Special Edition Number 3 - Technology
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Introduction: Safeguarding Democracy into a Digital Future.
This introductory paper begins with a brief contextualization of the stand-alone submissions of this Special Issue. Then, it advances a short reflection on how the internet has transformed society in a relatively short time frame (1990-present) and cautions that democracy must be safeguarded as we proceed into a digital future. An important caveat here is that this argument does not apply to the Special Issue as a whole but is solely the opinion of the present author.
Robert Lummack, Royal Military College Saint-Jean; University of Ottawa.
The printing press, industrialization and nuclear applications are but a few examples of technologies responsible for incredible shifts in human history. Technology represents humanity’s desire for improving the human condition, efficiency, and, of course accumulation; the ongoing project to populate Mars testifies of the human spirit perpetually confronting new frontiers. In the Unprepared Society (1968) Donald Michael argued that as society we have insufficient data to understand and predict “what will happen to us, especially as a function of technological change” (p. 8). Even with such powerful tools now at our disposal, the future remains unknown and this Special Edition gathers diverse articles in an effort to take stock of technology’s remarkable impact. Of course it does so with a dose of humility, recognizing these contributions describe but a few drops of a vast and turbulent technological ocean. This introductory paper serves two purposes. First it contextualizes the stand-alone submissions of this issue which each reflect upon technology in important ways. Second, it advances a short reflection on how the internet has transformed society in a relatively short time frame (1990-present) and cautions that democracy must be safeguarded as we proceed into a digital future. An important caveat here is that this argument does not apply to the Special Issue as a whole but is solely the opinion of the present author.
The Articles in the Special Edition
As a Special Edition emerging from a military college, several ideas come from the military and security world. Garay, et al. review Artificial Intelligence (AI) applications across a range of military and police applications. Their article speaks to the many positive uses AI provides. Hogue also discusses the take up of AI technology. However, he demonstrates how the technology is problematic on several levels and he calls for an expanded societal discussion of AI technology. Venema looks deeply at technologies that are increasingly used to secure public spaces and she notes the important human rights implications of these technologies. Turmel examines the issue of editorial bias in publicly funded media organizations - Deutsche Welle and Russia Today, comparing the coverage of the George Floyd protests and riots. His article reminds of the importance to be aware and differentiate source bias and their political motivations, a crucial aspect required for navigating our information soaked societies and the contestation within them. In turn, Dion, illustrates how technology is double-edged in terms of promise and peril, and notes how competing considerations need to be balanced. He proposes what he terms, E-intelligence, a useful method through which to reflect on technological issues. Lunn then provides valuable practitioner insight as to how to understand challenges of developing a cyber-capability for the Canadian Profession of Arms (POA). Finally, Heffernan and Katz-Rosene discuss the future of protein investigating the growth of the meat substitute industry. Their article is important to recall that technological advances are broader than security, defence and war applications and their contribution broadens the scope of the issue – bringing in the issue of climate change and initiatives to reduce carbon footprints.
Safeguarding democracy as we proceed into a digital future
Within all of the contributions, there is an awareness that technology affords great utility. Yet, simultaneously most authors urge caution recognizing negative aspects of potential excesses. These themes of duality are steeped throughout the futuristic television series ‘Black Mirror’ which enchant with marvelous visions of future life but end with ominous warnings of potential danger (Brooker, 2013). The futuristic societies appear not as unreachable nor fantastical realities, such that there is a clear break between fact and fiction. Rather the episodes contain a close familiarity with our present day realities and in some ways seem as plausible progressions. Moved by the duality of positive and negative potentialities within technologies and the pace of change, I want to reflect on how far society has progressed and so quickly. First, I note how 1990-2020 functions as a period of transition between the pre-internet and internet worlds – a rupture between two eras. Second, I note that the pace going forward causes certain problems. Third, I argue that information has become a crucial domain for governance in increasingly complex societies. I humbly caution that we need to explicitly safeguard and carry forward democratic traditions into our digital future. I caution of anti-democratic tendencies (not pre-causally determined to be so) which may creep into society imperceptibly, as the frog comes to the realization that the water is boiling too late.
The 1990s: an important decade
A cursory historical perspective identifies that specific periods of technological change are more important than others. The 1990s deserve considerable reflection as the moment internet entered Canadians’ homes similar to many developed countries. Through the decade early adopters and certainly younger generations gained exposure in home, business or school settings. Conceptualizations looked at the internet in terms of content benefits – accessing and connecting information and secondly in terms of inter-personal benefits – as a medium of human communication (Crowley, 2002). Yet, in the 1990s, the internet was exploratory, slightly mysterious as to what it actually was and complimentary to society. It was a tool that demonstrated a plethora of utilities, yet, society’s pre-internet institutions, frameworks and organizing structures remained in-tact and off-line. The digital world and physical world co-existed separately – they were not yet fused. In Canada and globally, internet penetration rates represented this divide but shrank rapidly as awareness of the internet became more prevalent and societal applications rose. By 1995, the Canadian government listed a government webpage (TekSavvy, 2014, January 1) and businesses globally began operating online (TekSavvy, 2014, January 3).
An early version of the Canadian government webpage. Image Source: Government of Canada. (1996, October 31). Serving Canadians Better; archived at Wayback Machine (https://web.archive.org/) > canada.gc.ca > 31 October 1996.
Home internet in Canada began in the early 1990s reaching 16 percent in 1997 and growing to 28.7 percent in 1999. By 2001, roughly half – 48.7 percent of Canadian homes had internet access (Veenhof, B, Neogi, P, van Tol, 2003, p.7). This growth in internet access permitted heterogeneous raw information reaching the citizen level directly. Information that was previously curated, interpreted and contextualized could now be accessed much more widely, creating a free for all information space. Yet, it was uncontrolled. In her 1989 Massey Lectures, Franklin (2004) used the metaphor of a “great dump” to describe the internet:
people and organizations dump information in bits and pieces; they also retrieve what is of use to them and interest to them. What is found by the scavengers depends on where they dig, what was dumped, and what is considered useful or relevant enough to be retrieved. There is no pattern in the digging or reassembly, no one path through the dump, no compulsory reference to the source of the bounty (pp. 144-145).
This increase of internet access meant a great change from the pre-internet world which was slower, more local and more private. Information was not instantaneous and connection between people was bounded by distance and prohibitive telecommunications costs. Social engagement and personal reputation management rarely went beyond the immediate social world (school, work, church, communities, etc…). Access to information depended upon the curation choices of the legacy journalism establishments. Although CNN’s 24-hour news cycle came of age, the daily papers had great influence and book-ended the pace. One could read the news in the morning, contemplate the events and stay tuned for the next morning. In the mid-late 1990s, a plethora of social media platforms came and went offering different capabilities or themes to connect around (Boyd & Ellison, 2010). However, Facebook survived and saw meteoric growth from 1 million users at the end of its first year of operation in 2004 (Richter, 2021) to 2.80 billion monthly active users at the end of 2020 (Facebook, 2021). Of course, other platforms may rise to eventually take Facebook’s place, but this rise in usership and thus global influence is incredible. The expansion of FB was the flagship of the dramatic rise of social media in the 2000’s and smart phone availability catapulted social media even further. The 2010s saw a further consolidation of digital culture with constant connection - home internet grew to 89 percent of Canadian households in 2017 (CRTC, 202o, p.27). The internet which was largely unheard of (popularly) in 1990 began a remarkable transformation of society which has now solidified into a digital reality.
Social media and a myriad of helpful and entertaining applications have provided unprecedented opportunities for user-generated publishing especially for previously unheard voices to have a mechanism to be heard (Patrikarakos, 2017). Ira Glasser (2021) argues that the average citizen today has a much greater opportunity to communicate publicly via social media than in previous eras with only a few dominant media corporations (Rogan, 2021, January 12). However, social media’s role in exacerbating existing societal frictions and possibly creating new ones has been widely discussed and no doubt felt. American politics serve as a prime example with intense antagonism in culture wars through the Trump Presidency, 2020 election campaign and fall-out. Former Facebook executive Chamath Palihapitiya, remarked “the short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops that we have created are destroying how society works. No civil discourse, no cooperation, misinformation, mistruth” (Wong, 2017, December 12). Palihapitiya and other technology insiders featured in the ‘Social Dilemma’ documentary decry a whole host of problems related to the rise of social media and their operating practices. In particular, the individuation of algorithms leading to echo chambers destroying shared points of understanding between groups. This fragmentation awakens a possibly dormant ‘us-them’ mentality via tribal in-group biases which are understood as universal to humans (Clark, et.al, 2019). Individuals may self-identify to a particular group for social protection. In economics, copying the decisions of others provides advantages - “not only safety in numbers, but there is an element of psychological reinforcement as well” (Hunter, 2002, p. 391). However, even when an individual desires to remain un-aligned they can be labelled by others (Waller, 2002). This tribal mentality limits individual thinking given social pressures to conform leading to self-censorship to avoid voicing individual beliefs inconsistent with the group for fear of being socially ostracized or sanctioned. Loyalty to the political platform is the norm in Canadian politics with the right of the whip to enforce voting; this has a pragmatic function of efficiency. However, these tribal biases at a societal level inhibit a full analysis of an issue and limit cooperation between groups.
Further, social media platforms have become extremely important, if not the most important, venues for societal debate. They have been said to function as the ‘public squares’ of our era, however, they are not ‘public’ platforms as public town squares in cities traditionally have been (Weinstein, 2021 January 10). Venema, in this issue explores the securing of physical public spaces as a response to post-9/11 counter-terror efforts. As a corollary to this, there are increasing efforts to make social media platforms ‘safe’ as governments and the Big Tech companies face scrutiny to bring order to the information space. Debates about free speech and the responsibility of government or the Big Tech platforms to filter out erroneous or misinformation or hate speech are ongoing and polarizing. Here, a platform’s rules of membership can restrict, limit or influence public debate through interventions to enforce rules of membership and in so doing may demonstrate real or perceived favoritism to certain ideological positions. The importance of this can be amplified due to the concentration of users on a few primary platforms devoted to political debate, notably Twitter and Facebook. While there is a great diversity of users and opinions at the user level, at the platform level there is a growing concentration. Moreover, the vast data accumulation involved in social media use (including the content of personal communication data) gives the platforms immense power, given the ability to oversee, connect and make sense of all user information. Given the relative ‘newness’ of this issue, Glasser underlines that the social media era is in its infancy and the place of the platforms will need some thinking though (Rogan, 2021, January 12).
Pace as problematic
As we begin another decade it is anticipated that the pace of technological change will continue to move rapidly (Rotman, 2021; Vassallo & Gauci, 2021, February 5). Computing power, transmission speed and storage seem to continually advance (Rotman, 2021). At least for some “the ultimate goal is omniscience – machines that combine insights and understandings to recognize not only correlation but causation” (Deloitte, n.d., p.11). This desire represents an updated dream of perfect knowledge acquisition. This was a desired although unrealizable objective of the military world seeking battlefield success in the cybernetic era (WWII – 1970s) (Bousquet, 2009). However, advancement in computing, data analytics and a digital reality has certainly expanded the capabilities of capturing data. Regular objects are increasingly connected to the internet and to each other in networks of devices and clouds, gathering data. Called the Internet of Things, it is a “a way to monitor, measure and understand the perpetual motion of the world and things we do” (Greengard, 2015, p. 169). There are now so many sources of data and algorithms increasingly gather and sort data and can continually look for efficiencies and exhibit the power to think independently from humans (Greengard, 2015). Increasingly powerful tools provide unprecedented abilities to collect and analyze data. Artificial Intelligence (AI) as one of the primary technologies has been identified as being “on the path to broad adoption, sparking rapid disruption along the way” (Deloitte, n.d, p.10). One disruption may be how we understand democratic citizenship, given citizens will be less and less anonymous – (physically and digitally).
Rapid pace, however, also places the requirement of immediate action above long term reflection which may lead to undesirable results in the future. Some technologists have warned of technological pace. Woodhouse (2016) calls to slow it in certain fields. For one, he notes that innovation is not a collective process but is driven by a few particular entities – corporate, entrepreneurial or government -- and that “a majority of the world’s population has little to say over how fast the technology revolutionaries move” (p. 267). In this way, there is little opt out for populations, outside of consumer choice, or none as defunct technologies are phased out. This parallels what Franklin notes, “there are planners and plannees, that is, those who develop plans and those who have to conform to them” (Franklin, 2004, p.118). The advancement of technology is not democratic (nor should it necessarily be). However, the distinction between ‘planner and plannee’ is important. In democratic societies, citizens elect officials to provide oversight and accountability for technological projects, partnerships with the private sector and their implementation. However, in non-or quasi democratic locales, the population is not safeguarded. Nor is public oversight even possible is some cases with the private sector outpacing public sector capability. Further, Woodhouse (2016) argues that technologies are generally implemented without full consideration of their effects and testing safeguards (p.269) also something that Hogue in this issue notes with AI technologies. Another concern is what Michael noted in (1968), “the problem of growing intellectual separation produced by cybernation between those working creatively with computers and the rest of the population” (p. 41). This gap was noted in terms of disparities between internet access and skills across socio-economic status between the developed and developing worlds. In all contexts, there is a technical skill gap between regular citizen and expert and possibly between private companies and states. The concern is that ‘non-expert’ citizens or sectors of society will not be sufficiently technologically literate to understand the implications of new capabilities nor be able to cross-reference digital information let alone mobilize to counteract anti-democratic measures. Simultaneous to a loss of anonymity, a skill gap will imply less and less ‘non-expert’ citizen autonomy.
Governance in the information age
Societies as complex systems pose immense and growing governance challenges. Contemporary societies are more populous (global world population) and diverse (culture, worldviews, perspectives) thus increasing interactive and structural complexity. Vertovec’s ‘super-diversity’ concept notes a host of intersectional factors related to greater ethno-cultural diversity due to increased transnationalism that accelerated in the 1990s (2007; 2019). Further, new ethoses of human centered emancipation drive citizens to expect much more of government in terms of more precise policy creations that account for differential effects of intra-societal diversity and for timely action. Publics can maintain awareness of social policy in comparable jurisdictions and feel relative deprivation within and between societies. This can stress governments via scrutiny and criticism to adopt or justify divergence from comparable policy orientations.
COVID illustrates the difficulties of managing complex human systems. Divergent opinions between scientific communities have been championed by different societal groups. This has led to varying pandemic responses within and between countries. As is the nature of science, expert opinions are heterogeneous and can diverge. We have seen great diversity among experts illustrating what Michael wrote in 1967:
the problem of evaluating the adequacy and validity of technical knowledge – and more knowledge will become technical (….) in order that individual citizens and contending organizations can act informedly in their own interests will become more difficult. Arguments will become more contentious. For during this period ambiguities and contradictions in “authoritative information” will increase (Michael, 1967, p. 30).
Even when consensus emerges at the expert level, the consensus position can be incorrect (popularity ≠ veracity). Again it is important to understand and be aware of social pressures that individuals and organizations face here. Further, well-intentioned interpretational versions of factual data succumb to personal, organizational or normative biases and incompleteness. The veracity of information is of critical concern yet incredibly difficult to verify. Social media compounds this by adding many lay-person voices to societal conversations – the sheer numbers increasing the difficulty in ascertaining veracity. The renewed importance of strategic communications in public and private sectors demonstrates this. Official narratives can be eroded via public criticism (an important democratic safeguard) but the tribal instinct can be hijacked or manipulated and information can be weaponized to affect popular perceptions of issues or confuse.
The stakes are high within the information space as actors jockey for narrative control. The growing complexity of human systems and pressures on government to react quickly mean that regimes, particularly authoritarian ones may look to technology for methods of social control, suppression of dissent and regime survival (Sylvia IV, 2020). The Arab Spring exemplified the promise of social media’s emancipatory potential, interpreted (at least early on) as ‘the people’, particularly the youth, using technology to confront authoritarianism. However, this zeal quickly diminished as many incumbent regimes fought back/regained control or deteriorated, notably Syria (POMEPS, 2016). This illustrates that authoritarian tendencies remain an entrenched feature of global politics which cannot be wished away. Technology offers governments enhanced means of surveillance and tools to defend against political or narrative challengers. Here, governments may limit internet access in the case of Russia’s off-line internet (Wakefield, 2019, December 24) or make rights contingent as in the case of China’s social credit systems (Liang et.al, 2018). Further, bio-security technologies and practices have been enacted across the world in response to COVID, such as COVID smart phone tracking apps, Google and Facebook location data, drones monitoring for COVID symptoms, geo-fencing and facial recognition AI (Couch et al., 2020; O’Brien, 2020, April 3; Sylvia IV, 2020; Greitens, 2020). What this means is that citizens can be surveilled, tracked and studied to an unprecedented degree. Of course, surveillance pre-dates COVID but undoubtedly COVID has provided new justifications for the adoption of new measures. These have the potential to impinge upon democratic ideals of citizenship.
Ursula Franklin in her 1989 Massey lectures distinguishes between holistic and prescriptive technologies (Franklin, 2004, pp. 1-17). A holistic technology is one that tolerates user creativity and tolerates slight variances, whereas a prescriptive technology is one that breaks down processes into parts and establishes a perfected process for each step. Franklin argues that a prescriptive logic of technology design carries an associated cost, a ‘social mortgage’ which “means we live in a culture of compliance, that we are ever more conditioned to accept orthodoxy as normal, and to accept that there is only one way of doing “it””. (Franklin, 1999, p. 17). When applied to social policy, governments may attempt to apply prescriptive governance techniques for the way society ‘should be’. My caution here is undoubtedly influenced by great works of dystopian fiction and film where authoritarianism is perfected. This reflection is in no way meant to be alarmist, however, it needs to be remembered that control has been a consistent desire for many regimes who did horrific damage to other humans (USSR, Nazi Germany, Maoist China, etc…). Of course, authoritarianism did not end in the 20th century and technology’s impact upon democracy needs to be discussed openly and deliberately and consider the complicating challenges now faced - tribal social pressures, skill-gaps, problematic pace, volume of information and challenges of ascertaining information veracity.
The 1990-2020 period functions as a period of rupture between two eras. It solidified a digital reality that will likely continue to evolve at a very rapid pace. The 1990s marks the last decade of the pre-internet world and the demographic who has lived on either side of the divide (spanning generations) will eventually be the last generation who remember that the internet was not always omniscient. The point is not to idealize the pre-internet world, nor define it as unproblematic. Indeed, the pre-internet world now seems distant, painfully slow, Pollyannaish (naïve) and unreturnable. However, from this memory, I feel it is critically important that understandings of western democracy writ large (electoral rights, rule of law, respect of human rights, freedom of thought, expression and related concepts) be carried forward and carefully safeguarded into our digital future at all levels of society and decision making processes.
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