Future of Democracy: technology is changing our lives more than you might think

Elena Broekman, Department of Defence

Wow – what a whirlwind this week has been. It has been a huge pleasure to be a Global Voices Scholar attending the 2019 GLOBSEC Bratislava Forum. Not only did I get to participate in one of the leading conferences on global security, but I also got to meet the most brilliant and inspiring young professionals from around the world, as part of the GLOBSEC Young Leaders Forum.

This conference was a fantastic opportunity to engage with leading experts on global security challenges facing the world. A recurring theme during the conference was the impact of technology on democracy. We had the opportunity to hear General John Allen, President of the Brookings Institute, talk about technology and the future of governance and liberal democracy.

Allen discussed how tech giants have the capacity to influence large segments of the population in ways that far exceed the capacity of a traditional democratic governments. He talked about the increase of ‘digital citizens’ - a term that refers to how people’s relationship with technology, like Facebook or Instagram, is becoming more consequential in their immediate lives than their government. For this reason, there is tension and competition between liberal democracies and technology.

On the other side of the coin, authoritarian states are harnessing this technology to control the population in a way that has never previously been available to them. For example, China’s social credit system. A panel on ‘big data’ discussed the social credit system and the broader geopolitical implications of aggregating data. Big data refers to the ability to pool together previously siloed information, like personal, commercial and/or scientific data.

The panel explained how big data could potentially make autocratic regimes more successful and attractive. The speakers described how in the 20th century, one of the reasons the communist model was economically unsuccessful was because centralised governments were trying to control and make decisions for the farms and provinces. This was an area they didn’t have knowledge or experience in and so they got it wrong. In this century, there can be data attached to every row of crops. Aggregation of this data could allow autocratic regimes to provide more attractive services to the population than was previously possible.

Emerging tech giants and big data were just two of many examples used throughout the conference to explain how technology is challenging liberal democracies. Some others include: artificial intelligence, drones, 5G and cyber attacks. In all these cases, the speed of technology development is outstripping political institutions’ ability to understand what the issues are and respond.

Finally, Admiral Manfred Nielson, Deputy Supreme Allied Commander Transformation NATO, discussed how we can respond to these challenges. We need to focus on partnerships and cooperation between liberal democracies, greater information sharing on common challenges and collaborating with private sector like technology companies to regulate technology but also innovate together. The future of liberal democracies depends on its ability to adapt and use these technologies, along with being able to operate and defend itself in the cyber domain.

Please note, the views expressed within the policy paper are Elena’s own and do not reflect those of the Australian Department of Defence or the Australian Government.