Is technology killing democracy?

Blog published by CW (Cambridge Wireless)

On 28 March, the CW community was joined by John Naughton (Senior Research Fellow, Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences & Humanities (CRASSH), University of Cambridge) and Carl Miller (Research Director, CASM, Demos) to debate the hypothesis that technology was killing democracy – and if it was, what was to be done?

Following the format of the CW Talks series – two experts in a given area presenting in turn before opening the floor to a curated debate – provided plenty of opportunities for audience engagement in the newly opened PwC offices in Cambridge. The only rule set out by the evening’s chair and CW Engineering Trust Programme advocate, Tim Phipps of Solarflare, was that the event was in no way to focus on individuals’ political leanings. Rather, the evening centred on the question of how technology that programmers, such as those within the CW membership, design is changing the face of politics.

John, who also writes for the Observer and is Co-Director of CRASSH’s Conspiracy & Democracy and Technology & Democracy programmes, opened the debate by arguing that the impact that technology is currently having on democracy would not be so great were it not coexisting with a number of other influencing factors. Referencing the analogy of the perfect storm, John listed phenomena such as globalisation, astonishing levels of inequality, reactions to immigration and the 2008 banking crisis as unignorable contributors.

Technology isn’t helping much, but democracy has been doing most of the work itself

The world as a whole has benefited greatly from globalisation. Average levels of wealth have increased. But this wealth has not been distributed evenly. In industrialised countries of the West, globalisation has resulted in pockets of poverty which, in most democracies, remains unfixed by successive governments.

Inequality, which peaked directly before the Great Depression, has increased throughout the 21st century - especially since the end of the Second World War – to peak again immediately before the banking crisis of 2008.

Negative perceptions of immigration form the third cloud in John’s perfect storm and the deregulation of the financial sector, swiftly followed by the 2008 banking crisis, completes his democratic deficit. By bailing out the banks and adopting a policy of austerity to balance the increase in sovereign debt, the Government put itself on the path for a considerable public backlash. John’s only surprise was that it took until the Brexit vote for this populist reaction to emerge.

Working alongside this is the overhaul of the world’s media ecosystem via the rise of online platforms that monetise engagement, exploit data and have a vested interest in plurality of all kinds.

Technology is clearly important and relevant to this story but it isn’t the biggest picture. I don’t think that it would have had anything like the impact that it has had if it didn’t have this democratic deficit, as it were, to mould it.

John concluded that while regulating technology companies was clearly important, it shouldn’t be believed that doing so will fix all problems. Unless the country can find a route to fixing the bigger picture then the liberal democracy that the UK has grown used to is doomed.

On that sombre note, Carl from Demos took to the stage. Carl has just released a new book, The Death of the Gods: The New Global Power Grab, and based on the anecdotes that he shared during his fifteen minute opening gambit, it’s going to be a bit of a winner.

Carl argued that even if technology is not wholly to blame for the killing of democracy, it is at least responsible for its increasing impotence.

The common view on this subject is that technology is dying because new platforms have changed its character. It has increased the volume of propaganda, altered the tone of conversation and polarised viewpoints.

Carl concedes that technology may be making society less liberal and that, based on online conversations, politics appears to be “nastier”. But in its formal sense, the operation of democracy is not required to be either nice or liberal. To this extent, technology is not undermining democracy.

But I do believe that democracy is sliding into irrelevance

Carl’s argument on why this is the case is based on his belief that governments, which are borne out of democratic processes, are less and less able to uphold laws and manage the experiences of its citizens.

We live in a period in which crime has changed.  In 2016 the Home Office expanded the annual Crime Survey of England and Wales to take into account those who have been convicted of cybercrime and online fraud. The number of crimes that the Home Office had thought had happened over the past year doubled from 6M to 12M. People are more likely to have their social media account burgled than their houses. You are twenty times more likely to be a victim of a digital virus than a serious crime and online fraud is the most common crime in the country.

The idea that you can cut police budgets and cut crime at the same time is, according to Carl, nonsense.  Software for committing cybercrimes, such as ransomware, is easily accessible on the internet with simple to use user interfaces and tutorials for how to make the most from it. The barrier to entry is extremely low.

An idiot can do cybercrime. You don’t need to know programming to do cybercrime.

The surprising thing for Carl is not that cybercrime exists, but that criminals are ever caught. Almost no investigation for an act as common as ransomware has seen a conviction. This isn’t because law enforcement doesn’t have the skills or the technology to bring people to justice. Geography is the limiting factor. Almost every investigation hits a political brick wall shaped like its borders with the victims in one country, the perpetrator in another and the evidence in ten more. Police are rarely able to reach across borders and bring everything together in a manner that will lead to a conviction.

For this reason, Carl believes that we are living through the worst period of law enforcement in the history of modern policing. Half of crime is happening in a form that police can barely catch. Cybercrime is voluminous, carries huge implications for victims and is also a crime that is rarely reported to authorities.

The debate about politics getting nastier is a red herring; it is not the bigger picture of what is happening.  The reason that technology is a threat to democracy is that it undermines the capacity of geographic states to secure the experiences of citizens that live within their borders. There is no point in having laws if they can’t be enforced, and currently states are unable to control online behaviour effectively.

This does not mean that domestic governments can’t or shouldn’t pass laws to control technology companies. In fact, in countries where regulation is passed, firms are responding quickly. The campaign against child pornography is an ongoing, but relatively successful, example of this.

Similarly, China stands out as an example of a country whose regulation of online behaviour has produced exceptional results – although, of course, a government’s capacity to regulate and control online behaviour depends greatly on where it sits on the authoritarian <-> democratic scale. As another factor to consider, John pointed out that the more “sophisticated” a state is, the more vulnerable it is to attack.

With the opening statements from each party concluded, the debate continued into the evening touching on ideas such as warfare no longer using information as a supporting asset, but as a new battlefield in its own right; the history of “democratic panics” instigated by technological revolutions, including the centuries of religious and political turmoil following the invention of the printing press (considered the closest analogy to the internet); and the potential of using technology to move from representative democracy to direct democracy, with the a model instigated in Taiwan with the vTaiwan project cited as an example.

CW’s thanks go to John, Carl and Tim for leading us through a thought-provoking evening and for PwC for hosting us in their stylish new offices. 

We were delighted to host the latest CW Talk event in our new PwC Cambridge office. We are always interested in the latest topics they, and their wider communities bring to the table, and this session certainly didn't disappoint. I enjoyed listening to valuable discussions, humorous debate and many thought-provoking questions raised by the floor.

Gareth Willmer, PwC Marketing Manager

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