Digital technologies are disrupting democracies, for both good and ill

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Elon University and Pew Research Center asked experts what the impact of digital disruption will be upon democracy in 2030: Perspectives differ!

About half predicted that humans will use technology to weaken democracy over the next decade, with concerns grounded in the trends of our present.

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And about a third predicted humans will use technology to strengthen democracy and remain hopeful about our future.

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What’s may be most likely is for both sets of conditions to occur around the world, depending upon both the context of the nations and external events. Here’s what I told the researchers:

Various technologies have fundamentally, permanently disrupted how humanity generates, accesses and shares information, from the personal computer to the Internet to the smartphone and artificial intelligence.

These technologies are now part of the fabric of every aspect of society, from politics and governance to media, education, energy, health care, entertainment, transit and more, but the extent to which the consent of the governed is honored in their use or abuse will be a critical tension for decades to come, from surveillance to drones to connected medical devices.

As connected sensors are embedded into homes, streets, buildings and bodies, we will see increase data collection in the physical world, in parallel to that which occurs online, which will in turn place more of a premium on governance frameworks, laws, and regulations that place human rights and civil liberties at the center of open democratic societies.

Illiberal political movements and authoritarian governments will continue to seek to use many of these technologies for coercion and control of populations, or worse, as we’ve seen recently with social media in Myanmar.

Unless life on Earth is fundamentally changed by a catastrophic event, like a global pandemic, nuclear armageddon or alien invasion, however, I expect democracies to look a lot like they do today: stable, peaceful and equitable in countries that succeed in maintaining good governance, sclerotic and messy in flawed democracies captured by corporate influence, and devolving towards authoritarianism, or outright dissolving into civil wars in others.

In the United States, unless fundamental reforms have been enacted in some states that address money in politics, gerrymandering, government corruption and climate change, citizens will understandably remain skeptical about the meaning of their public participation in national elections, turning towards endless rivers of infotainment and diversion that instantly available on ubiquitous screens and projections.

In that context, technologies will continue to play both positive and negative roles in democraies, from informing voters about the records and proposed policies of candidates, to deluging political campaigns in disinformation and misinformation, eroding the capacity of people to distinguish truth from fiction.

Media literacy and digital literacy will be necessary elements of curricula and public education campaigns, as governments have woken up to the existential risks that democracy faces. There will be better tools for distributed organizing and collective action that give networked populations unprecedented opportunities to pressure and participate institutions.

Many people will experience civic life differently, mediated through personalized feeds of infotainment from technology companies and media companies mixed with digital services and information from municipal, state and federal governments.

Government agencies at every level will have replaced retiring “Baby Boomers” with automated services, augmented with artificial intelligence, putting a high premium on algorithmic transparency, accountability, and accessibility.

Many more of the newspapers that play key roles in communities will be gone, and, despite the best efforts of state governments and foundations – and public media, radio and digital nonprofits won’t replace all of their civic function everywhere, leaving news deserts behind. That void will be filled up by the descendants of today’s social media platforms and media companies, which will gain more power in shaping both conversations and civic participation. The role of schools and libraries as community hubs for information access and civic life will continue to be critical.

At the same time, continued innovation in civic technologies will have the potential to enhance social cohesion, equity and justice when they are deliberately built and designed with the public they connect and empower, enhancing the capacity of journalists, watchdogs and whistleblowers to make institutions transparent and hold powerful people and organizations to account for abuses of power.

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