A New Social Contract for the Digital Age

The social contract is a theoretical framework that refers to a set of mostly unwritten norms that regulate the core relationship between the state and those individuals living within its bounds, shaping social and political order. Through this contract, citizens willingly give away numerous rights and freedoms while the state takes on certain responsibilities, primarily those related to providing security and delivering certain services.

At its core, the social contract is a tacit agreement constructed on the basis of social justice and a sense of belonging to a community that is fair, equitable and prosperous. The problem is that, in the last few decades, trust in those foundations has dramatically eroded among the people. The technological and economic transformations that occurred in the West since the 1970s have reshaped the relationships between education, work, opportunities and welfare, rendering our previous social contract outdated, and making it necessary to establish a new one that benefits everyone.

This research program tries to support this process by analyzing the fracture of our social contract from a multidisciplinary perspective, and advancing new and realistic solutions for future agreements.

The Project

This research program analyzes the fracture of our social contract from a historical and philosophical perspective with the aim of finding real world solutions to the challenge we face today. It does so by addressing three fundamental questions:

I. Conceptual Clarity: Setting the Perimeter of Inquiry

It is important to update our definition and knowledge of the social contract. By looking at theoretical definitions and at their real-world manifestation this part of our research seeks to define our object of inquiry and provide a methodology for the study of the latest iteration of our social contract. How has this contract evolved over time? What are its fundamental components today? How can one delineate its borders and its weakest points?

II. Fracture and Conflict

It is also important to understand how previous iterations of our social contract were challenged, the causes of those processes and their consequences. The closest and most relevant historical case is that of the industrial revolutions, the socio-economic changes they brought, and the need that they generated to build a new social consensus that would include a new economic class: the proletariat. This section of the research project will seek to produce a set of conclusions about past instances of social contract fracture and the dynamics they unleashed. It will also look at the solutions that were found to govern change and re-introduce sustainability into societal transformation.

III. A New Social Contract

Ultimately the research project will move into the realm of policy oriented work and to providing in depth analysis of the current questioning of our social structures as well as to suggesting solutions to this challenge. Which collectives have been most negatively affected by processes of social technological transformation? How have they expressed their discontent? What have been their main areas of contention? How can one address the true underlying inequities of the system? What are the economic and the political measures that need to be taken to provide the system with renewed sustainability? This section of the research project will analyze in depth three key points of the contract that are being questioned, and study the viability and economic, social and political implications of some of the alternatives suggested around the world. Those points are:

  1. Taxation provides representation: The truth of the matter today is that elected representatives around the world face significant challenges when it comes to addressing the needs of their citizens. The scale of the digital market, and its velocity of transformation, means that most public officials lack the necessary instruments to deal with the externalities of technological change. To this true problem of representation is added a sense of corruption and lack of efficacy of elected officials, which helps undermine further the sense of justice within our societies.
  2. Education and hard work bring opportunity: Due to the rapidly evolving nature of the labour market, and in particular to the process of automation of many current white collar jobs, the youth in the West is finding it ever more difficult to prosper economically. Abiding by the rules is not producing economic prosperity. The rapid erosion of the Middle Class in the US and Europe and the emergence of the precariat is leading many to question the legitimacy of the social arrangements they find themselves in. The questioning of democracy as a system of government by some groups within liberal societies is but the tip of the iceberg.
  3. Respecting the rules of the community provides a sense belonging: Growing economic precariousness added to the rapid ethno-cultural transformation of Western societies is leading many to feel uprooted or ever more detached from traditional forms of belonging. Open borders and cosmopolitanism means for some collectives a loss of identity and a loss of cultural references they deem fundamental. The reaction has been a questioning of the elites that have implemented those policies and numerous attacks on minorities.