Numbers, Facts and Trends Shaping Your World

Many Tech Experts Say Digital Disruption Will Hurt Democracy

5. Tech will have mixed effects that are not possible to guess now

When asked about how people’s uses of technology will affect core aspects of democracy in the next decade about 18% of the experts responding to this canvassing said they will not affect much change in core aspects of democracy and democratic representation.

Fred Baker, board member of the Internet Systems Consortium and longtime leader in IETF and ICANN, wrote, “I say that the net change will be small in the coming decade and a half primarily because I expect to see both improvements and retrograde behavior; the sum is close to zero.”

We have a lot to work through as a society before we can fully understand and embrace the potential of the technologies we’ve created. John Battelle

Evan Selinger, professor of philosophy, Rochester Institute of Technology, said, “I’m not sure how anyone can make a credible prediction. First, momentum from the techlash hasn’t resulted in a tipping point. It’s unclear whether momentum for real change is slowly building or resignation and cynicism have become more deeply entrenched. Second, it’s still too early to know what the long-term consequences will be of the General Data Protection Regulation. Third, new challenges like deepfakes are springing up, and they serve as a reminder that the speed of innovation has an edge over the slower changing horizon of regulation. Fourth, politics matter! Whether or not Trump gets re-elected will have a major impact on what democracy looks like in 2030, and not only in the United States. Fifth, we’re living through a moment where leading experts are struggling to come to terms with the disruptive potential of artificial intelligence. If using AI products and services helps authoritarian governments further eviscerate personal and collective liberties, will democratic ones get nudged closer to authoritarianism themselves?”

Mike Roberts, Internet Hall of Fame member and pioneer CEO of ICANN, said, “Among the effects of the internet on social discourse are 1) amplification of voices (often without enough thought behind them); and 2) a speeding-up of the action-reaction dimension of expression. We are currently in a phase of reaction to having allowed too much power to accrue to social media platforms. Consensus on remedies is difficult to achieve because of the factors noted above, and also because the problem itself is difficult to deal with. Perhaps the single most difficult aspect is moderation, i.e., censorship of expression – how far is too far, etc. We are lucky that the big platforms evolved in the U.S., with our history of First Amendment protections. So, bottom line, there will be a lot of noise, especially from politicians, not many solutions and not much overall movement.”

John Battelle, cofounder and CEO, Recount Media, and editor-in-chief and CEO, NewCo., commented, “We have a lot to work through as a society before we can fully understand and embrace the potential of the technologies we’ve created. Ten years seems like a long time, but 10 years ago, Facebook had not yet unleashed advertising in the News Feed, and the smartphone remained a luxury for the wealthy. Android was in its first two versions. Plus, democracy takes generations to significantly morph. The two forces, tech and politics, are now inextricably linked. We’ll need more than 10 years to figure out what that means.”

Alan Inouye, senior director for public policy and government for the American Library Association, said, “I expect multiple forces that net to an indeterminate state. The positives of technology: Increasingly easier for people to obtain relevant information and participate in political discussions and democratic institutions. Elected officials and intermediaries are better able to reach out to people to obtain their views. Innovations such as remote testimony at Congressional hearings. The negatives of technology: Continuing tribalization by political ideology and views. Easier participation but also shallower participation – ‘just click here’ may replace some real or potential substantive political engagement. Increasing competition for people’s attention, with democracy and politics on the losing end. Debate of Democratic presidential candidates versus ‘Game of Thrones’ (or just everything else on the internet). What will people watch in 2030?”

Charis Thompson, professor of sociology, London School of Economics, and member of the World Economic Forum’s Global Technology Council on Technology, Values, and Policy, wrote, “Substantive democracy requires ethos, logos and pathos, but we are giving up on shared ethos (affective and climate and other polarization) and logos (post-truth, deepfakes) and ceding superb – much better than human – rationality to artificial intelligence and machine learning (for the good as well as the bad) and that is leaving us only with pathos for politics, whether of the bully populist kind or the neoliberal kind or the anti-nation-state kind. What alternatives do we have to liberal democracy that fit our emerging tech, and inclusion/inequality and climate crises better? Are there ways to save/promote substantive democracy and if so, who do they benefit and who do they leave out?”

An American state senator wrote, “The answer depends on the next election. Despite gerrymandering, despite current manipulation, despite Citizens United, despite foreign intervention, will the proponents of democracy be able to take back control? If so, then we have a chance of continuing to work toward the American ideal of one person, one vote. We will have the opportunity to build artificial intelligence based on those values. If the incumbent and cohort retain power, without check, increasing gerrymandering, destroying the public school system that enables the poor to rise, continuing to increase the delta between rich and poor so that we have the servant class, the homeless class, the nobility class of professionals and the ruling class, then the American ideal is gone. I do not believe we will have another opportunity to save it after Nov. 3 of 2020.”

An anonymous respondent said, “I see three threads relevant to this discussion. 1) The very real threat of hacking and related cybersecurity issues. Manipulation of results is a concern. Might election results someday be held hostage by ransomware? This is a problem inherent in the technology and the solution is technological. 2) Monopolistic control and/or censorship of information. This already exists in China. In the U.S. there are many, messy, conflicting voices online in our democracy, as there should be. The bigger problems are affirmation bias and the fact that lies are made to seem real by instant popular acclaim. Our attention span is short. Fact-checking that comes hours after the lie does not erase the lie. On the plus side is 3) the tremendous, creative innovations appearing every day, including those that enhance communication.”

The outcome will be determined by the ballot box, not the black box. Alan Mutter

Joshua Hatch, a journalist who covers technology issues, said, “The ability to connect with other citizens, to gain access to information and to connect with social/political leaders will likely be offset by disinformation/misinformation, deepfakes, the digital divide, etc. … So, what might democracy look like in 2030? I could imagine more direct connection to elected officials. Better ways of taking the pulse of the citizenry on a regular basis (not just through elections). But with that comes more opportunity to distort what public servants think the public believes. Perhaps we’ll see a bit more direct democracy. Perhaps we’ll also see more direct communication between civic and political leaders and the public through new technologies and platforms. But such developments may also increase the risk of bad actors seeking to interfere with the public sphere.”

Gry Hasselbalch, cofounder of DataEthicsEU, wrote, “Our technological environment holds the potential for both – a weakening or a strengthening of democracy. Basically, this depends on how conflicts between different interests in technology development are resolved today. Which interests will dominate over others in the design standards, the laws, education and culture of technology development? Commercial interests in profiting from data intensive technologies? States’ interests in technological control and efficiency? Or the human interest in terms of agency, self-determination and dignity? The answer to this question will shape technological design, business models and their interaction with our world in the future. It depends on technical, design practices, legal, economic and cultural processes that support a human centric distribution of powers. I am optimistic because I see a social movement of change and action. Across the globe, we’re seeing a cultural shift and a technological and legal development that increasingly places the human at the center. The European General Data Protection Regulation is a great example of this shift as well as new citizen privacy concerns and practices such as the rise of use of ad blockers, privacy enhancing services, etc.”

Alan Mutter, a consultant and former Silicon Valley CEO, commented, “Depending on how politics, economics, climate change and other macro events play out, technology will change everything or nothing. Information technology has acted as an accelerator of both information and misinformation. If evil forces hijack and dominate the conversation, then technology will make things worse than they otherwise might have been (see Trump promotion of racist tropes). If the world comes to its senses and dumps Trump and others of his craven ilk, then technology potentially could speed an era of enlightenment. The outcome will be determined by the ballot box, not the black box.”

Robert Cannon, senior counsel for a U.S. government agency and founder of Cybertelecom, a not-for-profit educational project focused on internet law and policy, said, “We live in a time of disruption. The economy is going through a major revolution from the industrial economy to the information economy. In times of uncertainty and displacement, anxiety grows leading to tribalism (us versus them). Jobs are shifting – concentrations of wealth are shifting – therefore blame the (fill in the blank). People want something to blame or something to hate. Anything that is other or suspicious gets blamed regardless of any causal connection. The current political climate is a reflection of that anxiety. Old-economy markets are getting disrupted while the new economy grows. On the whole, the economy is strong, but it is not evenly divided. In the end, has technology played an ever-increasing role in democratic discourse? Of course it has. We have had misinformation campaigns that were received on fertile ground. People believed bullshit because they wanted to believe bullshit – not because technology caused them to believe bullshit. Meanwhile, on YouTube a new influencer has emerged presenting incredible presentations of history. Community organizations from animal rescue to immigration assistance are better networked than ever. During the federal government shutdown, community organizations coordinated over social media, distributing support to families in need. Coverage of local news and local government has matured, taking over the void left when mainstream media left the space. Cycling subcommunities have formed, and influencers review products, produce training content and cover the latest race news. Dingo-rescue organizations in Australia are receiving support from individuals all around the world.”

I am optimistic because I see a social movement of change and action. Gry Hasselbalch

Hans J. Scholl, professor, The Information School, University of Washington, commented, “In democratic societies, abuses like the interference with elections (direct or indirect) have happened and will happen again. However, the learning curve of populations and governments in dealing with and uncovering these abuses will increase, and, with that, the impact will be lessened. In authoritarian systems, individual surveillance will increase and be perfected (via artificial intelligence, the Internet of Things, etc.), while despite those mechanisms, people will always find ways of circumnavigation. Distributed ledger technologies like blockchain might help track voting and government transactions in ways that make them unfalsifiable, leading to more trust, better transparency and accountability. In a nutshell, can (or even will) each new foundational technology pose new challenges? Yes. Will that fundamentally change the trajectory of a society from democratic to authoritarian, or vice versa? No.”

Lawrence Wilkinson, chairman at Heminge & Condell and founding president of Global Business Network, the pioneering scenario-planning futures group, wrote, “While tech has distorted civil discourse and challenged (incumbent) democratic norms, it has also reinforced and amplified many of those same institutions/processes. As we learn our way, as a society, into the use of these new technologies, their impact should be felt to be moderate – should be ‘absorbed’ into our democratic norms/institutions, which will feel consistent with their legacy, even if they are, in fact, materially modified by new tech (as was the case with the telegraph, the radio, then television). Civil society will be different in ways that don’t feel different.”

Judith Donath’s two scenarios

Judith Donath, a fellow at Harvard’s Berkman-Klein Center currently writing a book about technology, trust and deception and the founder of the Sociable Media Group at the MIT Media Lab, chose not to select any of the three possible choices offered in this canvassing, instead sharing two possible scenarios for 2030 and beyond. She wrote:

Scenario #1: Democracy is in tatters. The rise of authoritarianism is worldwide, triggered by rapid social change and stoked by fear of immigrants, of the vast refugee populations, fleeing war and famine (due ultimately to overpopulation and environmental degradation, including but not limited to climate change). Surveillance technology aids repressive governments. News is abundant but unreliable, often exquisitely tailored to persuade, anger or confuse. Automation has eliminated numerous jobs and joining some form of militia (whether government army, street gang or terrorist organization) is the main alternative.

In the big picture, unemployment, overpopulation and environmental degradation — the ultimate causes of this turn toward repression — are disasters we created with technology. The extraordinary technological developments of the last several centuries were accompanied by, and inextricable from, political and moral philosophies which included the belief that everything on earth exists for the use and exploitation of humans, that growth is good and wealth is the goal.

Yet in an immediate sense, this is not a scenario that has been brought about or relies on technology. The turn toward authoritarianism, fear of outsiders, etc. is an ancient response. Yes, repression is aided by surveillance — but there have been plenty of repressive regimes predating contemporary panoptic technologies. Nor has it been caused by disinformation campaigns — though they may well have tipped crucial elections, it is only with a receptive, i.e., angry and fearful, population that they can succeed.

But let’s look at another scenario.

Scenario #2: Post-capitalist democracy prevails. Fairness and equal opportunity are recognized to benefit all. The wealth from automation is shared among the whole population. Investments in education foster critical thinking, and artistic, scientific and technological creativity. New economic models favor sustainability over growth. Radical infrastructure changes reduce human environmental footprint: e.g., eliminating private cars vastly reduces percentage of earth’s surface that is paved plummets. New voting methods increasingly feature direct democracy – AI translates voter preferences into policy.

What would it take to move seriously in this direction? It’s a revolutionary scenario, one that requires moving beyond capitalism and the assumption that growth is inherently good. Yet this change is arguably necessary: Our exploitive relationship with the world around us has brought us and the other inhabitants of this planet to the brink of extinction. While essential, it would entail tremendous political and social change, which I am doubtful will happen. But let’s look at what could help.

Short term: While, as I said, I don’t think disinformation campaigns are the cause of our current political problem, they can tip key elections. And, unreliability confuses people, and even the most well-intentioned just learn to tune out. So, battling fake news, etc., is key. One reasonably easy fix is for Facebook and other newsfeed aggregators to make seeing the source of a news article or video a prominent and hard-to-detach part of the viewing experience. Another is better interfaces for discussion and moderation.

Longer term: One problem facing democracy in America is that we are far from a situation where government is by and for the people and where each citizen’s vote counts as much as any other’s. The sources of this problem include the electoral college and Senate, which give citizens in rural states far greater influence per vote than residents of populous states; Citizens United and many other ways in which corporate interests have an overwhelmingly powerful voice in governing, and the inherent problems of representation, where we vote for people, not policies. The last is an issue that contemporary technology could address – can we create a government system in which people vote for policies and outcomes they want, and the government consists of people, aided by machines, who figure out how, within Constitutional boundaries, to fulfill these goals?

A note on automation: We have a looming unemployment crisis directly caused by technology — but only because of how we have chosen to structure work and profit. Automation should be a tremendous boon to workers, making everyone better off, not a nightmare of unemployment, homelessness and hopelessness. In addition to revising how we distribute the benefits of automation, we need to rethink the meaning of work. One meaning of work is the job you go to make money, to be compensated for doing something you would not otherwise choose to do. But there is also the meaning of work as in artistic, personal work — we say of some artists and writers that the held a day job and then went home to do their work. Here, the word “work” is used to mean doing something meaningful. As more and more jobs are eliminated by automation, we need to ensure not only that people can still survive, still have food and shelter, but also that they have a place for ambition and accomplishment.

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