the new economy. There is a winner-take-all dynamic as the most powerful corporations use their power to increase their dominance until a monopoly, or oligopoly, market position is established. AI and machine learning algorithms, relying on tracking and modeling users, are central to this dynamic. Zuboff [2019] characterized the new economy as surveillance capitalism, epitomized by the large-scale harvesting of personal data online to facilitate targeted monitoring and advertising for commercial and political purposes. Human values such as privacy, dignity, equity, diversity, and inclusion are compromised.

Human attention, selective concentration on available information, is a critical and limited resource. Attention is a psychological issue but it is also an economic issue, as pointed out long ago by Simon [1971] when he created the key concept of the attention economy. He observed:

In an information-rich world, the wealth of information means a dearth of something else: a scarcity of whatever it is that information consumes. What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it.

In English, a person is said to be “paying attention” to a salient event. In other words, attention is a currency to be spent, like money, in this economy. The central role of human attention in our screen-filled digital age is described by Richtel [2014]. Turning attention into a commodity requires monitoring users, which, in turn, triggers privacy concerns. Corporations, and other actors, not only want to know a lot about us but they also use that knowledge to manipulate our attention, our thoughts, and our actions.