A decade has passed since Larry Diamond, a political scientist at Stanford University, put forward the idea of a global “democratic recession”.
For a while now, experts have been warning us of various threats to democracy – economic, political and social. These might take the form of trade wars, the refugee crisis in the west and the rise of populist demagogues such as Donald Trump in the U.S. and Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey. However, what’s taking an unforeseen precedence in this list is technology. Technology is posing a threat to democracy.
The Economist Intelligence Unit’s ‘Democracy Index’ suggests that this unwelcome trend is firmly in place. Comprising 60 indicators across five broad categories, namely, electoral process and pluralism, functioning of government, political participation, democratic political culture and civil liberties, the index concludes that less than 5% of the world’s population today live in a “full democracy”. Nearly a third live under authoritarian rule, a large share of it in China. Overall, 89 of the 167 countries assessed in 2017 received lower scores than they had the year earlier.
Democracy has been hailed as a political system with maximum chances of reaching individual and collective glory, and technology has been one of the major tools to realise that glory. But tools aren’t deterministic. Today there is a high chance of technology covertly eroding values of democracy rather than strengthening them.
To understand this, we need to understand the five pillars of democracy. These are the sacredness of the people; free and fair elections to ensure democratic accountability; a culture of reasoned debate and dissent; free markets that ensure equal opportunity, and a strong and effective state devoted to public welfare.
‘Sacredness of the people’ ensures that the means and the end of democracy respect human beings. Democracy exists for the people, not at the cost of people. ‘Free and fair elections’ ensure that those who are governing have the consent of the governed. The government can’t be coercive or arbitrary. Power is a responsibility more than being a privilege.
‘Reasoned and rational debate’ brings about a balance among the ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity. It ensures that one isn’t compromised at the cost of the other. ‘Free markets’ value every individual’s capacity to prosper. By providing an equal platform to develop entrepreneurial faculty, free markets give an impetus to meritocracy. Finally, a ‘Strong and effective state’ ensures the delivery of education, healthcare, law and order and so on. It ensures that justice is done.
However, are democracies really – of, for and by – the people in the age of the fourth Industrial Revolution? This age is witnessing a fusion of technologies blurring the lines between the physical, digital, and biological spheres. It is marked by technological breakthroughs in various fields, including robotics, artificial intelligence, quantum computing, biotechnology, and the Internet of Things. Technology, which was an ally up until the 20th century, has the potential to turn into an antagonist, which will slowly weaken and may even wipe out the aforementioned pillars of democracy.
As Yuval Harari explains in Homo Deus, humans are valued owing to their economic productivity in society, which in turn comes from physical and mental abilities. These abilities were used to create goods and services valued by mankind. Economic contribution translated into political power. Power tends to be visibly present with the “problem-solvers”. For long we have enjoyed this position. But are we going to be the problem-solvers of tomorrow? With the rise of Artificial Intelligence, robotics and so on, humans are becoming economically dispensable. Automation is making our physical capabilities redundant. Artificial Intelligence is making our mental faculties seem like a novice’s. With its ability to analyse and process huge amounts of data with reasoning and to make strategic decisions, there are some cataclysmic changes coming our way. It’s not all bleak as the ‘Future of Jobs Report 2018’ suggests, but to be complacent and not prepare for the coming wave would be myopic.
Stephen Hawking in an interview explained the scale of Artificial Intelligence with a joke. It went something like this. A man asks, “Is there a god?” And Artificial Intelligence replies: “There is one now.”
The essence on which democracy stands, sacredness of people, is crumbling with the birth of a new omnipresent, omnipotent and omniscient technology. Is our worth getting eroded?
Meddling by means of technology is evident with the recent Cambridge Analytica fiasco. This political analysis firm at the centre of the Facebook data scandal, as stated by the whistleblower Christopher Wylie, “is an example of modern day colonialism”. Think of who the colonisers are in this incident. It isn’t Pax Americana or Pax Britannica; it’s Pax Technologica. Technology is influencing how we vote in elections. Facebook exposed the data of around 87 million Facebook users to a researcher at Cambridge Analytica. This was used to influence their voting by means of targeted campaigning directly based on a psychological analysis of their social media activity. Technology has the potential to become the modern-age puppeteer for elections. With its invisible strings, it has the potential to make us dance – to songs and with steps that controllers of technology deem fit for the election stage.
There is a rising tide of nativism, populism and belligerent nationalism from the U.S., the U.K., Hungary and such countries against India. As the world comes together on one platform with social media, paradoxically we are witnessing a mass identity crisis. Hannah Arendt in Origin of Totalitarianism has warned that “if citizens float around like corks in a stormy sea, unsure of what to believe or trust, they will be susceptible to charms of demagogues.” People uprooted and asked to live as global citizens are seeking an anchor to give them a sense of belonging.
This sets the stage for the rise of Trump, Viktor Orban, and emotional and myopic decisions such as Brexit. Reasoned and rational debates and decision-making is replaced by psychological nudging with the help of social media. There are hashtags to give a verdict rather than an argument backed by facts. It isn’t the greater good that these debates seek. Just some good. For some people. Opinions and echo-chambers replace facts and reason. There is no balance-seeking among liberty, equality and fraternity. Social media may assist the rise of demagogues and the fall of democracy.
Today, “free markets” are increasingly being controlled by the technological giants. Meritocracy is being left behind for influences and controls that we are just beginning to fathom. The monopolies they have created through the control of data pose a grave risk to democracy. Four of the largest U.S. companies by market capitalisation, which are Apple, Google, Microsoft and Amazon, are based in technology. They have the potential to use a combination of big data and technology to gain unbelievable influence by manoeuvring modern-day democracy to their whims and fancies.
The first two risky “manoeuvres” are the power to undermine privacy and control over information. To see what we see and to control what we see. This is explained by Siva Vaidhyanathan in Antisocial Media: How Facebook Disconnects Us and Undermines Democracy. Open Graph on Facebook allows private firms to collect metadata on your socio-political positions and preferences, aligning offers with interests. This opens up a minefield for political analysts, who now have clear insights on exactly how to convince you. And they could feed on your xenophobia, self-righteousness, racism, Islamophobia, misogyny or economic anxiety. What’s worrisome is the scale at which they can influence public opinion. For instance, YouTube algorithms shape what 1.5 billion people are likely to see (more than all the newspaper copies in the world combined).
Tocquavelli argued that “it is impossible to have liberty without democracy, but it is possible to have democracy without liberty.” When our thoughts and desires are influenced by the technology mega-giants, do we truly have liberty? We still have democracy. But can democracy exist without liberty?
The final issue is the concentration of wealth. The richest are getting richer. According to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index, in 2017 the wealthiest people on the planet made $1 trillion. It was also a banner year for the tech moguls, with the 57 technology billionaires on the index contributing $262 billion, a 35% increase.
Those topping the index include the usual suspects: Jeff Bezos and Bill Gates, as well as Tencent Holdings, co-founder Ma Huateng. Despite a soaring stock market and headlines depicting a booming economy, the poorest are getting poorer. The fear that accompanies this trend is our democracies turning into plutocracies. The rich tend to hold more political power. The danger today with this kind of unprecedented income inequality is that the power of technology-billionaires is used to influence policies that further increase their economic power. Ultimately, an exponential vicious cycle of disempowered masses and empowered individuals is created. Data aren’t democratised. It is extracted. It is stored. It is used by a select few to influence a plethora of minds.
It ensures the welfare of its citizens. It taxes, spends, polices, regulates, represents, and mediates for its people. However, the efficacy of the state is diminishing in a myriad ways owing to technology.
With the spread of blockchains and cryptocurrency, governments’ financial powers may wither away. The economy works as a four-layered functionary. At the bottom layer of our economy are the people doing all the actual work. The second layer on top of the first is the abstraction we call corporations, which is a way to organise our economy and optimise transaction costs. The layer above that would be banks, which handle money for corporations and individuals holding the middleman-gatekeeper position. Finally, the topmost layer is the government, which takes advantage of the banks’ gatekeeper position to siphon off taxes to fund itself and the governmental services. In other words, layer four completely depends on layer three for its operations – or at least for the relative simplicity of funding its operations.
Now, what cryptocurrency does is to erode the need for banks – cutting them out of the loop entirely, making them redundant. This creates a vacuum between the functional part of the economy – the people and the corporations – and the governments, which want funding.
Fiscal capacity — spending and especially taxation — is key to long-term economic development. Taxation is not just about financing expenditure; it is the economic glue that binds citizens to the state in a two-way accountability relationship. The mass adoption of bitcoin would lead to governments losing their power to control fiscal policy.
The chances of what Fukuyama calls Low Level Equilibrium will possibly arise – where poor quality government breeds distrust among citizens, who in turn withhold compliance (and resources) necessary for governments to function effectively. Cryptocurrency could cripple the financial power of the state.
Secondly, with the rising incidence of hacking, cyber robberies and cyber bullying, the state is gaining easy access to more snooping and surveillance into citizens’ digital footprints. In the novel Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) by George Orwell, the Thought Police (ThinkPol) are the secret police of the superstate Oceania, who discover and punish thoughtcrime, personal and political thoughts unapproved by the Party. Will technology lead to the state devising ThinkPols to assert control? This again could mean compromising the privacy of individuals.
Thirdly, Big Data and predictive policing will institutionalise biases and coerce people with regard to their opinions. According to a recent article in Scientific American, in China deep-learning algorithms enable the state to develop its “citizen score”. This uses people’s online activity to determine how loyal and compliant they are, and whether they should qualify for jobs, loans or entitlement to travel to other countries. Combine this level of monitoring with nudging technologies – tools designed subtly to change people’s opinions and responses – and you develop a system that moves towards complete control.
In his paper on Democratic Recession, Larry Diamond asked, “Why have freedom and democracy been regressing in many countries? The most important and pervasive answer is, in brief, bad governance.”
We imagine democracies to go down at the hands of men with guns, but they can also go down quietly via elected governments who slowly remove institutional handrails. Technology might just be enabling that.
So where do we go from here? To dissociate from technology is definitely not the way forward. To go on with technology unregulated and unchecked is to tear apart our pillars of democracy.
We need an alternative. A new manifesto to deal with technology and democracy together. The important thing to realise is that either we will own technologies, or they will own us. The challenge, as Charles Mackay has argued, is that “men think in herds; they go mad in herds; while they recover their senses slowly... one by one.” With the same technology of steam engines we had communism, fascism and also liberal democracy.
We need to collectively prepare for the challenge that technology poses to democracy. For the sake of Democracy.
(The author took his B.E. in Electronics and Telecommunication from Mumbai University, and is pursuing a post graduate course in public policy at Takshashila University, Bengaluru.)