Among tech geeks, it is an established mantra that technology will lead inevitably to democratisation: “Technology provides access and it helps establish and communicate the truth, so everything from banks to governments, and from charities to businesses, will be more transparent than they’ve ever been”.
You will notice that the media is missing from that list (banks, businesses, charities, governments).
If media had been included, the falsity of that statement would have become immediately apparent: the rise of technology-driven social media has paralleled the rise of fake news.
In fact, research indicates that the more we are into tech, the more likely we are to brainwash ourselves by selectivity in what we access, actively or unconsciously shutting out sources and messages we don’t like – or those that we find challenge our prejudices.
Consider too that, according to EY’s FinTech Adoption Index, the country which far and away out-adopts FinTech than any other country is one of the least democratic countries in the world: China (at 69% of the digitally-active population).
Oh, and in the country which has the second-fastest rate of FinTech adoption (my own country, India – at 52%), the rate of adoption precisely parallels the rate at which the country is being “Undemocratised” by Prime Minister Modi.
You could counter-argue that the rate of adoption may be highest in non-democratic countries because the population is taking to FinTech in order to oppose De-democratisation, or perhaps in the hope of democratisation.
In fact, as you and I know, most people don’t even begin to think of the social (let alone the political!) consequences of the technologies they patronise: we take to particular technologies because of the immediate benefits they seem to offer us, regardless of whatever longer-term social or political consequences those may entail.
Further, there is the fact that technologies can also be used to enslave or to keep people docile at their current level of society or politics.
So all technologies have both positive and negative potential.
“Ah”, you may respond, “Of course, I now recollect what we were taught in school: science and technology are neither good nor bad”.
Well, if that’s what they taught at school, they didn’t teach the whole truth.
The whole truth is that science and technology are indeed neither good nor bad; rather, they are amplifiers.
In other words, science and technology amplify our ability to do good as well as our ability to do evil. In primitive times, we could each kill a few people who were within reach of a sword or bow-and-arrow; now we can, at the mere press of a button, kill not only a few hundreds or thousands but even millions of people who are tens of thousands of miles away.
In fact, given solar power, Lethal Autonomous Weapons Systems could continue randomly looking for and killing selected pre-identified types of individuals indefinitely – say, everyone with a beard more than a few millimetres long.
In other words, technology merely amplifies our choices, it doesn’t make those choices for us.
With every improvement or leap in technological power, we humans will have to be all the more vigilant, and to work all the harder, against erosion of democratic rights and, equally important, against abandonment of democratic responsibilities by citizens.
That is, if democracy is even to survive.