Democracy, technology and the art of the bonsai

The General Election (2019 edition) is on. What better time to ask “Is technology breaking democracy?” After all, the evidence is mounting – from the UK’s Cambridge Analytica scandal, Russian government interference in US elections, to the Orwellian “social credit system” developed by the Chinese government.

Far from being the force for good that it could be, technology is increasingly being shaped by global technology companies and undemocratic governments, with often toxic consequences.

While some wag their fingers accusingly at the big technology companies, we need to look much closer to home for the root of the problem – the persistent failure of democratic countries to understand and shape technology in positive and constructive ways. (Which just happens to be the theme of my article “Our Future State”, in “After Shock“, being published January 9th 2020).

The art of the bonsai

A bonsai, trained into a thing of beauty and strength by hard work, love and attention

Training a bonsai tree to grow into a thing of beauty is a time-consuming process, involving pruning and wiring branches to develop the perfect shape. It has a lot in common with democracy – also a surprisingly fragile thing in need of constant attention and nurturing.

Unfortunately, like a neglected bonsai, democracy is being twisted and distorted out of shape by a toxic mix of factors: the power and influence of global technology players; non-democratic states shaping technology into a tool of surveillance and control, as well as manipulating it to amplify dissent and dissatisfaction in liberal democracies; politicians who see technology as a tool to disadvantage their opponents; and, probably the biggest factor of all, the failure of democratic countries to ensure technology is used as a force for good.

Like a bonsai tree left unloved, democracy has grown increasingly out of shape.

A bonsai tree distorted and malformed by the lure of toxic “suns”

There’s a notable lack of understanding of technology in most policymaking and legal circles – and a worrying lack of comprehension of its wider human, social, economic and political impacts. At their worst, governments have also cynically amplified the problems, adopting intrusive technologies pioneered in unaccountable global corporates and totalitarian states that are anathema to democracy.

It’s hardly any surprise in this confusing, and largely unregulated, landscape that technology companies have written their own rules and pursued their own, often self-serving goals. Only now, when significant damage has already been done, are some governments (slowly) waking up to the world being created around them.

The digital divide

Technology companies can pollute democracy in other ways too. “Move fast and break things” might suit the bro “culture” of West Coast tech startups, but it’s the opposite of what a stable, mature democracy needs.

Our democratic and civil institutions are the outcome of centuries of suffering, learning, mistakes, adaptation and iteration. To assume, as some techies do, that they can easily understand and codify complex human problems, often woefully oblivious to the sheer human suffering that can result, is part of the problem.

Those in the technology industry who do try to resist the growing influence of non-democratic regimes are rarely thanked for their efforts. I remember participating in an early Internet Governance Forum in Athens back in 2006. One of my Microsoft colleagues made objective, but critical, comments about the Chinese Government and the need for technology companies to pull out of countries with undemocratic governments. Such idealistic notions were, of course, soon struck down – corporates gonna do what corporates gonna do.

If software really does eat the world, we need to recognise we’re only just beginning to break the surface of the challenges to democracy yet to come. There is no mathematically correct proof or “answer” to complex social, legal and economic issue – and hence no computer code that can generate those “answers”. Our democratic institutions, particularly the legislature and judiciary, are part of an essential, if sometimes imperfect, infrastructure that recognises this, even if some techies don’t. Yet the move fast and break things mentality rejects centuries of evidence and codified, nuanced human learning, leaving us all to pay the price.

Ethics-washing, self-regulation and divisive “digital” rights

Lately there’s been a lot of talk about “ethics” as a solution to many of the problems that technology is creating. Biased algorithms? Ethics! Use of biometric technology? Ethics! Gig economy business models? Ethics!

There’s nothing wrong with ethically designed technology of course, but who gets to define and embed these ethics? A global technology company? A non-democratic government? And what legal force do these ethics have?

I’m unconvinced that ethics-washing is a fix rather than a not-very-sticky sticking plaster. We need enforceable laws and regulations, not well-meaning intentions: technology should adhere to the same democratic principles – and the rule of law – as everything else.

Letting technology companies mark their own homework isn’t an answer either. All those rushing to congratulate Twitter on banning political advertising have fallen for a conjurer’s sleight of hand. Do we really want technology companies deciding what is and isn’t a “political” advert? Seriously? Is that a healthy thing to do in a democracy, to hand technology companies even more power and influence? Sorry – what problem is it we were trying to fix again?

If self-regulation and ethics work, why do we bother having regulators and laws in so many other areas? Car and airplane safety? Ethics! Food safety and hygiene? Ethics! If it was sensible in the “pre-digital” world to have laws, rules and regulations on advertising for example – via the likes of the Advertising Standards Authority and the Electoral Commission – then why do we not expect and apply exactly the same principles online? It’s another example of the technology industry trying to define and play by its own rules.

The focus on so-called “digital rights” has created the damaging fiction that different laws and regulations somehow apply online. Technology has been allowed to carve a dangerous niche for itself as something “other”, something “different” that needs an alternative approach, alternative rights, from those applied elsewhere. The superficial distinction between online and offline fractures the rule of law: it’s a significant part of the problem.

We need universal rights, and consistent regulation, enforced equally online and offline. And we need a more systematic approach to understanding and managing technology, its trends and its likely impacts – at a human, societal, economic and political level. None of which is new. Fifty years ago, Alvin Toffler commented that:

“… we desperately need a movement for responsible technology. We need a broad political grouping rationally committed to further scientific research and technological advance … it should formulate a set of positive technological goals for the future … [you] would think that governments would plan their technological development carefully, relating it to broad social goals, and insisting on strict accountability. Nothing could be more mistaken.”

Future Shock. Alvin Toffler. 1970. p.431

Excuses about being wrong-footed by a “fast-changing digital world” sound a little hollow given how well these issues were recognised and flagged a half century ago. As Bill Buxton observes, the time-lag between research and development to mainstream commercial realisation of an idea averages around 20 years. The principles that need to govern both online and offline behaviour rarely change. It is not the pace of change that is the problem: it is the lack of a meaningful response. Despite many warnings and recommendations, over many years, little action has been taken.

Learning from bonsai

It’s no surprise that technology companies have become some of the wealthiest and most influential organisations on the planet, operating at a scale and speed well beyond that of many nation states. No wonder too that non-democratic governments have found it easy to exploit technology to undermine and destabilise democracies. They have been left to grow wild, untamed and unashamed, free to do what they want whatever the societal and economic cost.

a bonsai being trained with wires

(credit: Jennifer Green)

So what’s the answer? In the same way that bonsai trees are patiently nurtured and trained to grow and flourish into things of beauty, our laws and regulations need to train and tame technology to ensure it nourishes and reinforces, rather than undermines, democracy. We need to ensure technology is repurposed as a much more influential force for good.

Once the current election is over, what better task can there be than for the new Parliament to consider the evidence and recommendations made over many, many years, and belatedly reset the rules by which we let technology companies, and technology, play?

We need to act soon. Democracy is at risk of becoming so distorted that it will soon grow unrecognisable – and potentially impossible for us to wire or prune back into shape.

a healthy, thriving bonsai


Many thanks to Jennifer Green for the original inspiration and photo of the wired bonsai. The ink-brush bonsai image and the red suns are my own amateur efforts. Other bonsai images sourced from Pixabay.

Updated with additional links 9.11.2019. Pixabay URL link corrected 11.11.2019.



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3 responses to “Democracy, technology and the art of the bonsai”

  1. Jerry Fishenden Avatar

    Just to add, following a conversation earlier today about digital inclusion and the gig economy. I find the current framing of “digital inclusion” is often too narrow. Gig economy workers are “digitally included” but their digital devices — smartphones — are part of an often exploitative business model. Being “included” doesn’t magically elevate them to the more liberating working model of higher paid, office / white collar workers where digital inclusion can be a positive force (enabling them to work when and where they want — the very opposite of the worst of the gig economy model, which can leave workers with little choice in how/when they work, and at far lower levels of pay). If it is to mean something, rather than just simplistic access to devices/broadband etc, “digital inclusion” needs to be framed to embrace the wider issues of inequality and exclusion caused by the digital economy.

  2. […] Analytica and the Chinese Government’s social credit system – and others, closer to home – as I’ve previously commented. The current criticism of global technology companies will pale into relative insignificance if […]

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