Great Britain, the United States, and Germany are currently enjoying some of the best economic conditions in years, perhaps decades. And yet all three nations seem to be upending the democratic institutions that brought them there. Brits are taking the drastic measure of leaving the European Union altogether—without a clue as to what might lie ahead. Americans voted for an amateur politician and entertainer who immediately became mired in scandal and controversy upon taking office. And in Germany, radical anti-establishment rightist and leftist parties together acquired 20 percent of the popular vote in the parliamentary election.
Many have blamed this state of affairs on unscrupulous populists, hate-filled commentary, and Russian hackers. And though all of these factors are no doubt part of the problem, they obscure the very real anxieties in Great Britain, the United States, and Germany, and they strip the West of responsibility for addressing those anxieties. There is something genuine happening in these countries—a visceral anger.
For many, the future seems so technologically and culturally different from what they have always known that they feel vulnerable. People around the world are watching uncomfortably as the skills they have honed for the past 30 years are surpassed by systems designed by 20-somethings. Governments have tried to retrain workers and improve job-market competitiveness. But those who have worked hard for decades feel they have done their part, and it is time for the government to work hard for them. Instead, to bolster the economy governments are relying more and more on sophisticated new technologies and less and less on traditional labor. As a result, workers see their elected representatives as being incapable of facing predatory economic globalization, demographic shifts, environmental risks, and corruption.
And in fact there is little room for deliberative and slow-moving institutions like government to catch up, given the pace of economic and social development. All of which means that the boiling social discontent across the West might well explode.
Isolationist leaders like Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, and Jaroslaw Kaczynski may manage to slow down socioeconomic global development in their countries, but that isn’t the answer—and it will not lead to better prospects for their citizens. Nor will it last. The future is rushing toward us, rendering conventional institutions irrelevant and dragging large parts of the world into a social and political atomization, not dissimilar to the transformative eras of the Thirty Years War or the French Revolution. Foreign Policy’s David Rothkopf wrote recently that the current moment is “the day before the Renaissance.” But what is exciting for some arouses dread in others.
Governments need to find ways to turn innovation to their advantage and empower people to navigate an increasingly globalized and high-tech environment. Take social media. Many see social media as a cheap and fertile outlet for all the hate, bullying, racism, and other social pathologies that have taken root in society. And so institutions in Great Britain, the United States, and Germany have started to attempt to control what’s online—from Facebook and Twitter to YouTube and Weibo. This reaction is understandable, but it is also about taking control rather than empowering others.
What if society saw new technologies as an opportunity instead of a danger? For the first time, people have direct and global access to public and political spheres. They can react in real time to political statements and decisions, and can even communicate directly with politicians from around the world. We need to find ways to tap into this astonishing energy and turn it into positive policy.
For example, through real-time data analysis of personal earnings and public-services usage, governments will soon be able to target taxation in a more responsive way. Google’s Eric Schmidt sees global connectivity and technology like this as a way to make politics more transparent and responsible. For one thing, it will allow citizens to better assess the performance of government officials—and also technology leaders like Schmidt. Right now, innovators don’t always consider the greater social impacts of their products. CEOs are understandably preoccupied with shareholders, and so they let a mentality of efficiency prevail. That’s why the rest of the world cannot rely on tech pioneers alone to pave the way for better social and political climates.
Science and technology can help process unprecedented scales of information in a way that a single human brain cannot. However, in order to harness this power, it’s critical to establish a genuine dialogue between technology and humanity. The cross-fertilization of social, ethical, and normative science and advanced technologies is vital.
Recently, I had a telling conversation with a computer scholar at the Prague-based Czech Institute of Informatics, Robotics, and Cybernetics. We were discussing a project on global affairs, and we started talking about values. After several minutes, I realized that while the scholar was talking about values as numbers entered into a database, I was talking about the fundamentals of human experience. With a dose of patience, we found common ground and became increasingly amazed at the power of computing to address political strife. For example, while it is easy to catch a politician in a flat-out lie, there are other ways that political speech can deceive—like through a false-dilemma fallacy, which is when two alternatives are held out to be the only possible choices, while in reality there are many possible options. Through machine learning, this and many other fallacies and inconsistencies can be fact-checked on a complex, global scale. This would not rule out political lies or manipulation, but it could contribute to a more honest and civil dialogue.
There is a far-reaching transformation just ahead, and the world will likely be greatly surprised by it. But if we look—and act—carefully, we can ensure the surprise is a pleasant one.