Theme 4

Shaping our digital lives

One third of the world’s people may come online in the next 20 years. They’re arriving in an anxious, crowded space. Online life is becoming steadily more immersive and people are spending even more time there. Huge amounts of (valuable) data are being generated - but there’s little transparency over how it is used, shared or sold. Massive advances in computing power and super-smart algorithms are also shaping this area, fast. The health and prosperity of societies will be shaped by how people live their digital lives, so our choices now regarding how the parameters are drawn are crucial.


Generative AI (algorithms that use existing content to create new plausible content) is improving exponentially, transforming our information landscape.  Images from DALL-E 2, an AI system that turns text descriptions into hyper-realistic images, have got four times more detailed [44]  in just one year.  Text-to-video [45] is already here.  AI can now recreate voices [46] of the dead.  ChatGPT, OpenAI’s chatbot that gives highly detailed (sometimes inaccurate) responses to questions, attracted one million users [47] in 5 days.

Superapps (one-stop-shops for a seamless online life) are expanding in Africa [48], as communications and financial companies add different services to their platforms.  And they’re becoming indispensable; banned WeChat users in China send handwritten notes [49] pleading for their accounts to be restored.  

There’s some pushback against the relentless capture of people’s data. Gig workers in India [50] and ride-hailing drivers in Indonesia [51] are banding together to protect their data and take back control from algorithms.

As digital public infrastructure grows, so does awareness of the implications for equity.  Some digital ID systems are accused of excluding [52] certain groups, like women or particular ethnicities, or failing to ensure data privacy [53]. The Vice-President of Bolivia called for a national debate on the metaverse and “recolonization 2.0” [54] to consider how to defend freedom, sovereignty, health and justice.  With e-payments in Africa [55] projected to grow to $40 billion by 2025, governance frameworks that allow, for example, interoperable digital IDs will be key to the success of the African Continental Free Trade Area. 

38% of women in 51 countries have experienced online violence, forcing nearly 9 in 10 of them to limit their online activity, further expanding the digital gender divide. Some experts say that the proliferation of ethical frameworks for AI [56], often founded on abstract principles, means they do not really address AI’s risks.    

  • Growing concern for privacy

  • Ever-stronger AI

  • Increasingly digital lives


Illustrative Signals
  • ChatGPT attracted one million users in just 5 days

  • Superapps are expanding in Middle East and Africa

  • Bots reinforce gender bias

  • Digital ID systems are being accused of excluding certain groups or failing to ensure data privacy

So what for development

Exponential advances in digital technology are increasing the gap between the haves and the have-nots, those who aren’t shaping our digital world, or aren’t even able to participate in or benefit from it.  In such a rapidly-changing field, can policy and regulation – including the institutional capacities to legislate and regulate – keep up?

Digital public infrastructure offers potentially huge efficiency gains, like a2i [57] in Bangladesh or Togo’s cash transfer [58] programme during Covid.  But public services can’t serve everyone equitably unless the underlying AI is trained on diverse datasets.  Datasets from particular population samples can produce AI healthcare tools [59], for example, that don’t work accurately or fairly with different groups, or bots that reinforce gender bias [60].  Should people be compensated for the use of their data, including in creating these sets?

As people become more immersed in their digital lives, the opportunities are growing for surveillance and social control  (but also for deeper civic engagement).  

How can people assert greater agency over their identity and data?  One option could be self-sovereign (or self-managed) IDs, where individuals establish and control their own identity without having to share their personal data or be locked into a single identity provider.  Data unions, an intermediary between the user and big tech or government, may put the user in control, given appropriate governance.  They enable the user to decide how much privacy they want to retain, and how much they’re willing to cede.


Imagining the future

What might our world look like in 2040? 
Fictional snippets from a possible future!

A mockup of a fictional website warning of the future: I agree to share my data (please select): a) with company X, to be used in their synthetic data farm for commercial and any other purposes, in exchange for $25 b) with the government, for public policy purposes only c) with no third parties