Democracy and technology

An exploration of technology’s impact on democracy—the good, the indifferent and the bad. This is all very much just a flavour of work in progress—it provides a glimpse into work on a book I’m hoping to (finally finally finally) get out in 2021 …

Introduction

Another day, and another list of “Top 10 technologies” appears. Some of them, such as MIT Technology Review’s annual lists, provide useful insights—not only into the technologies and trends viewed as important each year, but also into whether those items that made the cut turned out to be as important as anticipated when we look back on them with the benefit of hindsight.

There’s much we can learn from understanding the divergence between anticipation and reality, including the timescales over which some predictions may (eventually) hold true (or, more often, fall by the wayside).

As Bill Buxton observes, the time-lag between research and development to mainstream commercial realisation of an idea averages around 20 years. 

Democracy, technology and the art of the bonsai

Many lists however have little short-term or long-term value other than as click-bait. They default to mirroring each other’s breathless hype about the latest gadget and widget press releases without much insight beyond a list of geeky features and functions. Remarkably few lists consider the wider implications or context, let alone their impact on society and democracy.

My summary of MIT’s “Top 10 technologies” 2001-2019

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. It’s informed by a long-term review and analysis of the many policy and technology initiatives documented in my UK digital government archives, together with a consideration of international trends and developments. It also draws on my blogs, articles and papers—plus incomplete / unfinished drafts of blogs / articles / books too that have unaccountably accumulated like bad habits over the years—and an overwhelming library of squirrelled-away research, articles, blogs, videos and government and Parliamentary proceedings built up over several decades. I guess this is why it’s taking me a bit of time (understatement) to work through 🙂

I’ve been working with and implementing technology, and anticipating, observing, and analysing its social, economic and political impacts, for over three decades (ouch, where did the time go?!). This process of discovery and analysis is essential to inform our understanding of how we can best adapt public policy, rules and regulations to ensure democracy is preserved, and even enhanced, in the digital age.

You’ll find my related article, ‘Our Future State’, in the book ‘After Shock’ (2020). It commemorates 50 years since Alvin Toffler’s ‘Future Shock’, and takes a look ahead at the 50 years to come.

Overview

Here’s a simple 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

Technologies in research and development 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 my attempt to provide a simplified overview anyway.

Or to visualise these another way.

There’s a bit more detail on each of these here.

Discovery: technology trends

While there are interesting developments within each of these technology research strands, it’s often the way they’re combined and clustered together in novel or unexpected ways that helps create the most significant technology trends. An obvious example over recent years is semi-autonomous and autonomous vehicles—and the way they cluster technologies such as GPS, Lidar, actuators, sensors and machine learning.

I’ve been trying to identify, distill and consider the relevance of various technology trends. Fourteen of these are illustrated below.

I sketch what each of these about here.

Analysis: likely impacts on democracy

The core technologies and associated technology trends I’ve outlined above are where many “Top 10 Technologies / Trends” lists usually stop. Which is disappointing. It misses out what is for me 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. Tech doesn’t operate in a vacuum (though at times the world might be a better place if some of it did).

As part of my continuing discovery and analysis, I’ve mapped an initial outline of the consequential issues likely to impact on democracy.

I’m aiming to explain more about these here.

Adaptation: how do we respond?

This is the hardest part. We can debate endlessly whether the core technologies, technology trends and analyses I’ve mapped out 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.

A variety of approaches can help us to 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 are further off, less well-defined and hence less certain. It makes sense to use a several broadbrush timeframes (near, mid and future) mapped against impacts (low, medium, high) as part of the process of adaptation. The graphic below shows how near, mid and future timeframes (1 through 3), can be considered alongside their potential impacts.

The UK Government’s Office for Science Futures Toolkit contains useful guidance on this type of modelling, including emphasising the importance of flexibility. Obviously it shouldn’t be a one-off exercise either, but something that is frequently revisited. The graphic below is adapted from the Toolkit, and sets out processes for monitoring and adapting to change.

Getting into detail

The above summarises only a very high level overview into a more detailed range of continuing work at the complex 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.

Related articles and blog posts

Here’s a (very) select list of some 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. I appreciate it’s very skeletal at the moment. As my book develops, I’ll be aiming to update this site to include much more detail and to reflect what emerges.

Page history

Last updated: July 2020.

Copyright etc

© Jerry Fishenden ~1989-2020. I’m happy for 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 will hopefully finally appear in a book sometime over the next year or so!

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