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. The list below is subset of themes I’ve been researching and developing.

Some of the areas being impacted by technological trends

My more detailed work on these areas (and plenty more), 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 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, creating a more trusted public-purpose technology concerned as much with better societal outcomes as with software and hardware—along with what Bruce Schneier references as “public-interest technologists”. 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.

An associated issue is the question of whether software developers, whether employed as officials or under contract (e.g. as SMEs), have a sufficient understanding of democracy and the law to write appropriate code. After all, code often makes decisions. Yet there are rarely formal mechanisms in place to assess whether decisions being made by developers, and the code they write, are legally compliant — or even that they are effectively making new law by making decisions in areas that legislators and voters have not yet themselves been asked to consider. 

Centralise or decentralise?

The internet has changed everything. It was designed to be distributed and fault tolerant, with no single central authority — a global, decentralised network using agreed standards and protocols. It’s based on a principle of networks over hierarchies or decentralised over centralised models. On top of the internet, a whole range of protocols and applications have appeared, from email, to file transfer, to instant messaging, to the World Wide Web (WWW). 

When Tim Berners-Lee began development of the Web in 1989, he wanted it to be:

a collaborative medium, a place where we [could] all meet and read and write

Berners-Lee on the read/write web. Mark Lawson. BBC News. 9 August 2005.

Since the early days of text-heavy websites, the Web has evolved into a programmable web bringing us online banking and commerce, blogs, and social networking. Along with it, however, has been the rapid increase in corrosive commercial models driven by the acquisition and use of our personal data without our knowledge or consent. 

Efforts are now underway to reverse this model and put users back in control of their own data, breaking the centralising stranglehold of the global tech giants. This is likely to be a prolonged battle between the vested interests of centralised models — preferred by a wide range of commercial and public sector entities — and users who want to regain and reassert their independence. Many of the arguments about centralised or decentralised technology spill over into political discussions and ideologies, such as the role of the state and what size it should be and how powers can be devolved more locally. And some of the technologies that get dragged into this debate possess undesirable characteristics, and often don’t do what their promoters claim they do (see some of my previous posts mentioning blockchain for example).

One of the ideas in this area is so-called Web 3. Web 3 presents itself as a move towards a decentralised, independent, and unmediated web where value is captured by content creators rather than intermediaries, such as Apple, Google, Twitter, or Facebook. Which sounds remarkably like what plain old Web 1.0 was meant to do. Web 3 is positioned as a move away from the current web and its associated rent-seeking intermediaries and widespread, systematic abuse of users’ personal data. Yet Web 3 and its related technologies possess all the usual symptoms of techbro “bright ideas”: they assume a techno-centric world that operates in a moral vacuum where there are no political, legal, social or other realities or obligations.

Web3 builds on the idea of cryptography and so-called “smart contracts”, code that runs and executes automatically based on pre-defined conditions and involve no manual or human processes. However, the technologies on which it depends — blockchain, smart contracts — are inefficient and don’t do what they claim to do. Better, more effective, and efficient alternatives already exist. Claiming, for example, that smart contracts enable composability ignores the inconvenient truth that APIs (interfaces) have been providing composable interfaces for decades. As bitcoin mining shows, so-called moves towards decentralised models with the user in charge soon gravitate towards new models of centralisation run by a small number of over-influential players. Much of the hype shares more in common with Ponzi schemes and previous cycles of asset speculation and speculative bubbles that later popped spectacularly, as witnessed at various times since the tulip mania of the 1630s. With Web3, a very few people will get very rich: the rest are about to be scammed.

Simplified overview of traditional finance versus decentralised finance

Whilst much of the hype around these areas seems designed more to profit its promoters than its users, some residual longer-term value may come out of the various underlying technologies. At their root, and away from the hype, they’re exploring areas in need of improvement and more efficient, natively digital models that cover issues such as identity, trust, privacy, user consent and control, and finance. The test for governments is to understand where, if any, their true value may be, and whether options emerge from the bubbling cauldron of ideas and technologies that can better address policy challenges such as social and economic improvement. In the meantime however, they would be better advised to be regulating the scams and prosecuting those who have misled people into parting with their money.

Despite their many problems, ambitious claims continue to be made for how blockchain and its related medicine cabinet of magic potions will change the nature of politics itself, including in this now-deleted article:

Technologies like the Internet, blockchains, smart contracts, artificial intelligence and DAOs force us to examine the premise that the corporation with owners, management and employees is the best organising principle for capital and labour. Automation technologies such as artificial intelligence, smart contracts and oracles or networks of oracles, can automate much of what constitutes management today … [providing] a third way between state ownership and market ownership of production — community ownership. A communal model is not a new idea, co-operatives, mutuals, building societies and credit unions have been around for some time. But these organisations were limited in their scale and so were organised around job or location. The Internet, blockchain, smart contracts and DAOs mean cooperatives can have members from anywhere in the world who can communicate, lend, borrow, and vote on how to allocate shared resources … The decentralisation trends of the Internet, blockchains, the internet of things and artificial intelligence will result in new social, political and economic structures

The DAO — an MVP of a Political System. Lawrence Lundy. 21st May 2016. Medium. (Retrieved from the Internet Archive.)

Many of the claims for these “new” technologies — while perhaps well-meaning in their ambition to improve co-operation, collaboration, and participation — overlook the underlying and long-running issues of how best to improve society. Numerous political models from anarchy to communism, communitarianism, socialism, and democracy itself have always been about finding a balance between personal liberty, societal cohesion, and the role of the state. The idea that a technology can somehow suddenly “solve” such issues remains naïve, particularly when different voters, and different political parties and movements, have differing ideas about where they want that balance to be, and when such ideas themselves evolve over time.

Right now, however, it’s difficult to separate the signal from the noise. And the lack of appropriate regulation also means a lack of consumer protection. All of which makes cryptocurrency exchanges and DeFi and Web3 and DAO and NFTs and their whole associated baggage highly attractive to criminals. Sometimes the so-called burden of “red tape” and government oversight through regulation can turn out to be a good idea after all. Whoever could have guessed?

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”.

First published in this form July 2017. Updated 2018 (Bruce Schneier x-reference; impact of Airbnb reference; BBC tech tax reference). Updated 2019 (topic table; RSA reference; The Times reference; BA ticket/booking meltdown references; IET 7 jobs).