Democracy, Politics and technology

An exploration of technology’s impact on democracy and politics—the good, the indifferent and the bad. This is just a flavour of work in progress. I’m aiming to turn it into a book (finally) sometime in late 2022(ish).

Introduction

Another day, and yet another list of “Top 10 technologies” appears it seems. 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 whether those items that made the cut remain important when we look back on them with the benefit of hindsight.

My summary of MIT’s “Top 10 technologies” 2001-2021

We can learn from the divergence between what was anticipated and the reality of what happens with technology, 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 ‘top technology’ lists however have little short- or long-term value other than as advertorial click-bait. Remarkably few consider their wider socio-economic implications or context, and their impact on politics and democracy.

My aim is to navigate mainstream areas of technology research, to review current trends, and consider their likely impacts on democracy. This will in part be informed by a long-term review and analysis of the many policy and technology initiatives documented in my UK digital government archives, together with international geo-political trends and developments.

I’m also drawing on my blog posts, articles and papers—plus incomplete drafts that have unaccountably accumulated like bad habits over the years—and, more importantly, an overwhelming library of squirrelled-away research, articles, blog posts, 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 implementing technology—and anticipating, observing, and analysing its social, economic and political impacts—for over three decades. This process of discovery and analysis is essential to inform our understanding of how to 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 at the 50 years to come.

Overview

Here’s an overview of the approach I’ve been using to baseline, research and analyse the intersection of technology and democracy.

It’s nothing particularly complex or fancy, but it seems to work.

This approach 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 a diverse range of categories. I struggle to find an effective way of visualising them since many 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 some more detail on each of these here.

Discovery: technology trends

While interesting developments are taking place 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.

One 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. Along with their interaction with human beings too of course.

Fourteen of the technology trends I’m tracking are illustrated below.

I sketch what each of these are 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.

They miss out what, for me, is 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 (although at times the world might be a better place if some of it did).

Some years ago I started mapping and evolving an outline of the consequential issues likely to impact on democracy. I’ll be developing this as my work continues—and trying to work out how to visualise the complex relationship between many of these too.

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 partially 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 several broad-brush 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 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 and regularly revisited.

The graphic below is adapted from the Toolkit, and sets out processes for monitoring and adapting to change.

Getting into detail

The above is only a very high level overview into more detailed 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.

I’m also developing a more comprehensive approach to how politics should be taking advantage of technology as a policy lever (see overview image below). These are ideas I’ve been working on since at least 2005 (you can see my archived blog here), looking at more integrated technology policymaking. More on this soon.

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 more detail and to reflect on what emerges.

Page history

Last updated: October 2021.

Copyright etc

© Jerry Fishenden ~1989-2021. 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 appear in a book … one day

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