Like it or not, politics and technology are forever intertwined in a symbiotic dance. The influence of social media bots on the outcome of the 2016 U.S. election has been much discussed over the past year, and with Mark Zuckerberg facing the Senate recently to provide his testimony regarding the Cambridge Analytica scandal, you don’t need to look far to see how government and progress have forged a “digital divide.”
Regrettably, but perhaps not surprisingly, people are left alienated and frustrated by the struggle.
What we need is a full-blown intervention between the two powers, or else they’re doomed to run in circles around each other. Why force this marriage? Quite simply because we’re headed into unique territory.
When tech behemoths make the rules
In a national and global perspective, the economic output is enough to cater to everyone’s needs. Amid a bevy of plenty, political focus will shift from growth to the distribution of resources and creating meaningful employment, inclusion, and integrity despite trackable footprints; encouraging and limiting genetic engineering; and maximizing the distribution of resources. Societies will grapple with what happens when artificial intelligence makes some jobs superfluous while the humans who once performed them live much longer lives.
In other words, we’ll be forced to look at politics not only to organize and rule, but also to justly make determinations. That’s a tall order with a polarized political landscape, where everything goes back to control and not necessarily what is right.
Who pulls the strings? It’s no longer Wall Street’s fat cats. Ironically, it’s the tech giants: Alphabet, Facebook, Apple, Amazon, etc. Just last year, five of the biggest Silicon Valley players contributed nearly $50 million to lobbying efforts. Zuckerberg has even hired a pollster to track his public perception in the wake of the backlash Facebook faced after the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Their ilk has shifted the focus and the balance, and the government is fighting to keep its feet firmly planted.
The same thing happened with steam locomotives, telegraph cables, and electricity in the 19th century. Then, we were amazed, puzzled, and, yes, scared; eventually, though, we were able to learn, adjust, and use the technology to our advantage.
Tech’s impact on our future
We’re once again on the cusp of truly innovative technologies that will have serious effects on society and, thereby, politics. First is AI and the increased understanding of how to mine and utilize big data. The culled information will offer new perspectives and decision-making tools; if politicians and people are smart, it will also guide new methods of governance.
Along with that is the way automation will create some serious challenges for society in regards to the human labor force. This is an ongoing transition that’s quickly gaining speed, but we must not forget the individuals who are faced with this new reality. If we cannot figure out how to remove feelings of alienation, we’ll risk social unrest and extremism. With an increasing digital and technological divide, this is already seen in increasing political populism.
Another offshoot of our budding technologies is the stress that longevity will put on the social welfare system. When people outlive past generations’ life expectancies by years or decades, we’re forced to rethink retirement, aging, careers, relationships, and perhaps even death itself.
Technology has also opened the doors to new energy solutions. Although global political and financial power is connected to fossil fuels, this will predictably shift with the increase in nuclear power and renewable energy sources. Think it can’t happen? It’s already been proven as a fact in North America: Ontario moved from a 25 percent coal reliance to a 0 percent reliance in just 11 years.
Finally, we can expect blockchain technologies such as bitcoin to bring about greater societal transparency within financial and political systems. Such tech has been dubbed “liquid democracy,” but how will politics learn to secure everyone’s wealth with vastly changing standards of currency and trade?
Bridging the digital divide
Eventually, technology will need a new approach to politics — and politicians a new approach to technology. Thus far, technology has proven a huge challenge for politics because politicians focus largely on short-term impact. Think about it: How many dedicate themselves to thinking beyond the next election cycle? Sure, their talk is visionary and ideological, but their actions seldom match up.
To be sure, I’m a strong believer in a democratic system, but it’s hard to cope with long-term societal challenges — often fueled by technological change — within such systems. To increase the ability to govern more efficiently in a high-tech world, we need emergent forms of governing such as the Finnish Parliament’s 17-member future committee think tank or the development of 20-year future studies such as those by the National Intelligence Council.
Other ideas to emulsify politics and technology, thereby stabilizing their relationship, include bipartisan agreements on the direction of the coming years and arenas for fueling curiosity and discussions around science, technology and innovation. To date, we already have Japan’s National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation, as well as a plan for Dubai’s Museum of the Future. But we need more commitment to promote futuristic thought.
The digital divide is real — that much is undeniable. But it’s going to take more than an app or social media play to fix the problem. We must become more cross-political, ignoring the borders set by parties. Otherwise, we’ll never surmount many of the challenges we’re currently facing, much less the ones to come. Right now, society is not future-ready and certainly not settled enough for the merger and cross-pollination of BANG (bits, atoms, neurons, and genes). That doesn’t mean it can’t be; it’s simply stalled at the chasm between a world in transition and a robust future.