Analysis – Likely Impacts on Democracy

As part of my continuing discovery, I’ve mapped below an analysis of some of the themes emerging from current technology trends.

Some of the areas being impacted by technological trends

My more detailed work on these areas, including their interrelationship and their societal, political and economic impacts, is part of a book I’m working on. I hope to share more here over the coming months—and indeed via my final book (at some point). In the meantime, below I discuss select issues from those listed above to give a flavour of what I’m working on.

Transdisciplinary approaches

Technology is often surrounded by a lot of hype and over-bloated promises, portraying it as some kind of magical elixir capable of instantly solving long-standing, and complex, issues of public policy and society. A tendency to “move fast and break things” (never a good idea when it comes to critical public services for example) and to dismiss the complex separation of powers in a democracy as “selfish bureaucracy” hindering “progress” (by which is usually meant the implementation of some new technological idea) do little to help.

The reality is that technology alone will not, and cannot, solve complex social or political problems however much data, code and gadgets it creates. E-voting is a useful illustration. Far too many proposed “solutions” cast it purely as a technical issue—such as solving the problem of how to secure the voting process. Little thought seems to be given to wider social and human behavioural issues, with remote digital voting in particular a challenge that has many of the same serious shortcomings as postal ballots. Voting is a design problem, with polling stations and paper ballots a solution that has been shown to work (particularly in person).

We need to bring together a wider grouping of disciplines—including social science and design—well beyond the technical, in order to ensure that technology can work better at a social, democratic, political and economic level. These types of transdisciplinary approach are going to be increasingly required if we want to ensure that technology benefits society rather than creating further inequalities and divisions—and unanticipated negative consequences.

The Rule of Law

Rule of law, the mechanism, process, institution, practice, or norm that supports the equality of all citizens before the law, secures a nonarbitrary form of government, and more generally prevents the arbitrary use of power.

Encyclopaedia Britannica

We expect our laws to be consistent in both their definition and application. And yet we often find that our legal rights vary between online and offline worlds, despite the fact they’re increasingly blurred and contiguous in the way they interact. Universal principles, it turns out, don’t seem to be so universal after all.

If democracy is to remain trustworthy, desirable, equitable and defensible, it’s important that the same rights, rules, regulations and laws apply in principle regardless of whether someone is “online” or “offline” or somewhere inbetween.

Let’s take an interesting area of divergence: crime. Many computer crimes receive less attention when they are reported than more traditional crimes despite the fact that they’re no different. Crimes such as theft, extortion, fraud are increasingly executed in the digital domain just as they have long been executed in our ‘physical world’. Yet they are often treated with less apparent interest and diligence.

These inconsistencies are unnecessary. They potentially undermine the rule of law and corrode trust in our institutions and their effectiveness. We need to ensure the same rights and democratic principles are upheld equally between offline and online environments.

Organisational and Employment Disruption

Technology has facilitated the growth of globally dominant, platform-based business models. Intermediaries such as Amazon, eBay, AirBnB, and Uber provide multi-sided platforms that bring buyers and sellers together. Public cloud providers such as Amazon Web Services (AWS) and Microsoft Azure have changed the way services can be designed and delivered.

As I and my co-authors discuss in “Digitising Government: Understanding and Implementing New Digital Business Models“, technology enables organisations to look and behave very differently than those that went before. They often have far fewer employees compared to their predecessors: think for example of the way Flickr (with a handful of employees) replaced Kodak (which at its peak in 1973 had 120,000 employees); or how Airbnb is displacing traditional hotels and their supply chains and employees (and related public sector income from reductions in, or the loss of, tax revenues). They also flatten organisational design, while focusing on continuous data feedback and improvement.

Despite the power and influence of big technology players, technology is also empowering the individual in a way not seen since the printing press broke the stranglehold on knowledge of a privileged elite. And it is doing so at a pace and scale with no obvious previous comparator. It is challenging the slow-moving nature of traditional, hierarchical government, legislature and judiciary. Citizens’ experience of everyday life is of increasingly responsive, efficient services, yet the public sector largely remains unaltered.

In the same way that organisations such as Amazon (with logistics that enable them to receive, execute, dispatch and deliver an order on the same day) have challenged many high street shops, traditional civic institutions face similar challenges. Yet politicians have generally been slow to respond to the impact of global technology companies, including the way they rarely pay tax at the point where transactions take place but instead where they choose to declare them. The wider economic impacts are also increasingly disruptive, robbing the public sector of many of the revenue streams it needs in order to invest in and modernise its own operations. While technology can change quickly, established organisations (and countries) change much more slowly: this is as much of an existential challenge to our democratic and related civil society institutions as it was to companies such as Kodak and Blockbuster. 

Many organisations are now as much a technology organisation as they are the business they think they are in. For example, some of the problems BA experienced with technology glitches, including notifying passengers that flights were cancelled when they weren’t, demonstrate the cost and reputational damage that can arise when an organisation’s leadership fails to understand that technology is not something that simply assists: it is the very nature of a modern organisation.

Technology has often changed the nature of the jobs available, although fears it will erode overall employment have not held true: new jobs tend to replace old jobs. The Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET) describes several potential future jobs: algorithm bias auditor; staff empathy consultant; health data analyst; automated fleet vehicle scheduler; voice UX designer; bot manager; and robotic licence auditor and registrar. These job titles indicate areas (algorithm bias; robotic licence auditor and registrar in particular) where policy and legislation remain well behind the curve. 

The fast pace of change and uncertainty of the modern, technologically enabled world can be alienating for many people. Alvin Toffler in “Future Shock” 50 years ago foresaw how technological change needs to be better managed at a human level to avoid shock effects. However, his proposals to encourage governments to focus on how to reduce such shocks and to manage them better remain largely unimplemented. A significant challenge around employment is often the upskilling required and the (in)ability or unwillingness of people to relearn and retrain, combined with the stress and anxiety of a culture of constant change.

There is a lack of meaningful political direction and leadership around the issues that technology has created in terms of organisations and employment and their wider socio-economic impacts: the RSA has produced research based on four models of the future of work by 2035, claiming that it shows that politicians are “nowhere near up to speed on what’s going on”.