Democracy and technology

An exploration of technology’s impact on democracy – the good and the bad.

This page is currently being revamped – I’m working on it over the coming months and aim to have it in a better shape by early 2020.

Almost every day yet another list of “Top 10 technologies” appears. Some of these, such as MIT Technology Review’s annual lists, provide useful insights. Most however mirror each other’s breathless hype about the latest gadgets and widgets. Remarkably few lists consider the wider impact of technology on society and democracy.

Well, I want to change all that. This is my attempt to summarise core areas of technology research, current trends and their likely impacts on democracy.

I’ve been working with technology, and observing and anticipating its social, economic and political impacts, for over three decades.

You’ll find my related article, ‘Our Future State’, in the upcoming book ‘After Shock’, published January 2020 – commemorating 50 years since Alvin Toffler’s ‘Future Shock’ appeared.

Overview

Here’s a brief overview of the approach I use to baseline, research and analyse the intersection of technology and democracy.

This work is built on good situational awareness of the state of current and emergent technologies, and related technology trends (‘Discovery‘); an analysis of the second order impacts of these technologies and trends on democracy (‘Analysis‘); and finally an exploration of how democracy needs to better understand and direct technology as a force for good (‘Adaptation‘)

Discovery: core technologies

Looking across technologies in research and development, they fall into numerous categories. There’s no easy way to visualise these since many of them interact with and often depend upon each other – but here’s a simplified overview anyway.

Or to visualise these another way.

I will provide more detail on some of these here [link/page to come].

Discovery: technology trends

While there are interesting developments within each of these core technology research strands, it’s often the way they’re clustered together in new ways that helps create the most significant technology trends. One topical example is semi-autonomous and autonomous vehicles – and the way they bring together a whole cluster of technologies, such as GPS, Lidar, actuators, sensors and machine learning.

I’ve been identifying and considering the relevance of various clusters of technology. Fourteen of these are shown below.

I will explore each of these in more detail here [link/page to come].

Analysis: likely impacts on democracy

The core technologies and associated technology trends I’ve outlined above are where many “Top 10 Technologies / Trends” lists would stop. Which is a shame, as it would miss out the most interesting and important stage: their impact on democracy. By which I mean not just their impact on the three fundamental democratic cornerstones of the ‘separation of powers‘ – Government (executive), Parliament (legislature), the Courts (judiciary) – but also their wider societal, economic and political impacts.

As part of my analysis, I’ve mapped below some of the most common technology trends currently likely to impact on democracy.

I will explore each of these trends in more detail here [link/page to come].

Adaptation: how do we respond?

This is the hardest part. We can debate endlessly whether the core technologies and technology trends above are the most important ones or not, but in a sense that doesn’t matter. There will always be new technologies and new trends displacing or updating lists and analyses like these. But the underlying issue – of how we ensure technology reinforces and helps democracy flourish rather than undermining or usurping it – will remain.

There are a variety of approaches to help discover, map, anticipate and adapt to emergent and future technological trends. Some of their impacts will be in the near future, and hence easier to anticipate, monitor and adapt to. Others will be further into the future, less well-defined and hence less certain. It makes sense therefore to categorise a range of timeframes (near, mid and future) against impacts (low, medium, high) as part of the process of adaptation. The graphic below shows how near, mid and future timeframes (timeframes 1 through 3), can be considered alongside their potential impacts.

The UK Government’s Office for Science Futures Toolkit contains useful guidance, including emphasising the importance of flexibility. The graphic below is adapted from the Toolkit, and sets out a set of processes for monitoring and adapting to change.

Getting into detail

The above summarises insight into a more detailed range of background work at the intersection of technology and democracy. Some of the details of this work are linked to in context in the sections above – for convenience those links are also brought together below.

  • DISCOVERY: CORE TECHNOLOGIES [link/page to come]
  • DISCOVERY: TECHNOLOGY TRENDS [link/page to come]
  • ANALYSIS: LIKELY IMPACTS ON DEMOCRACY [link/page to come]
  • ADAPTATION [link/page to come]
  • SELECT SOURCES [link/page to come]

Related articles and blog posts

The following is a select list of my observations and thoughts on the interplay of technology and democracy.

Some of my earlier published articles are also relevant, including the following which appeared in CIO.

Your feedback matters

As ever, feedback, constructive criticisms, etc. are always welcome. I’ll update all this from time to time.

Page history

Last updated: November 2019.

Copyright etc

© Jerry Fishenden 1989-2019. I’m happy for legitimate re-use compliant with the Creative Commons licence below. Note that all of the above is a summary of a long-running piece of work that may or may not yet appear in a book!

Creative Commons Licence
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.
Acknowledgements
Some of the icons I’ve used in the creation of the graphics on this page are made by Eucalyp, Freepik, and geotatah from www.flaticon.com