The Corona Crisis Reveals the Struggle for a Sustainable Digital Future

By Dirk Helbing

For a long time, experts have warned of the dangers of a non-sustainable world, but few have understood the implications with regard to the use of mass data. The digital revolution allowed the machinery of utility maximization to reach new heights. Today’s surveillance capitalism not only collects detailed information about each and every one of us, but also sells detailed digital copies of our lives. The possibility of digitally producing human digital doubles triggered new debates about the value of life, which, from a strict market point of view, is put under pressure not only by overpopulation, but also by automation and artificial intelligence. I have previously warned of the dangers of an emerging data-based system that could autonomously decide about people’s lives and deaths on the basis of a citizen score reflecting their “systemic value”.

Then came the Corona virus. In the past 75 years, we have perhaps never been closer to the end of the civilization as we know it and grew up with. Suddenly, the fundamental principles of civil society were at stake. From one week to the other, driven by fear, we have lost some of our fundamental human rights: the freedom of mobility, the freedom of assembly, the freedom of worship, and – some of us, under the pressure of medical “triage” – even the right to live. The crisis seemed to push states not only towards obligatory testing, but also towards mass surveillance of data on health, on movement, on contacts, towards mass storage of such data, and potentially, later, towards immunity certificates. If these plans came true, we would no longer be far from a big-data-based totalitarian state. Actually, some countries, like Hungary, have shattered what was left of their democracies over the pandemic.

However, in this historical situation, other democracies decided to weight lives and rights over money, solidarity over full state control. At least in Western Europe, even in times of lockdown and fear, they decided to preserve their citizens’ privacy and informational self-determination. The latest debates and decisions on tracking applications for smartphones, in Germany for instance, suggest that a new framework for the digital society is on its way – one based on decentralization, the right to maintain one’s private sphere, and freedom to choose. Even Google and Apple will have to comply with such a decision. This might be the dawn of a new society. It may take years to realize that it was a nasty virus that helped us build a more livable, more sustainable future together – a digitally enabled future and beyond.

This text is part of the #DossierCorona thread #workingfutures and was first published as part of the series “Wiko Briefs – Working Futures in Corona Times” of the Working Futures Network at the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin. The authors are members of the transnational network “Working Futures” or Fellows of the Wissenschaftskolleg.


Dirk Helbing is Professor of Computational Social Science at the Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule (ETH) in Zurich, Switzerland. In 2019/2020, he is a Fellow at the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin.


Further articles in the thread #workingfutures of the #DossierCorona on TRAFO:

Introducing #DossierCorona #workingfutures, 14 May 2020.

Lisa Herzog, How Can We Strengthen the Contributory Logic of Work?, 14 May 2020.

Martin Krzywdzinski, The COVID 19 crisis accelerates structural change in the world of work, 15 May 2020.

Elena Esposito, The Need for De-Integration in Pandemic Times, 18 May 2020.


Citation: Dirk Helbing, The Corona Crisis Reveals the Struggle for a Sustainable Digital Future, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 21.05.2020, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/23989.


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