Technological change promises consequences both economic and moral in nature. For example, virtual reality someday will deliver virtual sex as a consumer good. This fact raises a number of tricky questions. Should a company be allowed to sell virtual sex with an avatar designed to look like a celebrity, or a friend’s spouse, or another real person? The libertarian view might argue that, if no one is harmed by virtual sex, government oversight is unnecessary. But what if the virtual sex partner is a child? Such questions are subplots in a much larger story: In the coming decades, as technology continues to advance, humanity could hand over its very autonomy to digital systems most people neither fully comprehend nor control.
Three Defining Characteristics
The technology revolution – a “digital lifeworld” of powerful computers processing vast quantities of data – is something new for humanity. Never before have humans functioned with so much sophisticated technology serving as the basis of communication and commerce. Three key developments will shape the future of society and politics:
- Smarter systems – Through artificial intelligence (AI), engineers are building systems that are as good as or better than humans at accomplishing a range of tasks. Self-driving cars already are a reality, and Ford expects its first autonomous vehicle to arrive at dealerships in 2021. AI has figured out how to transcribe human speech, read human lips and write news stories. Robots even are writing political stump speeches. Machine learning – in which an inanimate object acquires knowledge through trial and error – will enable AI to continue to improve. These advancements are fueled by exponential growth in computing power and speed.
- Ubiquitous technology – Digital devices are deeply entwined in modern human life. Some 90% of Americans never get more than three feet away from their smartphones. And the trend of “technology everywhere” is just getting started. Digital devices will proliferate in the coming decades, as built-in sensors become par for the course in appliances, clothing and accessories. An estimated 25 billion to 50 billion devices will be connected to the Internet by 2020. Meanwhile, advances in blockchain technology will deepen the connections built by ubiquitous devices. The digital will also become more present in the physical world. The population of robots is already mushrooming. They handle both mundane tasks – such as transporting stock in Amazon’s warehouses – and complicated ones, such as surgery.
- Big data – More and more human activities are becoming quantified. Whether you’re making a purchase on Amazon or a quick post on Instagram, it’s all fodder for big data. As long ago as 2012, researchers used GPS location data to predict – with spot-on accuracy – where a smartphone user would be 24 hours later. For many businesses today, data is a vital raw material, much as coal was during the industrial revolution. Governments also increasingly rely on data to manage communities and public works.
The Future of Power
The advance of technology raises important questions about personal choice and the role of the state. When, for instance, humans are in charge of their vehicles, adhering to speed limits and parking regulations rules depends on the operator’s willingness to risk punishment by the state. But self-driving cars can be programed to avoid all illegal activity. A terrorist couldn’t crash an automated vehicle into a crowd of pedestrians, and a self-driving car would automatically pull over to let an ambulance pass, or to submit to a police stop. But taking the power to choose away from drivers also means giving a machine final say in ethical dilemmas. Say, for example, a child runs into traffic. A human might feel it is better to save the child, even if doing so means swerving into another car carrying two adults, who might then die. But a self-driving car’s programing might prevent this action on the quantitative basis that saving two lives is preferable to saving one. Quandaries of this sort go to the roots of power – and the ways digital technology is influencing three crucial types of power:
- Force – In this type of power, one party removes the other party’s ability to choose whether to comply. State-based entities like law enforcement and court systems most clearly embody this type of power. But technology is making inroads of its own in this arena. EBay, for example, has established its own resolution system that settles some 60 million disputes a year. The American court system, by contrast, handles fewer than 20 million civil suits per year.
- Scrutiny – Power does not require force. As skilled politicians know, gaining power through manipulation is often far more rewarding than exerting power through force. Soft power is exercised through scrutiny – collecting, keeping and analyzing information about others. For much of human history, scrutiny required face-to-face interaction: the mother monitoring the family cookie jar, the appearance-conscious woman checking her makeup in the mirror. In the digital lifeworld, machines handle the monitoring and scrutiny becomes more all-encompassing. Police have already begun using devices such as Amazon Echos and Fitbits to investigate murders. In the future, machines will use the information they gather to predict human behavior more minutely, and to score human lives according to grades and other measurements that place humans in competition with one another.
- Perception control – Controlling what people think, or how they perceive the world, is a powerful tool. Filters are an important part of perception control; they shape discourse by tailoring what people see and feel. In the 20th century, the mass media did the majority of the filtering via print, radio and television. The rise of the Internet may have removed some of those traditional filters, but in many ways – in cases like China’s Great Firewall or Facebook’s smartphone app – the digital revolution has helped create new, even more powerful types of filters. Machines already dominate one key source of perception control: search results. And, looking ahead, machines will, increasingly, participate in perception control as automated moderators take the place of human journalists in distributing news. While people often assume machine filtering is unbiased, the companies who create filtering systems may not always play fair. For instance, in 2009, after a dispute with a publisher, Amazon deleted every copy of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Fourfrom every Kindle in existence, without asking permission from the individual owners of the Kindles.
The Freedom Paradox
Advances in digital technology have created a golden age of innovation and creativity. They also centralize power in the hands of a few powerful companies and the state. This paradox isn’t always obvious, but it’s there nonetheless: Digital technology both expands freedom and takes it away. Consider, for instance, the iPhone or iPad. Both are marvels of design, easy to use and nearly indispensable. Even so, Apple is in charge. The owner of an iPad can choose which apps to download, but Apple approves those apps. As the legal scholar Tim Wu noted, owners of Apple products have agreed to swap “a little totalitarianism for convenience.” For now, the trade is an easy decision. But in the digital lifeworld, where code reaches into every corner of human existence, the stakes grow higher.
“In the next century, politics will be transformed by three developments: increasingly capable systems, increasingly integrated technology, and increasingly quantified society.”
In the digital lifeworld, for-profit tech companies will, increasingly, control basic human liberties – freedom of speech, freedom of thought, freedom of assembly. It’s another paradox. Facebook, Twitter and similar social media platforms provide vast new opportunities for freedom of speech. Yet these platforms also exert unprecedented control over what types of speech are allowed. Similar compromises will come in the realm of freedom of thought as tech companies decide what type of news coverage its users can see. Freedom of movement will, likewise, experience a trade-off. Once all cars are self-driving vehicles, moving around will be safer. But it also will come without the freedom to break the speed limit or cross a double yellow line. Perhaps the most troubling part of this paradox is that, in the digital lifeworld, technology will become invisible. A powerful force will be able to control speech and thought in ways that few even notice, let alone question.
Digital Politics and Economics
The digital revolution already has reshaped how political races are run. Political candidates use technology to raise money, marshal support and, with the help of big data, gather information about voters. Barack Obama’s 2012 presidential campaign was noted for its technical savvy. Four years later, a company hired by Donald Trump reportedly built extensive profiles of 220 million people, a treasure trove of information that allowed his campaign to target ads effectively. Trump’s big data apparatus was labeled by some a “weaponized AI propaganda machine.”
“Can Deliberative Democracy survive in a system where deliberation itself is no longer the preserve of human beings?”
Technology bolstered and profoundly influenced political movements such as the Arab Spring and the Occupy crowd. But digital developments have also contributed to the ongoing fragmentation of public discourse. Voters today prefer to consume political content that conforms to their preexisting opinions, while ignoring information they don’t agree with. For instance, 90% of the tweets American voters who follow Congressional races see on Twitter come from candidates of the voters’ own parties.
“Technological unemployment could in fact present an opportunity to dismantle the work paradigm and replace it with a different set of ideas.”
In the digital lifeworld, it seems likely human unemployment may become widespread. Because machines will develop the ability to do many tasks now performed by people, human workers will grow less necessary. Amid fierce competition for the jobs that remain, workers’ wages will fall. Mass job losses will disrupt workers’ lives, but soaring jobless rates won’t cause a depression. Instead, the new automated economy will remain profitable and efficient. Governments may choose to take care of their unemployed citizenry by expanding existing social safety nets or may decide to offer a universal basic income: a “no strings attached” monthly cash allowance.
Some democracies have used technology to increase public participation in government. In Paris, for instance, technology has enabled the concept of “participatory budgeting,” wherein voters can submit budget proposals that are voted on by fellow Parisians. Still, in many ways, the digital revolution poses a menace to democracy. If Silicon Valley companies or other forces can control voters’ very thoughts, the concepts of political will and vigorous dissent are undermined.
“We stand at the edge of the digital lifeworld, a world populated by digital systems that will come to rival and surpass humans across a wide range of functions.”
Protecting democracy in a digital revolution requires two steps. The first is transparency. Citizens must know what the organizations that control their lives are doing. The European Union already has taken a modest first step on this front. It requires companies that make fully automated decisions to clearly explain that policy to the public. Next, democracies must insist on separation of powers: not the traditional division of executive, legislative and judicial authority, but a separation of the powers of force, scrutiny and perception-control. No one firm can be allowed to dominate more than one mean of force, or to secure a monopoly on any power.