Tech

Techies Are Ruining Our Democracies. It Is High Time We Held Them Accountable.

Under the guise of simplifying our lives, software engineers have enslaved us to their innovations. As a society, are we ready for these new rulers and their social disruptions?

In 1989, Francis Fukuyama, a little-known American diplomat with a front row seat to the crumbling empire of the United Soviet Socialist Republic (USSR), boldly claimed that we were witnessing the end of history. With the world counting down the days to the collapse of the communist regime, it was an intriguing argument to entertain. Had the Western political order, with its constituents guaranteeing freedom of speech and expression, privacy and due process won the ideological war? Had capitalism, believing in individuals as rational decision makers and championing efficient, market-based allocation of resources, decisively prevailed over other socioeconomic theories?

Thirty years later, it is worth thinking whether Fukuyama had ever imagined that engineers were waiting in the wings, ready to conquer the world and write the next chapter in history.

Technology and engineering are not new to humankind. Engineers have been reducing human suffering and simplifying our lives for centuries now. Game changing inventions like the printing press, steam engine, internal combustion engine, assembly lines, airplanes, integrated chips, wired and wireless transfer of information, personal computers, and even rudimentary forms of internet were all invented before the end of the Cold War. After each of these inventions, there were fears that they would irrevocably change our way of life and wreak havoc on society.

While they did indeed change our lives and societies, the Western liberal society was lucky to get enough time to adjust to these social disruptions. However, since the end of the Cold War, the trifecta of advances in data processing and connectivity, rise of social media and miniaturisation of electronics have occurred at such a breathtaking pace that engineers seem to be, perhaps unwittingly, ruling our everyday lives.

The takeover is complete. As soon as this article is posted online, these words will be accessible to anyone around the world who has internet access. Our daily jobs are unimaginable without interfacing with sophisticated computers and communication equipment. We are more loyal to our cell phone brand or online shopping site than to the brand of clothes we wear or the newspapers we read. Instead of the company we keep, we are increasingly known by the social media platforms we frequent and the online profiles we create. Face-to-face conversations, phone calls and even emails have given way to terse text messages, composed of emojis and their own shorthand lingo. Instead of nuanced political debates, people are increasingly interested in forwarding viral posts, encouraging groupthink and indulging in ad hominem attacks, lacking any desire to verify facts.

Engineers are slowly occupying the tops of the lists of the richest people in the world. The five biggest corporations in the world, by market capitalisation, are tech companies. Under the guise of simplifying our lives, techies have made us slaves to their innovations. As a society, are we ready for these new rulers and their social disruptions?

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Photo: Taylor Vick

The spread of global connectivity and data processing abilities led to rapid improvements in infrastructure and movement of goods and services, making it easy to take raw materials from one continent, make products out of them on another continent, and sell them in a third continent. The birth of the World Trade Organisation and other ancillary trade agreements set up workable global rules and a forum to settle trade disputes.

It spawned global supply chains at breakneck speeds and the early adopters – primarily Western multinational corporations (MNCs) – reaped the benefits. Capital moved efficiently around the world to places where goods could be manufactured at the cheapest cost and sold at the highest price. Millions of workers in developing countries were being lifted out of poverty, consumers were getting good discounts, and shareholders of the MNCs were enjoying the dividends.

In the early 2000s, globalisation seemed to be greasing the wheels of the inevitable spread of the liberal world order. Who could complain about that? Russia and China, the top two ideological adversaries of the United States, were falling in line. Russia was politically moving towards a functioning democracy, and, economically, China was becoming a market-driven society. Conventional wisdom said that, eventually, Russia would become a market-driven economy and China would become a liberal democracy.

It took less than 20 years for that narrative to crumble. It was primarily because corporations in the developing world figured the game out and began moving up the value chain. Instead of making products for and providing services to Western MNCs, they started making and selling their own products.

However, capital was still controlled by the West. While engineers aided the efficient allocation of capital around the world, they also helped money managers in the West consolidate their powers. With the help of technology and the instantaneous availability of information, wealth managers sitting in New York and London could dictate the flow of global capital with the press of a button, without any regard for local social context or knowledge of political ground realities. In 2008, when that system took the world to the brink of collapse, it was a rude wake-up call for the rest of the world.

The wave of nationalism and xenophobia that has gripped the US and some European countries is partially a result of the developing world catching up with the West in playing this game of capital and corporations. It is easier to play identity politics than to explain complex issues like advances in connectivity, globalisation, movement of capital, and loss of blue-collar jobs.

Also read: Is Social Media Making People Depressed?

Some of the beneficiary countries of these trends, like India, seem benevolent on the world stage. The Bharatiya Janata Party, the nationalist dispensation currently ruling India, has been ruthlessly exploiting connectivity to promote a nativist and xenophobic agenda, which could pose a threat to the liberal world order. However, given India’s limited GDP and influence on world affairs, it will take a decade, if not more, for that threat to materialise.

More importantly, since India is still a democracy, course correction in the near future is possible without major social upheaval. On the other hand, the way Russia and China have exploited the other two advances – the rise of social media and the miniaturisation of electronics – is more sinister and destabilising, posing an imminent threat to the post-Cold War global order.

The rapid worldwide spread of social media is another coup engineers have pulled off in the dead of night. When the framers of the American constitution enshrined freedom of speech in the first amendment and recognised a free press as the fourth pillar of democracy, the press in question comprised a small group of people and organisations that would ensure a meaningful political discourse and serve as a check on political power. Self-restraint, neutrality, and a certain sense of national duty, while not explicitly spelled out, were its underlying responsibilities.

There is plenty of evidence demonstrating that some sections of the traditional media have forgotten those responsibilities, but social media never had them in their DNA. Under the guise of connecting people – and without knowing whether there was any inherent social value in that endeavour – Facebook allowed everyone to air their unfiltered opinions.

Mark Zuckerberg could be given a pass early on when college students used Facebook to post relationship statuses and vacation pictures. However, once it spread beyond college campuses, the personal quickly became political. With its paltry character limit, Twitter made it even worse by removing the socio-political context to the spread of people’s unfiltered opinions. Add the advances in machine learning (ML) and artificial intelligence (AI) to it and you have a recipe for disaster.

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Photo: Franck V./Unsplash

On its own, AI is already creating headaches for the political class by threatening to automate huge swaths of industry segments. Political leaders have already begun contemplating a world in which large sections of the population are unemployed because AI and robots have taken their jobs. The biggest surprise in the 2020 American election cycle isn’t the presence of self-proclaimed democratic socialists but a candidate advocating a universal basic income in a capitalist society. While that might be food for thought for the next decade or two, the marriage of social media and ML has already wreaked havoc in our world.

In addition to allowing people to air their opinions without editorial oversight, social media ensured that their ML-powered newsfeeds would create deadly echo-chambers, which have been exploited by people at both ends of the political spectrum. On one end are countries like Russia: with a GDP a fraction of the US, Russia recruited a handful of skilled political strategists halfway around the globe and disrupted the 2016 American presidential elections. On the other end are non-state actors like Al Qaeda and ISIS, who have successfully used social media as tools for spreading their message and global recruitment. On both ends, actors operate with impunity, out of reach of all existing international treaties and judicial systems of sovereign nation-states.

Like the Arab Spring, there were occasional bright spots in the social media narrative, but when WhatsApp was used to spread lies and rumours, leading to mob-lynchings in India and a deranged killer live-streamed a carnage in a New Zealand mosque, the downside of connecting everyone truly reached living rooms across the world. No wonder the Sri Lankan government instituted a blanket social media ban after the recent Easter Sunday bombings. If Russia’s reported interference in the recently concluded European elections is any indication, we are a long way away from internalising the danger posed by social media to our democratic institutions, let alone guarding ourselves against it.

China is demonstrating what is looming on the horizon by exploiting the miniaturisation of electronics and the ability to mass-produce them inexpensively to manipulate society in ways that seemed impossible less than a decade ago. Hailed by engineers as a prime example of human ingenuity, we all embraced the faster, cheaper and more powerful cell-phones, tiny webcams and microphones, and ubiquitous home assistants like Alexa and Google Now. Assuming their governments will not be able to interfere in the functioning of private enterprises, the liberal West willingly traded their privacy for the sake of faster and global social connectivity. And with their holier-than-thou attitudes, the Facebooks and Twitters of the world believed they could use the gospel of global connectivity to convince the Chinese to jump on the bandwagon.

The Chinese government didn’t buy that argument. Instead, they built their own alternatives, tightly controlling their servers and the flow of information. When this goldmine of private data is combined with inexpensive electronics, the results are truly Orwellian. If reports coming out of China are to be believed, apparently innocuous policemen at traffic intersections sport goggles that can track all vehicles that have crossed the intersection and automatically flag errant ones. An entire town in the Uighur-dominated western province of Xinjiang can be wired up with CCTV cameras to record the movements of every individual every day.

Online and offline activity can be tracked to give each individual in a country of 1.5 billion people a social credit score to determine how good their behaviour is. We can bemoan the lack of institutions in China to challenge such an unprecedented assault on privacy but it is safe to assume that the overwhelming majority of Chinese people are getting sucked into this surveillance system without ever being exposed to the virtues of privacy.

One could argue that the US and several European countries are also employing these innovations to expand the surveillance state and curb privacy. However, unlike China, their free press, democratic institutions and independent judiciaries offer them avenues to check industry excess and government overreach. The European Union has already instituted the General Data Protection Regulation to hold private enterprises accountable for the way they handle personal data, and several National Security Agency surveillance programs in the US are either under the purview of Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Courts or are being scrapped after review. There are no signs of China even acknowledging such issues, let alone addressing them.

Taken together, the rapid, unprecedented global spread of these engineering innovations is perhaps the biggest threat to the liberal world order. Nationalism and globalism operate in cycles, and we can only hope that the US and Europe will soon escape the grip of the former. However, there are no signs of societies working towards any workable solutions to the challenges software engineers have posed.

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Photo: Lianhao Qu/Unsplash

Universal basic income, a patently anti-capitalist idea, might solve the issue of widespread loss of blue-collar or even white-collar jobs, but the privacy and connectivity quagmire we have created through social media doesn’t seem to have any easy solution. We might have to ask ourselves whether connecting the world can, in and of itself, be beneficial to humankind. Instantaneous, unfiltered access to information from halfway around the globe might make our economies more efficient but does it truly make our lives better? Given a choice between an echo chamber and an impartial, free press, how many of us would choose the latter?

More fundamentally, we need to think about the future of republics and representative democracy. In the history of modern human civilisation, which spans roughly five millennia, democracy is a very young and dynamic experiment.

By using modern engineering innovations to tighten their control over their populations, countries like China are already giving wannabe autocrats around the world lucrative alternatives to the liberal world order. Given this state of affairs, it is worth pondering the future of rule of law, due process, freedom of expression, separation of church and state, independent judiciary, privacy and individual liberty.

The list of social and economic benefits these engineering trends have enabled is long. Instantaneous access to information has helped spread education and healthcare to remote areas and accelerated the speed of collaborations and innovations in all areas of industry. A software engineer’s instinct to find solutions to problems, reduce human suffering and just simplify life appeal to our survival instincts. However, authoritarianism and dictatorship are not exactly traditional problems, to be solved with engineering approaches.

A liberal world order might alleviate human suffering but it does not easily appeal to our natural desire to create group identities and seek refuge among our own in adversity. Appreciation for and the desire to uphold individual liberty go beyond basic problem-solving instincts and have emerged after centuries of social experiments and contemplation of human nature, which is often irrational.

Perhaps that is the reason why the perils of innovation for the sake of it, without accounting for the diversity of social structures and political histories around the world, capture the uncertainty of our times better than any other trend.

Also read: The Weapon of the Next Cold War

That uncertainty was evident in the recently concluded elections in India, where there was a visible sense of alienation among some liberals. In a vast and diverse country like ours, election results can never be pinned to any one trend. A lack of credible options certainly played a role in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s reelection, but what worried the liberal Indian mind more is the nomination and then thumping victory of an alleged terrorist with an extremist right-wing agenda. Some are cheering the ruling party’s desire to fight corruption, build infrastructure, clear British-era cobwebs of bureaucracy and move away from a political discourse dominated by the centuries-old caste system, but are worried about its desire to remake India into a Hindu state by marginalising minorities.

While the Indian government does not have the sweeping surveillance powers that Chinese ruling class enjoys, there is a palpable sense of unease in some sections of society over the way connectivity and social media have been exploited to create a false narrative of cultural uniformity in a land where that has never existed. World history has repeatedly demonstrated that it takes decades of dedication to build democratic institutions, but they can be destroyed quickly by authoritarian leaders, and the engineering innovations of the past three decades — in global connectivity, social media and availability of cheap electronics — have made that destruction easier.

While India has, at long last, begun the much-needed dialogue about the social impact of technology, the ruling class in the Western world is slowly waking up to the grim reality and demanding social accountability from engineers.

Based on recent reports, Google, Facebook, Amazon and some other tech giants are already under scrutiny for antitrust activities. After years of claiming to be a tech company and not a media company, Facebook has started exercising control over the content of Facebook Live and requiring funding disclosures for political ads, tacitly admitting that it is a media company and has editorial responsibilities.

Some Silicon Valley leaders have started championing product stewardship instead of product development. As any new tech product starts gaining traction, instead of being driven purely by profits, developers of the product should be vigilant about potential misuse, unintended consequences, and harm to society to ensure that those issues are addressed before they become unwieldy. And yet, there are virtually no incentives for studying the humanities, civics or liberal arts. Education in STEM is the in thing, but history is coming back with a vengeance.

Mauktik Kulkarni is an engineer, neuroscientist, entrepreneur, author and a filmmaker. He is the author of A Ghost of Che (2009) and Packing Up Without Looking Back (2017). He has co-produced and co-anchored a travel film titled Riding on a Sunbeam, with several others in the pipeline.

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