Three Policy Shifts to Harness the Potential of Technological Progress

mars 8, 2020

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Although technological progress is a force helping millions worldwide attain higher standards of living,[i] it has also disappointed high hopes, be it of investors still waiting for flying cars or citizens hoping to usher in democracy through social media. Once heralded as a force for democratization, digital technologies and the companies behind them are now at the center of global criticism.[ii],[iii] This criticism is not surprising: as things stand today, we are collectively wasting the potential of technological progress by ignoring negative side-effects of new technologies and focusing on the wrong problems, like improving advertising instead of social mobility.

Unrealized democratization

First, the potential power shift that digital technologies make possible has not fully materialized. Technology has always been a factor in shaping power structures.[iv],[v] It can give governments and companies an edge, but it can also undermine preexisting power structures by democratizing capabilities once held by a select few. Technological progress has stopped short in this last step of the digital transformation.[vi]

Although more people than ever have access to a device and can publish their views online, the democratizing effect of the early Internet days has given way to an opposing trend of platforms building monopolies and creating walled gardens that lock in consumers, making it difficult to switch platforms.[vii],[viii] While new technologies have undermined traditional gatekeepers like publishers, new gatekeepers have emerged. Policymakers are only now starting a discussion about their power and responsibilities. Think of Facebook and its editorial choices: it deletes some posts but leaves others, while the logic behind these processes is far from transparent.

Although technology has certainly played a part in mobilizing demonstrators around the world, we now understand that digital technologies are used by some governments for better surveillance and control of their populations.[ix] Globally, we see a decline in Internet freedom as authoritarian governments from China to Saudi Arabia crack down on the emancipatory power of technology.[x]

Public versus private interest

Second, widespread ignorance of the rapid evolution and impact of digital technologies, as well as policymakers’ overconfidence in the government’s ability to manage these impacts, facilitated the developments mentioned above.[xi] Many politicians either do not care about technology or simply do not understand it. See, for example, the US Senate Facebook hearings during which leading politicians had visible trouble understanding the online social media platform’s underlying business model.[xii] Fatalist attitudes are also actively encouraged by representatives of these technology companies. The CEO of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg, for example, has  stated that privacy is no longer a “social norm.”[xiii]

Although new legislation has been introduced, including the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) in the European Union, policymakers in recent years have given up potential levers to shape technological progress.[xiv] One example is the divergence of private versus public spending on research and development. While many governments have policies in place to foster growth in digital industries, private companies are considerably outspending governments in digital Research and Development.[xv],[xvi] As a result of this, technology companies are determining the direction of overall progress, understandably driven by short-term profit targets. Over the long-term, however, this direction does not necessarily serve the public interest.

Widespread ignorance

Third, the education of citizens when it comes to technology is only now picking up steam in developed countries, and is still not a priority in developing countries.[xvii] Particularly, digital technologies such as artificial intelligence are frequently seen as black boxes by the wider population, who often liken technology more to magic than science.[xviii],[xix] This widespread public ignorance limits incentives for policymakers to deal in depth with digital policy and thus favors simple answers.

An overall lack of understanding also limits individual citizens’ agency. Lacking an understanding of digital technologies, most citizens are unaware of the imbalanced power relationships between tech companies and their customers. When searching for information online, for example, most people rely blindly on Google but fail to understand the complex algorithms and business incentives behind the search engine.

What can be done to stop wasting the potential of technological progress?

At national and international levels, it is critical that policymakers ensure a competitive landscape for technology companies, for example, by making it more difficult to merge. Antitrust legislation needs to be adapted to new realities by increasingly focusing on standardization and interoperability between platforms—not just for services but also for data—which should be portable enough for consumers to easily switch between platforms and carry their data with them, or to leave altogether.[xx]

Additionally, policymakers must engage in mission-based digital policy. This means identifying social problems that could benefit from technological progress and then solving these through adequate funding and additional supportive policies, e.g. improving social mobility through digital education.[xxi] This highlights the political question of our digital age: what technology do we want to use for what ends, and what values should this technology embody?[xxii] Liberal democracies, in particular, should keep this in mind as China ramps up its efforts to influence international standardization of digital technologies.[xxiii]

Finally, citizens and customers need to be empowered, not exploited. We need a digital enlightenment. For governments, this means investing far more in education and training. For companies, this means changes to their design processes in order to move away from surveillance-based business models and toward more socially sustainable ones. Think of the ICT4Good movement. Higher education curricula should train engineers in the social sciences, and vice versa.[xxiv]

Instead of assuming the passive role of consumers and data-producers, we need to embrace the tinkering and hacking of digital technology’s early days, where people could build their own devices and share their software projects based on open standards. Understanding technology and figuring out how it functions should not be ridiculed or—even worse—persecuted. Instead, it should be actively encouraged and become the central message of public campaigns.

This article was the winner of our writing competition on Digital Transformation.

References

Picture by Sean MacEntee

[i]        Hans Rosling, Ola Rosling, and Rönnlund Anna Rosling, Factfulness: Ten Reasons Were Wrong about the World — and Why Things Are Better than You Think, (London: Sceptre, 2018).

[ii]        Zeynep Tufekci, “How Social Media Took Us From Tahrir Square To Donald Trump,” MIT Technology Review, August 14, 2018, https://www.technologyreview.com/s/611806/how-social-media-took-us-from-tahrir-square-to-donald-trump/.

[iii]       New York Times, “The Decade Tech Has Lost Its Way,” December 15, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2019/12/15/technology/decade-in-tech.html.

[iv]       Michel Foucault and Robert Hurley, The History of Sexuality, (Camberwell, Vic.: Penguin, 2008).

[v]       Scott M. Lash, Critique of Information, (London: SAGE Publications, 2002).

[vi]       Vanessa Bates Ramirez, “The 6 Ds of Tech Disruption: A Guide to the Digital Economy,” Singularity Hub, March 19, 2018, https://singularityhub.com/2016/11/22/the-6-ds-of-tech-disruption-a-guide-to-the-digital-economy/.

Michael Wolf, «The New Era of Democratized Business», Forbes, November 5, 2012, https://www.forbes.com/sites/michaelwolf/2012/11/05/the-new-era-of-democratized-business/#1e1ad768dd1c

[viii]      Rana Foroohar, Don’t Be Evil: How Big Tech Betrayed Its Founding Principles — and All of Us, (New York, NY: Penguin Random House, 2019).

[ix]       Shoshana Zuboff, Age of Surveillance Capitalism: the Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power, (London: Profile Books, 2019).

[x]       Adrian Shabaz and Allie Funk, “The Crisis of Social Media,” Freedom House, 2020, https://www.freedomonthenet.org/report/freedom-on-the-net/2019/the-crisis-of-social-media.

[xi]       Andrew Bennett and Chris Yiu, “Transforming Government for the 21st Century,” Institute for Global Change, June 26, 2019, https://institute.global/insight/renewing-centre/transforming-government-21st-century.

[xii]      Emily Stewart, “Lawmakers Seem Confused about What Facebook Does — and How to Fix It,” Vox, April 10, 2018. https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2018/4/10/17222062/mark-zuckerberg-testimony-graham-facebook-regulations.

[xiii]      Bobbie Johnson, “Privacy No Longer a Social Norm, Says Facebook Founder,” The Guardian, January 11, 2010, https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2010/jan/11/facebook-privacy.

[xiv]     European Parliament, “Regulation (EU) 2016/679 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 27 April 2016 on the Protection of Natural Persons with Regard to the Processing of Personal Data and on the Free Movement of Such Data, and Repealing Directive 95/46/EC (General Data Protection Regulation),” EUR-Lex, Document 32016R0679, April 27, 2016, https://eur-lex.europa.eu/eli/reg/2016/679/oj.

[xv]      OECD, “ICT investments in OECD countries and partner economies: Trends, policies and evaluation,” OECD Digital Economy Papers, No. 280, OECD Publishing, 2019, https://doi.org/10.1787/bcb82cff-en.

[xvi]     Caleb D. Foote and Robert D. Atkinson, “Federal Support for R&D Continues Its Ignominious Slide,” Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, August 12, 2019. https://itif.org/publications/2019/08/12/federal-support-rd-continues-its-ignominious-slide.

[xvii]     OECD, “Going Digital: Shaping Policies, Improving Lives – Summary,” 2019, www.oecd.org/going-digital/going-digital-synthesis-summary.pdf.

[xviii]    Frank Pasquale, The Black Box Society: The Secret Algorithms behind Money and Information, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2016).

[xix]     Vyacheslav Polonski, “AI Has Huge Potential – but It Won’t Solve All Our Problems,” World Economic Forum, June 14, 2018, https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2018/06/ai-cannot-solve-all-our-problems/.

[xx]      Viktor Mayer-Schönberger and Thomas Ramge. Reinventing Capitalism in the Age of Big Data, (London, UK: Hodder & Stoughton, 2019).

[xxi]     João Medeiros, “This Economist Has a Plan to Fix Capitalism. It’s Time We All Listened,” WIRED, October 11, 2019, https://www.wired.co.uk/article/mariana-mazzucato.

[xxii]     The Economist, “Can Technology Plan Economies and Destroy Democracy?” December 18, 2019, https://www.economist.com/christmas-specials/2019/12/18/can-technology-plan-economies-and-destroy-democracy.

[xxiii]    Anna Gross, Madhumita Murgia, and Yuan Yang, “Chinese Tech Groups Shaping UN Facial Recognition Standards,” Financial Times, December 1, 2019, https://www.ft.com/content/c3555a3c-0d3e-11ea-b2d6-9bf4d1957a67.

[xxiv]    Tobias Rees, “Why Tech Companies Need Philosophers – and How I Convinced Google to Hire Them,” Quartz, November 22, 2019, https://qz.com/1734381/why-tech-companies-need-to-hire-philosophers/.

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Nicolas Zahn

Nicolas studied political science and international affairs in Zürich (BA), Geneva and Washington DC (MA). From 2017-2018 he was awarded the Mercator Fellowship on international affairs and worked on the question of digital transformation in the public sector. As part of the fellowship Nicolas spent time in Singapore and Estonia. Since then, he works as a Consultant for a Swiss-based IT company.