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Social sciences promote the construction of digital society

LYU PENG | 2021-09-09 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

The digital service area in the China International Fair for Trade in Services 2021 Photo: CNS

In recent years, major breakthroughs have been made in digital technologies. Digital technologies have become new cognitive instruments and a means to influence social life, which exert far-reaching influence on human society. The 14th Five-Year Plan (2021–2025) for National Economic and Social Development and the Long-Range Objectives Through the Year 2035 proposed that it is necessary to “accelerate the development of a digital economy, a digital society, and a digital government, and transform the pattern of production, lifestyle, and governance models through digital transformation.”

The construction of a digital society highlights the initiative of the state, market, and social entities, rather than the natural consequences of the application and diffusion of digital technologies, which is a major issue the social sciences must face. Social sciences development should adapt to the new scenarios of a digital era, having the courage to make self-revolution. If the AI technological assets represented by data, computing power, and algorithms reflect “digital hard power,” then China has the advantages to synchronously build the “digital soft power,” with society, culture, and regulations as its core. China should actively contribute thoughts, set rules, and empower societies, becoming not only the “technical highland” of digital technology, but also the “thought highland” in global digital societies, so that the “dual highland pattern” can grow together, consolidating a new foundation and adding new momentum to the “great social revolution.”
Great achievements
In recent years, great achievements have been made in various actions and applications concerning the digital society, whether in urban or rural areas, governments, market entities, or social entities. Guided by a problem-solving orientation, some cross-sectoral and multi-scenario collaborative applications have played a vital role in promoting social construction, and the effect of “social governance supported by sci-tech” is outstanding.
China has given full play to the organizational and mobilization advantages of the Party committees and the government, focusing on the modernization of social governance capacity, and has achieved remarkable results in the field of intelligent social governance. Taking streamlining administration and delegating power as a breakthrough point, the construction of an “intelligent +” government has advanced greatly; the sense of gain and satisfaction of enterprises and the masses have been greatly improved. Comprehensive, systematic, and reshaping changes are taking place in governance. An increasing number of governmental institutions rely on various forms of an “intelligent brain,” regarding the data resources owned by the platform as an important basis for decision-making, enhancing the government’s responsiveness to social problems, and greatly improving the modernization level of national governance capacity.
The enthusiasm of market entities has been mobilized. The construction of intelligent communities and digital rural areas have become new investment hotspots, improving people’s livelihoods, providing conveniences to the masses, and creating jobs. Facing the COVID-19 pandemic, China became the first country in the world to apply artificial intelligence technology to respond to public health incidents on a large scale. Whether in urban or rural areas, in order to solve problems, some cross-sectoral and multi-scenario collaborative applications have played an important role in promoting social construction.
The collaborative connection function of intelligent technologies has been given full play and mutual assistance has been promoted in communities, with the match of the supply side and the demand side, which improve the efficiency of social problem solving. More and more institutions have begun to employ digital and intelligent instruments to create community connections which promote the optimal matching of social needs and resources. Digital technology enjoys natural technological advantages in promoting resource allocation, setting the public agenda, and spreading social issues. It helps to connect the government, enterprises, and non-governmental organizations, and has great potential in promoting environmental protection and social equality.
Major challenges
The digital applications are highly fragmented, with a lack of overall national planning. The digital society covers education, culture, health, welfare, human settlements, governance, and other aspects. The construction of a digital society is also a process of coordinated promotion and mutual complementation. At the local level, looking back at the practice of digital society construction in various places, although the construction of intelligent cities and intelligent communities has made good achievements in some places, most areas are basically dominated by the prevalence of fragmented application methods. 
China’s digital society construction is still in the stage of infrastructure construction-led development, with relatively single-applicational scenarios.
The digital divide has widened and the social rebound has emerged. The reflection on the demerits of capital and technology has gradually become a governance challenge. It is increasingly urgent to improve the digital rules in the social field. The digital divide is not only reflected in regional and urban-rural divergences, but also between generations and social estates. We are encountering a new round of global criticism of digital technologies. The problems caused by new technologies are mainly social, cultural, and political, rather than technical: from criminal justice, ethics, and privacy protection to workers’ rights. The interaction of government, markets, and society will determine what kind of sci-tech we will eventually employ. At present, there is insufficient social mobilization in the construction of digital society. Represented by the rise of “cyberpunk” among teenagers, the reflection and criticism on the evil of capital and technology have broken through the scope of discussion in the intellectual circles and have become an integral part of mass culture.
The business model is immature, and the sustainable investment of market entities in the social field lacks policy support. 
At present, the application of digital technologies in the social field is “rich” on the one hand and “selective” on the other. For example, although there are thousands of digital products and services related to epidemic prevention, they mainly focus on the categories of partial tools such as intelligent identification (temperature measurement), intelligent medical systems, intelligent robot (including UAV), emergency dispatching, and online office platforms. Meanwhile, the most needed products and services, such as those more suitable for the elderly, have lagged behind. 
The lack of “social label” and “social context” will not only lead to serious homogenization of sci-tech products and turn “new infrastructure” projects into social engineering, but also cause serious social consequences due to gender, culture, law, and other reasons. In addition, most intelligent products and services applied in the social field have a long investment cycle, high risk, and slow income return, and mainly rely on the government to purchase services. In order to make more such “social labels” and “social situations” into codes, it is essential to encourage more public welfare organizations, social enterprises, and platform enterprises to cooperate. Government departments can set up special funds or policy support to continuously promote such cooperation.
Social sciences facilitate digitalization
China’s digital process is in full swing, and the digital society is an important achievement of the construction of a digital China. Social scientists can make new contributions in the following aspects.
Social scientists should actively contribute ideas and Chinese theories on the construction of a digital society. China has unique advantages in this regard, especially with its rich data pool.
However, it will also face more challenges in areas such as privacy, human rights, security, culture, employment, and sustainable development. Researches should be increased on many basic theoretical issues involved in the digital society, especially theory-oriented empirical research, responding to theoretical concerns with data and cases, and promoting theoretical development.
The research mechanism of a digital society should be innovated. At present, various types of digital consulting institutions are emerging in China, but most of them are mainly from the sci-tech and engineering circles, and fail to fully embrace the participation of people from the domestic social science and cultural circles. This is related to the fact that the current issues of digital construction are mainly shaped by the sci-tech circles. Whoever gathers the world’s top thinkers first will have the right to set the agendas of the future artificial digital society and culture.  
The construction of a knowledge map and database in the social field should be promoted. The COVID-19 pandemic highlights the importance of turning “the language of experts” into “the language of the people.” Many experts have greatly improved the knowledge map of health and medicine by leveraging online popular science. However, in the long run, to enable experts to better participate in the construction of knowledge maps, an incentive issue should be addressed. It is necessary to break the “paper-centric” scientific research concept, and encourage more dialogue and cooperation between natural sciences and social sciences, and encourage more sci-tech transformations. In particular, the data related to social settings should be opened to the public in an orderly manner on the premise of legal compliance, so as to not only give the people the right to know and supervise, but also offer more practical social workers and social science researchers the opportunity to participate in data production and algorithm improvement at the source.
It is advisable to empower and train a group of talent with both social science and computer science literacy. We should further improve the “digital literacy” of leading cadres and leaders of social organizations. The construction of “new liberal arts” should be vigorously supported and students in humanities and social sciences empowered. Technology developers also need to make changes in the knowledge structure and learn more about the humanities and social sciences, so as to promote the change of talent structure. This way more talent who can “shoulder” social innovation and sci-tech innovation, with both social science and computer science literacy, can emerge and vigorously promote the construction of an “intelligent social worker” talent system. It is well-advised to encourage and support market entities, social workers, and volunteers to engage in professional posts in the digital society, and cultivate a number of professional and socialized digital social service institutions.
Lyu Peng is a research fellow from the Institute of Sociology at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.
Edited by ZHAO YUAN