April 15, 2024

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

The free world stands at a crossroads. Are recent technological advances such as big data, artificial intelligence and cybernetics affecting our current democratic institutions?

This is a Comment Piece and its views are exclusively those of the author.

The free world stands at a crossroads. Recent technological advances such as big data, artificial intelligence, cybernetics and behavioural economics are playing an increasingly significant part in our lives. We must face the moral and ethical issues raised by these new instruments at our disposal, and make collective decisions on how they should be best used in order to benefit both mankind and the environment. But where do these emerging tools leave our current democratic institutions – are they in mortal decline?

The arguments that democracy is thriving are numerous. The emergence of social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook has lead to increased opportunity for the sharing and dissemination of ideas. This principle was embodied in the Arab Spring movement in 2010 that lead to both regime change in Tunisia, and political unrest in several North Africa and Middle Eastern countries. Although in many instances these protests were met with fierce and often violent resistance by counterinsurgencies and the stability of those regions remain unsettled, the voice of the collective people was most definitely heard (if not always acted upon).

The decision by national referendum of the British people in 2016 to leave the European Union (popularly known as Brexit) was seen by many as a rebellion against the lack of democratic accountability of the EU. Meanwhile the general 20th century trend of the spread of democracy throughout the world (such as in Latin America, Southern and Eastern Europe, ex-Soviet nations and Asia) could be interpreted as proof of the attraction of democracy to the masses. But this may have something more to do with aggressive US foreign policy and the end of the Cold War era, with the export of capitalist-consumerism to fertile ground going hand in hand with the spread of democracy.

Meanwhile the emergence of such collective initiatives such as citizen science, crowdsourcing and online discussion forums indicates that people are wilfully engaging in democracy in its new forms. It may well be that these shape the core of a newly evolved democratic realm as we move forwards through the 21st century and beyond.

Governments are already using so-called “nudging” technology, based on behavioural economics, to shape how their citizens act. The idea is that a government can gently swing the people over to more healthy lifestyles or environmentally friendly ways of living using carefully placed advertisement. By combining big data with nudging (“big-nudging”), governing of the people can be done very efficiently and, crucially, without resorting to traditional forms of democracy. One might envisage some time in the near future some kind of “wise wizard” machine, empowered by unlimited access to big data, who only has to wave his magic data wand to produce the required economic or social outcome. But these techniques could lead to either accidentally giving out the wrong advice (which might only be known in hindsight), or may be subject to abuse by hackers, so ought to be used with care, if at all. Furthermore, who gets to decide what are the desired outcomes? Governments are made of people (at least those in the traditional sense), and people are fallible.

The so-called “resonance effect”, whereby people’s political leanings are increasingly polarised by what they see and read in the media and who they interact with, has lead to problems. The related “echo-chamber effect”, whereby one only sees and hears about news and opinions that are compatible with your own world view, is perhaps harming democracy and inhibiting discussion between different viewpoints. This is particularly evident in the United States political system at present, with the Democrats and Republicans now so dichotomised in ideology that it is extremely difficult for them to reach political agreement on many key issues (take Obamacare as one such recent example). This is stifling the democratic process – new laws that could potentially be passed to benefit the population are prevented from reaching their conclusion. So it may not be as rosy for democracy as we think.

Recent events in China relating to government surveillance of its people by means of monitoring internet usage and social networks is disturbing in the least. The Chinese government determine their citizens’ ability to take out loans, be employed and even applicability for visas to visit certain countries on this basis. But we should also look closer to home, especially given the Edward Snowden/Wikileaks revelations of recent years detailing surreptitious government surveillance and deeply unethical trading of personal information across international borders. The purported influence of Wikileaks was also evident in the 2016 US Presidential election, regarding the Hillary Clinton email hacking scandal, and the outcome in that instance was arguably not so good for democracy. We should also acknowledge increased credit checks and the fact that some online stores are now experimenting with personal pricing strategies. Couple all this with economic stagnation that has lead generally to low voter turnout (although the 2017 UK General Election did see the largest turnout in 25 years, bucking that trend) and the potential for more extreme fringe parties to enter the political landscape, one might be forgiven for thinking the future of democracy is not so bright after all.

Globalisation requires we consider issues of security, the environment and the economy on a regional or worldwide scale. For this to happen various inter-regional and international institutions have emerged to address them, such as the European Union, United Nations and the World Bank. However their democratic nature, indeed if it is possible to be democratic on such a vast scale, is questionable. Furthermore, the recent Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, and Trans Pacific Partnership proposals are viewed suspiciously by many owing to their undemocratic nature, both in how they might come to law and the shifting of power from national/regional government to the unaccountable boardrooms of international corporations.

The way forward for democracy must surely be a combination of a number of things. It may involve a more collective, citizen-centric and participatory world rather than the technologies of the digital age being used for the advancement of a privileged few. It should also tie in with a robust educational framework: schools and universities ought to be geared towards training critical thinkers, creative problem-solvers and entrepreneurs that are wired to deal with the brave new world that confronts us. Elections around the world ought to be made more transparent – technology is already helping with this. Information systems must be decentralised. It should be made possible for any person in the world to access all the personal data held on them at any given time by any company or institution, free of charge. Post-school learning in subjects such as digital and technological literacy ought to be made available for free, so that the masses may educate themselves on matters they had previously thought not worth knowing, if they even knew they existed at all.

It seems evident that we hold in our collective tank all the fuel needed to fire ourselves forward, unperturbed through the perpetual tunnel of liberty, with fragile democracy cradled in our arms, so that the world may continue to exist as freely and peacefully as possible. It is worth bearing in mind the great Stephen Hawking’s recent words on the prospect of artificial intelligence, quoted as saying that it would be “either the best, or the worst thing, ever to happen to humanity”. We remain, for now at least, the makers of our own destiny, and it is up to us how we proceed.

Peter Fox is an post-graduate student at Imperial College London

Banner Image: Crowd, James Cridland / Flickr