Thoughts in Between

by Matt Clifford

Matt's Thoughts In Between - Issue #32

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Technology and the threat to democracy

Is technology a threat to democracy? I'm going to do something different this week and devote the whole newsletter to a single topic. I just got back from a conference organised by the Ditchley Foundation on the theme of "democracy in crisis". I was asked to make some opening remarks on the role of technology and I thought they might be of interest to TiB readers (but take up a little more room than one of the usual sections). Normal service will resume next week; what follows is an edited version of my speech.


I start from the view that democracy must be seen as a system of government that is always in competition with other systems. There's a dangerous temptation to take a Whig view of history and assume that history follows some inevitable path towards ever greater global dominance of liberal democracy. But, in fact, history is not at an end and democracy must constantly compete to be effective, attractive and relevant.

The question, then, is less whether technological change is a threat to democracy and more how it changes the relative balance of power between democratic and authoritarian systems. I see four main ways we might worry about this:

  1. Technology that makes the practice of democracy harder
  2. Technology that makes the practice of authoritarianism easier
  3. Technology arms races that are harder for democracies to win
  4. Technology that undermines the fundamental foundations of democracy

Broadly, we might see the first two as short term concerns and the second two as long term. I'll briefly discuss them in turn.

The short run: playing democracy on hard mode

Technology that makes the practice of democracy harder:

Of the four, this has been the most discussed in the general media. Since 2016, there's been much concern about the role of Facebook in the US presidential and other elections (see past TiBs); the role of social media in deepening political polarisation (but see a counter view here); and the general disintermediation of traditional gatekeeper institutions.

My own view is that these are serious issues - but they're also likely temporary ones. We're going through a transition and we need to learn how to "do democracy" in this new world - but the same has been true after every revolution in communications and norms.

Technology that makes the practice of authoritarianism easier:

Some tech progress gives authoritarian governments new tools, such as step changes in computer vision that make widespread facial recognition possible (Particularly as there seems to be less tolerance for this sort of thing in democratic systems - see, e.g., previous discussion of corporate activism and facial recognition). We might also point to China's controversial social credit system, which allows people to be blocked from an astonishingly wide range of services if they demonstrate questionable political behaviour. Jamie Susskind's new and excellent book Future Politics has a superb extended discussion of how new technology like this could redefine what we mean by liberty.

This fear seems more worrying, but I think is perhaps self-limiting. This kind of technology may make autocrats more secure, but it is less likely to help authoritarianism to win the global battle of ideas. Perhaps the most bearish sign for democracy is how many Western-educated Chinese are now choosing to return home (see also the TiB discussion here). But hardline tech-powered restrictions on individual freedom could tip the scales back in democracy's favour - at least if we resist the temptation to go down the same road ourselves...

The long run: slipping into irrelevance?

Technology arms races that are harder for democracies to win

China's geopolitical strategic approach to AI has been one of the biggest themes in TiB. As previously discussed, Ian Hogarth's essay on AI nationalism (discussed here) is indispensable on this topic. The crucial question is: if AI ends up being the important strategic technology of the 21st century (as I believe it will be), do authoritarian countries have an advantage over democratic ones in developing it?

The argument is that authoritarian leaders can do bolder, longer-term planning and resource allocation - and that in AI, China in particular can commandeer vast swathes of personal data to train machine learning models that are just inaccessible in democracies with strong individual liberties. There may be a similar issue with genomics: authoritarian regimes may be able to take decisive but ethically dubious action that democracies cannot.

This seems a real concern to me - and at minimum calls for far greater coordinated investment in the US and Europe in key strategic technologies.

Technology that undermines the fundamental foundations of democracy

Finally - and while more remotely, also most profoundly - it's possible that technology could alter the most fundamental building blocks of democratic society. If you believe the transhumanists, inequality in the future may not be about wealth, but about species. (If you get lost in some of the darker corners of political theory, it's striking how much influence this idea has had on some of the advocates of Neoreaction)

But you don't even have to go that far. Are democratic nation states viable if wealth can be virtualised and moved into hard-to-tax, transnational blockchains? (I realise this seems a long way off, given the current state of the crypto market). This is one of the premises of the influential - if grossly overrated - book, the Sovereign Individual (My British readers might be interested to know that the author is Jacob Rees Mogg's Dad...)

These concerns might seem "far future", but modern democracy is at least 200 years old and if want it to last another 200, we should be at least considering them.

The democratic optimist?

Is there a bull case for democracy in the future technology environment? We have to bet two things: first, that democracy continues to be able to constantly renew and reinvent itself; and, second, that the world's most talented and ambitious people vote with their feet and prefer to live, work and above all innovate in democracies.

These two areas, above all, are where I believe we need to invest if we want democracy to be not just the "least worst" system, but the one that plots a course for humanity's future.

Your feedback

This is obviously an unusual edition of TiB and I welcome your feedback. I'll be returning to the normal format next week, but I'd love to know what you thought of this issue. If it's popular, I might return to this longer form format occasionally.

Thanks as ever for reading - and, as ever, do forward this on to a friend or two if you've enjoyed it.

Until next week,