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In 1762 Jean Jacques Rousseau posited in “The Social Contract” that people in civil society consent to surrender some of their natural freedoms in exchange for the protection of most of their freedoms and the maintenance of social order. This contract between the governed and governing, Rousseau argues, forms the foundation of democracy.

An amended version of the social contract is emerging in today’s digital spaces. Have you ever scrolled urgently through a long user agreement to set up a social media account? Ever glossed over an extensive privacy agreement in order to sign up quickly for an online service? Today’s public is regularly asked to surrender their freedom to own, access, monetize and use their data in exchange for convenient access to services. Is this a fair exchange?

Personal data has tremendous value in the contemporary economy, not only because it describes and predicts individual and collective behaviors, preferences, lifestyles and interests, but also because it can be used to train artificial intelligence — an emerging market and industry. Moreover, transactions using personal data become more tangible in “smart cities,” where physical interactions may collect data about the public throughout their daily urban experience—jogging with your FitBit, traveling in an automated vehicle, throwing your trash away in a ‘smart trashcan,’ or checking the temperature in your home through a mobile app.

The contemporary social contract is largely written between consumers and the private companies from which they receive such smart city services. Sometimes, it’s between citizens and our governments when smart city projects are publicly funded. In both scenarios, how the public consents to, or dissents from, these transactions remain undefined in Western society’s state and federal legislative framework. Meanwhile, the definition of “services” in the technology industry is expanding to encompass “Everything as a Service (XaaS), ” highlighting the rapid growth of the types of experiences that can be delivered to customers digitally.

As new power regimes—those that shape public access to services, and the information from which those services are now built— surface in the information economy, we must also reassess the social contract, or the terms under which we agree to participate.

How do we do this? To get started, we can consider:

  • What is today’s social contract and why has it become obsolete?
  • How can the social contract be amended?
  • What are the values of a digital social contract?
  • How do we define meaningful consent?
  • By what mechanisms or means can the social contract be renegotiated?

“Man is born free and everywhere he is in chains” is how Rousseau described the experience of citizens living under a broken social contract, over two hundred years ago. Though today’s chains may be harder to see, in this moment we have a special opportunity to shape the future social contract.

If you want to talk more about the social contract, smart cities and digital equity reach out to me on twitter @Emily_Royall.