The pessimists about democracy in this canvassing make several arguments and foresee several outcomes. A share believe that there will be not be adequate reform in the design and management of technology platforms; that government will not respond in the best interests of citizens; that the speed, scope and impact of digital tools all work in favor of bad actors; and that educational processes and growing citizen awareness of the flaws now emerging in tech systems will not significantly lessen the known harms that networked digital technologies can enable in the next decade.

This section includes elaboration on each of the most common themes. Some responses have been lightly edited for clarity.

Concerns for democracy’s future

Two main themes emerge in the answers of those who are mostly worried about the impact of technology on democracy. The first ties to their view that democracy is at risk because those with power seek to maintain their power by building systems that serve them, not the masses. These respondents say that elites’ control over technology systems gives them new tools and tactics to enhance their power, including by weaponizing technology. The growing imbalance further erodes individuals’ belief in their agency and impact as actors in their democracy. The resulting fatalism causes some to give up on democracy, ceding more control to the elites.

The second broad concern links to issues around trust. These experts worry that the rise of misinformation and disinformation erodes public trust in many institutions and one another, lowering incentives to reform and rebuild those institutions.

Theme 1: Empowering the powerful. Corporate and government agendas generally do not serve democratic goals and outcomes. They serve the goals of those in power.

Responses representing this theme:

The crisis is now. Currently, just a few big corporations control our digital lives, and users have no say.
Neal Gorenflo

Srinivasan Ramani, Internet Hall of Fame member and pioneer of the internet in India, wrote, “Unless society regulates democratic processes to avoid exploitation, we have to assume that those who can get away with it, will in fact get away with it. There is a very strong incentive for politicians to use technology to win elections. This is not matched by the zeal of the citizens’ representatives to use technology to learn about peoples’ problems and to deal with them. There is no movement to use technology to improve democracy. Improving transparency in governance, improving citizen awareness of societal issues and choices, and similar steps forward are essential. We did not let loose the monster of electricity on our people without regulations and safeguards. In comparison, we seem to be letting loose the privacy-eating monsters of technology on internet and telecom users.”

Neal Gorenflo, cofounder, chief editor and executive director at Shareable, an award-winning nonprofit news outlet, said, “The crisis is now. Currently, just a few big corporations control our digital lives, and users have no say. If this monopolist regime and the gaping power asymmetry between platforms and users continues, we’ll see a continued decline of democratic institutions. In addition, tech culture is becoming popular culture. Tech culture prizes speed, scale, efficiency, convenience, a disregard for the law (move fast and break things; ask forgiveness not permission) and a dislike, if not hatred, of government – the perfect ingredients for fascism. Tech monopolies and culture are profoundly shaping our lives and perceptions, and this is done for profit at the expense of our ability to understand the world, relate to one another constructively, feel valued and have some control over our circumstances. If not corrected, this will lead to a collapse in our ability to rule ourselves effectively, and perhaps well before 2030.”

Joseph Turow, professor of communication, University of Pennsylvania, commented, “I fear that a combination of political-marketing interests and antidemocratic forces within the U.S. and outside will create an environment of concocted stories (often reflecting conspiracy theories) targeted in hyper-personalized ways. The situation will make it virtually impossible for the press and civic groups to track and/or challenge lies or highlight accurate claims effectively to the electorate because there will be so many mass-customized variants, and because news audiences will be so fragmented. At the same time, people running for election will convince a significant percentage of the population to refuse to deal with or to confuse pollsters that don’t represent their constituencies. These long-term dynamics will undermine our traditional sense of an open and democratic election – though politicians encouraging the dynamics will insist the system remains open and democratic. I fear regulations will not be able to mitigate these problems.”

Anita Salem, research associate at the Graduate School of Business and Public Policy, Naval Postgraduate School, said, “As corporations gain more control and freedom, they are able to more effectively harness their resources to manipulate public perceptions. They have the resources to fully engage big data to leverage individual preferences and habits into structured sales and influence campaigns that can effectively manipulate opinions and behaviors of the common man. They will also use these resources to continue to purchase the votes of democratically elected officials. This will put corporations in control of the top decision-makers and the majority of the voting public and result in a new-age oligarchy. Democracy will collapse and be replaced by the oligarchy that has been feeding the masses.”

Theme 2: Diminishing the governed. Digitally networked surveillance capitalism creates an undemocratic class system pitting the controllers against the controlled.

Responses representing this theme:

Henning Schulzrinne, Internet Hall of Fame member and former chief technology officer for the Federal Communications Commission, wrote, “Unless changes are made, many citizens will increasingly see their role as diminished and inconsequential as the tools of democracy will no longer work and will have obviously failed – voting, protest, contacts with representatives, the media. Technology’s effect will strongly depend on the participants in the political process. If political actors (parties, major civic organizations, individual leaders) want to make democracy work better, technology can help. If they want to mainly ensure that their party cannot lose elections, technology offers plenty of tools of disinformation, vote rigging and suppression, gerrymandering, untraceable donations and foreign influence. Unfortunately, right-wing parties seem to have taken a liking to the latter approach, particularly if they see their influence endangered by new majorities. Changes will depend on the country and the ability of its systems to adjust to two challenges: institutional and issues. The institutional challenge is how citizens can contribute meaningfully to political deliberations, without having the sense that their voices are ignored anyway or that electoral majorities are superseded by rule-based majorities, i.e., where gerrymandering, vote rigging and voter suppression determine the outcome. Secondly, a number of issues that have been largely procrastinated on require governmental action, primarily legislative, namely climate change, lack of social mobility, income stagnation and the impact of aging societies.”

Christian Huitema, president at Private Octopus and longtime internet developer and administrator, said, “Large technology companies have adopted the ‘surveillance capitalism’ model. They collect large amounts of data about people, and then profit from the data in multiple ways. They also engage in ‘attention-maximization’ techniques, using the body of data to cleverly incite more and more consumption of their services, and of course more and more surrendering of personal data. Most technology markets evolve into a winner-take-all future. Surveillance capitalism is not an exception. More data implies more power over the user, and accrued advantage for further data collection. In my nightmares, this leads to a concentration of power in the hands of a few companies, where the ‘data lords’ of surveillance capitalism have as much respect for democracy as yesterday’s feudal lords. I really hope that society will rebel against the data lords, and somehow invalidate the attractiveness of data collection. But there are only a few chances of that happening.”

Paul Lindner, a technologist who has worked for several leading innovative technology companies, wrote, “Technology subsumes citizen democracy by replacing informed choices with behavioral modification in the service of profits and capitalism. Without a major shift toward community-owned and -controlled platforms, society will become increasingly split into controllers and the controlled.”

Theme 3: Exploiting digital illiteracy. Citizens’ lack of digital fluency and their apathy produce an ill-informed and/or dispassionate public, weakening democracy and the fabric of society.

Responses representing this theme:

Wendy Belluomini, a director and research scientist for IBM whose focus is artificial intelligence and cognitive software, said, “Platforms are easily manipulated by actors hostile to democracy as well as factions within a democracy. The electorate is not typically sophisticated enough to see this happening in real time.”

Carol Chetkovich, professor emeritus of public policy at Mills College, said, “The dangers of social media/IT are aggravated by the degree to which large segments of the population seem to be lacking the skills needed for democracy (ability to listen, think critically, gather data, weigh sources and empathize), because when voters lack these capacities, they become extremely subject to manipulation. Manipulation in politics has always been a concern, but it seems as if the scale and sophistication of manipulation through social media has taken this threat to a new level. And we are not really working on the problem of ensuring a better equipped/educated electorate.”

Leila Bighash, assistant professor of communication, University of Arizona, expert in online public information, news and social media, said, “By 2030 … the truth and falsity of claims made will constantly be questioned. Evidence will be faked or destroyed to support claims. People will wonder: How do we make democracy work if we can’t even be sure of objective truth and facts? How can we hold our elected officials accountable if we can’t get accurate or full information? Technology plays a role in this because, as we’ve already seen, there are sophisticated methods for creating and spreading disinformation and misinformation. Democratic elections, the fundamental essence of democracy, are already being threatened with technologically sophisticated operations by various actors.”

A director for a leading global human rights organization said, “Without better technological literacy and better public awareness campaigns, technology has the potential to weaken democracy by reinforcing opinions people already hold and thus polarizing societies, creating a chaos of information that makes it harder to discern truth – especially if people gravitate toward self-reinforcing information. At a minimum, that could lead to greater voter apathy, polarization and a sense that any one vote does not matter. It may also push politicians to extreme positions.”

Theme 4: Waging info-wars. Technology will be weaponized to target vulnerable populations and engineer elections.

Responses representing this theme:

Hackers and cyber terrorists keep getting better, and no one seems to have a realistic remedy.
Shel Israel

Peter W. Singer, founding director of the Center for 21st Century Security and Intelligence at the Brookings Institution, wrote, “Information on the internet has increasingly been weaponized in ways that attack the fundamentals of the Enlightenment, most especially shared truth, which modern democracies are based upon.”

Shel Israel, Forbes columnist and author of many business books on disruptive technologies, including “Resurrecting Trust: Technology, Transparency and the Bottom Line,” said, “Hackers and cyber terrorists keep getting better, and no one seems to have a realistic remedy. I am a career optimist and tech enthusiast. Yet, in this dire situation, I don’t see how tech will fix what tech has broken, and governments seem impotent in dealing with the issue.”

Hume Winzar, associate professor and director of the business analytics undergraduate program at Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia, said, “Foreign interference will continue. Russia’s sometimes embarrassingly simplistic social media posts actually gained more traction than they should have in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, and they’re becoming more sophisticated.”

Theme 5: Sowing confusion. Tech-borne reality distortion is crushing the already-shaky public trust in the institutions of democracy.

Responses representing this theme:

Mark Surman, executive director, Mozilla Foundation, and cofounder, Commons Group, wrote, “Well-resourced states and bad actors are increasingly using the internet to misinform people and put cracks in democracy. They are censoring and blocking alternative voices. These trends are upending free speech and other democratic benefits the internet brought over the last few decades.”

Jonathan Grudin, principal researcher for Microsoft, wrote, “Digital media overwhelm people with a sense of the complexity of the world and undermine trust in institutions, governments and leaders. Many people seize simplistic unworkable solutions offered by actual and wannabe tyrants. Add to this the ease of spreading false information and the difficulty of formulating effective regulations for a global system and it is difficult even to envision a positive outcome, much less take steps to realize it.”

Daniel Berleant, author of “The Human Race to the Future,” wrote, “While the web has the demonstrated ability to ease and enhance information flow to citizens, the quality of that information was never anticipated to be as shockingly disruptive to democratic processes as it is turning out to be. Instead of more-informed citizens, often people are less informed: manipulated by partisan propaganda increasingly custom-targeted to its unwitting recipients; trolled by sophisticated organizations sometimes as arms of foreign governments (pioneered by Russia – its successes will surely spark other countries to spend greatly on copying and refining its techniques); sucked in by fringe movements that appear onscreen as equal to the well-developed mainstream institutions that provide long-term stability to societies; force-fed more information consumed with less thought; and so on. We may hope societies can adapt and find ways, social and technological, to compensate, adapt and ultimately strengthen traditions of freedom. Achieving that is a challenge countered by those who, disrespecting society, seek for their own interests to destroy it.”

An anonymous respondent, wrote, “Technology-enabled disinformation is corrosive to democratic processes and institutions. There is no way to put the genie back in the bottle – increasingly we may be unable to have shared understandings of the world. Civility in civic discourse and integrity are increasingly quaint notions. We’re already at a point when even educated citizens in First World societies are unable to distinguish fact from fiction. And we’re already seeing fear of the ‘other’ stoked to the point where inhumane treatment of children is accepted in this country. Democracy only works if there is an informed citizenry. And, right now, we have a booming misinformation infestation eating away at citizenship and democratic institutions.”

Theme 6: Weakening journalism. There seems to be no solution for problems caused by the rise of social media-abetted tribalism and the decline of trusted, independent journalism.

Responses representing this theme:

Michael Wollowski, associate professor of computer science and software engineering at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology and expert in the Internet of Things, diagrammatic systems and artificial intelligence, wrote, “My concerns are centered around how hard it is for citizens to stay informed in an objective way. If citizens cannot form an unbiased opinion, then democracy is lost. Technology designed to misinform will outperform those technologies that are designed to inform. Most people are not willing to inform themselves, and even those who are will have a hard time doing so. It is my fond hope that unbiased news will make a comeback.”

Democracy will be harder to support when people don’t even have a shared body of information about public affairs about which to debate.
Anonymous respondent

Bruce Bimber, professor of political science at the University of California-Santa Barbara, said, “For better and for worse, news businesses of the mass media era served vital functions for citizens through their near-monopoly on the flow of political information. News businesses edited and filtered information about public affairs, and for all its flaws, that process accommodated some of the public’s cognitive limitations and biases in ways that made democratic public spheres generally tractable for citizens. It rarely worked really well, but it worked adequately. Digital media are breaking the filtering and editing processes, and this erodes the epistemic basis for democracy.”

David Eaves, a public policy entrepreneur expert in information technology and government at Harvard’s Kennedy School, said, “I see technology having three drivers: 1) Destroying the business model of the mainstream press and resurrecting the partisan press of the late 18th and early 19th century. 2) Social and online media, combined with polling and increasingly big data, tilting power away from representatives and toward the executive branch, which, with more relative resources, can ‘know’ more about constituents than their representatives and being able to connect directly with them. 3) Online tracking and facial-recognition software reducing privacy and thus increasing the long-term social, political and economic costs of dissenting or protesting. All of these could pose threats to our democratic institutions, but they are likely also manageable and could even be harnessed to improve representation.”

An anonymous respondent said, “The internet has done nothing to provide users with any way to weigh and sift the different claims made by different voices, a role once performed by professional journalists. This role has been entirely abdicated by the big content providers, such as Facebook and YouTube. These platforms allow people to find the ‘information’ with which they are most comfortable and reinforces existing tendencies toward confirmation bias. Because technology now lets us customize the information we receive, there’s no shared sense of the informational or news agenda the way there was when most people got their news from the three major broadcast networks and from national and local newspapers. Democracy will be harder to support when people don’t even have a shared body of information about public affairs about which to debate. And the evisceration of local newspapers and the concentration of ownership of local television stations means that local news, in particular, is going to be less available and less useful.”

Theme 7: Responding too slowly. The speed, scope and impact of the technologies of manipulation may be difficult to overcome as the pace of change accelerates.

Responses representing this theme:

Christopher Savage, a policy entrepreneur, said, “Eventually – on a scale of decades – technology will enhance and strengthen democratic institutions and civic engagement. But our cultural and psychological tools for obtaining, evaluating and understanding information are still far, far behind where they need to be to handle the polluted fire hose of crap thrown at us every day. And, worse, detecting and resisting the combined effects of detailed, intimate, pervasive-surveillance-based profiles of everyone – which reveal how to manipulate us – and ever-more-convincing fake news (deepfakes of video, audio and verbal authorship) – deployed precisely to manipulate us – will require a degree of sophistication in the consumption and processing of information that most of us just do not have and do not know how to get. Those seeking power (that is, politicians and those who enable them) cannot be expected to resist the temptation of using these tools to get it. So, the processes of democracy are going to get worse before they get better.”

Mike Gaudreau, a retired entrepreneur and business leader, wrote, “No matter how hard the legislators clamp down on social media, the nefarious will still find a way around the controls. Look at the number of data breaches we see today. I see this happening more and more. The ones out to corrupt our democracy will find ways to do so. China, for example, graduates millions of engineers and scientists yearly. Many will be deployed to hack systems so that they can steal information or plant messages that will unduly influence people.”

No matter how hard the legislators clamp down on social media, the nefarious will still find a way around the controls.
Mike Gaudreau

Craig Watkins, a professor at the University of Texas – Austin, wrote, “The spread of these technologies around the world is happening faster than the knowledge and efforts to apply them in ways that support rather than weaken democracy. The spread of disinformation, deepfake videos and conspiracy theories requires a level of digital and civic literacy that, unfortunately, is underdeveloped around the world. This is true in even the most ‘developed’ countries like the U.S. and the UK. Democracy is under assault, and the deployment of technology is a key asset in the undermining of public discourse, civic engagement and voter participation. And while the pressure to assert greater regulatory authority over big tech is ramping up the pace of change – data rights, corporate responsibility and designing algorithms that address disparities and efforts to weaken democracy – it does not appear to be sufficient to contain the looming threats to a more democratic and inclusive civic sphere.”

Mario Morino, chairman of the Morino Institute and cofounder of Venture Philanthropy Partners, a pioneer in venture philanthropy, said, “The hijacked use of technology innovation is running far ahead of society’s ability to absorb and comprehend the implications – good, bad and ugly – and it will get far worse before we ever see a turn for the better. The challenges are as diverse as the fueling of ideological and disruptive differences to the weakening of sovereign governments.”

Hopes and suggested solutions

Any number of respondents started their answers with the notion that innovation for good is inevitable. They often cited history that is comforting on this front. Here are the themes they sounded that covered more hopeful thoughts and some of the ways progress might unfold.

Theme 1: Evolving individuals. Increased citizen awareness, digital literacy improvements and better engagement among educators will be evident in the next decade.

Responses representing this theme:

Beth Noveck, director of New York University’s Governance Lab, wrote, “The public will be able to inform the agenda-setting process by sharing what they know about problems as they experience them. They will be able to do more than identify problems. They can contribute solutions to problems and deliberate with other citizens to craft and refine those solutions. They can and should be able to participate in drafting policies and proposals. Perhaps most important, they will be able to collectively hold government to account by tracking the effectiveness of the implementation of new policies and services. Finally, they will be able to exercise decision-making authority, voting on how money is spent and power wielded. With new technology, we can experiment with new ways of doing such things, too, including comparing the impact of having people volunteer to participate in such online processes versus selecting a sample of people to participate. There is much work to be done to test what will work to improve the impact of new technology on democracy in 2030.”

Jason Kelley, a respondent who shared no background details, wrote, “Democracy may seem sick for a while. That’s because we’re living in a petri dish. But we’re growing penicillin. The techlash we are experiencing is a valley in the sea change of positive impacts that technology has brought to our ability to organize, access accurate information and participate in our democratic institutions. Democratic institutions will become more beholden to citizens as the citizens become more capable of interacting with them and each other via technology. Also, citizens will become more interested in, and capable of, using technology to hold institutions accountable. It will likely be necessary for institutions to be more clear about their actions and processes to combat the spread of incorrect information and to adequately respond to citizens. It will certainly be necessary for citizens to become better at disentangling the truth from the fiction. This is already happening. … It won’t be a simple, quick, change; it will likely get worse before it gets better. The chances are good that our next election will be rife with these problems, and we’re going to have to work hard to figure out solutions.”

Democracy may seem sick for a while. That’s because we’re living in a petri dish. But we’re growing penicillin.
Jason Kelley

Doug Royer, a retired technology developer/administrator, responded, “Individuals are being empowered, for the first time in history, to easily describe their wishes, views, hopes and fears directly to and from politicians without distortion from news or information collectors. 1) Knowledge is the enemy of manipulation. 2) The ability to collect and search for facts increases knowledge. 3) I have noticed over time that debates between open individuals over the net also increase an observer’s knowledge base. 4) The exceptions to No. 3 are being reduced by peer pressure to read up before commenting. Often the exceptions to No. 3 are isolating in and of themselves, and this is being noticed by their peers. And hopefully will be noticed by themselves and hopefully they will change or become less rigid in their reactions to others. 5) Technology, like never before, has allowed small pockets of intense beliefs and political stubbornness to be exposed. 6) Politicians, like never before in the history of mankind, are being held accountable for past actions. It is a pendulum of reaction that will swing a bit back and forth. The process will flail out the extreme left and right over time. 7) People are learning to tell what is and is not fake news. And the opposing news sites allow open individuals to search for the actual truth.”

Theme 2: Adapting systems. Changes in the design of human systems and an improved ethos among technologists will help democracy.

Responses representing this theme:

Ben Shneiderman, distinguished professor of computer science and founder of Human Computer Interaction Lab, University of Maryland, commented, “Social media strengthens democratic institutions by giving a greater voice to a wider range of people, however, it also strengthens malicious actors such as political operators, criminals, terrorists and other socially disruptive forces. The goal of increased responsibility for actions will be helped by tech companies doing a better job of stopping bots, and improved ways to limit but not eliminate anonymity. Limiting malicious actors will require newly designed technology, social structures and government policies. New forms of independent oversight, regulatory strategies and community pressure will be helpful.”

Henry Lieberman, research scientist, MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab (CSAIL), said, “The original design criteria for U.S. democracy still are great: government by the people; life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. But the details and mechanisms of government were designed for the agricultural and industrial age, not today’s digital age. By 2030, this will become so obvious, and so appreciated especially by younger people, that we will have begun the debate about how to redesign our political and economic institutions.”

Bryan Alexander, a futurist and consultant at the intersection of technology and learning, wrote, “There are numerous possibilities, and it’s likely each will take hold in different places to varying degrees. Some will push to build transnational alliances to grapple with climate change and other issues, while others will encourage more local politics at the level of nation, region or city. Technology gives us more opportunities for direct democracy, possibly via rolling plebiscites. It also increases connections between officials and citizens through polling, sentiment analysis and surveillance. We should expect a role for artificial intelligence as political analyst and campaign assistant. The speed of political action should ramp up. So many things should remain, unless something extraordinary occurs: the practice of voting, most political boundaries, judicial review, constitutions.”

Theme 3: Enshrining values. Deep-rooted human behaviors have always created challenges to democratic ideals. Historically, though, inspired people have shown they can overcome these darker tendencies.

Responses representing this theme:

Michael Pilos, chief marketing officer at FirePro, London, said, “These technological challenges will prove to be very fruitful for global democracy. Technology has consistently proven to expand and fine-tune democracy. Social media and other multimedia platforms have exponentially opened minds and flattened perceptions across the globe. Let’s not miss out on the bigger picture. Yes, on the short term, ‘antiheros’ have been always ahead of the curve in utilizing it. This is why we see Western democracies now traumatized by several events in the political sphere, but the fact is these folks have always been there and have always been trying to influence the public in their own mind set. We are now more responsible and more capable in further educating people about intentions and policies. This, of course, does require that we now build better policies and more transparency than ever before. It also requires that political communication becomes more sophisticated and tech savvy. It will.”

Nothing that is happening is surprising – and we will continue to see wonderful social developments as a result of increasing digital connectedness, and simultaneously the co-occurrence of malevolence and ill intent.
Steven Miller

David J. Krieger, director of the Institute for Communication & Leadership, based in Switzerland, wrote, “The digital transformation supports values such as communication, participation, transparency, the free flow of information, connectivity and authenticity. On the basis of these values, democracy will become more responsive to citizens, who will be able to access more information, assess the value of information and participate in shaping and using information. A global socio-sphere will replace the traditional public sphere of political deliberation, reducing the importance of representative middlemen in democratic processes. More forms of direct democracy will become not only feasible, but the only credible form of legitimation for democratic government. Not government, but governance will become an increasingly important form of regulation. Stakeholders in hybrid networks will become responsible for implementing cooperatively regulated datafication schemes that create value in many areas of society, including health care, education, business, scientific research and politics. These developments will be accompanied by cultural and ideological changes that depart from the convictions, values and traditions of Western industrial society.”

Steven Miller, vice provost and professor of information systems at Singapore Management University, said, “As we continue our civilisation’s and humankind’s journey toward digitalisation, and the ongoing hybridisation of physical interactions and virtual/online interactions, we will see examples where these capabilities simultaneously strengthen our institutions and threaten them. … This is not new. It is as ancient as humankind and civilisation. … Somehow, some naive assumptions were made that these forces that have been with us for thousands of years would not be part of what would happen with the internet and then later with social network platforms. That was a naive assumption and proved to be wrong. Nothing that is happening is surprising – and we will continue to see wonderful social developments as a result of increasing digital connectedness, and simultaneously the co-occurrence of malevolence and ill intent.”

Theme 4: Working for good. Governments, enlightened leaders and activists will help steer policy and democratic processes to produce better democratic outcomes.

Responses representing this theme:

Mary Alice McCarthy, senior policy analyst, Higher Education Initiative, New America, said, “Whether technology strengthens or weakens democracy depends fundamentally on the political will of representatives from both parties and their voters to support robust rules and regulations to govern how the internet can be used to spread information and how efforts to spread misinformation will be identified and penalized. I firmly believe that technology and the internet can strengthen democratic processes and institutions. They can do so by making voting easier and more convenient; enabling citizens to communicate more directly and immediately with their representatives; supporting organizing efforts by community-based organizations, unions and political parties; and enabling greater access to information on issues of importance to voters. But, as we have learned over the last decade – and particularly since the 2016 election, technology can also be a source of disinformation, radicalization and polarization. It can be used to spread lies, sow hate and create confusion about what is real and what is not.”

Technology is a powerful tool for democratic change.
Micah Altman

Avery Holton, associate professor and vice-president’s clinical and translational scholar at the University of Utah, commented, “If we are to look more than a decade down the road, we might be able to imagine a democratic system (in the broadest sense of the word) where politicians are actually held accountable for their actions and the content they share with the public. While social media spaces such as Facebook and Twitter are content to provide privilege to politicians (without clearly defining who exactly a politician is or may be), the legal and ethical platforms they use to support such an approach will have eroded by 2030. Laws will be in place to prevent disinformation and mal-information, especially of the most malicious kind, and those laws will apply to the full democratic society. There will be less of a hierarchy of information privilege and more of an accountability system. This will bring about a restrengthening of civil discourse and community built around the sharing of the truth, even its various forms, with the knowing that what is not truth is equally important and the labeling of it perhaps even more so.”

Micah Altman, director, Center for Research in Equitable and Open Scholarship, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, wrote, “Society faces critical decisions of governance in the next decade. If we continue to make decisions piecemeal that cede small bits of privacy, transparency and accountability to corporations and government, we face potentially catastrophic losses of freedom. Technology is a powerful tool for democratic change. Independent commissions, empowered by participative mapping technology, are now our best hope for curbing gerrymandering and its corrosive effect on politics. Open science empowered by technologies for open publication, long-term data access and knowledge-mining are our best hope for making science more inclusive, effective and equitable – which has an immense long-term impact on societal well-being. Advances in cryptography and statistics-based technologies can help us reap the benefits of big data while avoiding privacy.

Theme 5: Assisting reforms. Pro-democracy governance solutions will be aided by the spread of technology and innovations like artificial intelligence. Those will work in favor of trusted free speech and greater citizen empowerment.

Responses representing this theme:

Stephen Downes, senior research officer for digital technologies with the National Research Council of Canada, commented, “The internet is gradually moving society from representative democracy to participatory democracy. It does this by creating the capacity for individuals or small groups to do things for themselves. People can educate themselves as a distributed community, they can mobilize themselves as a decentralized social network, and they can finance themselves using a digital currency. As always, it’s the extreme and sometimes criminal cases that capture the headlines. But the real change to society is taking place among the rest of us, as day by day we become more capable of organizing ourselves, and less reliant on the rich and powerful to do the organizing for us.”

Stowe Boyd, consulting futurist expert in technological evolution and the future of work, responded, “In highly repressive states, new technologies to monitor citizens and control dissent will be employed to thwart democratic processes. In more democratic regions, we will see an increasing resistance to corporate and governmental application of technologies – like surveillance, artificial intelligence, and social media – to attempt to influence popular opinion and democratic processes. I’ve written about a ‘Human Spring’ where a majority of individuals in Western countries more or less spontaneously rise up in a general strike against the status quo, demanding a response to climate change, inequality and the hollowing out of work by AI and other advanced technologies. Perhaps 2023?”

Eline Chivot, a public-policy researcher for the Center for Data Innovation, commented, “From an optimistic standpoint, 21st century tools could enable more, rather than less, civic engagement. For instance, policymakers, elected representatives (such as mayors) and policy officials (such as diplomats) could use online platforms and various applications to respond to constituents’ questions in real time, to involve them in decision-making processes at the local level, to gather more information from citizens’ concerns, to solve any democratic deficit and gap between ‘policymakers’ and ‘policy takers.’ Artificial intelligence tools, for example, can be used or bring governments closer to citizens this way, mobilize citizens, build stronger constituencies. North Carolina’s government is building chatbots to answer real-time constituency questions. The Singaporean government is using Microsoft-based chatbot systems to assist their citizens in key government services such as registration, licensing and utility management. Technologies can also improve government-to-government relations, level the playing field between big countries with significant capacity and resources to deal with the growing flow of information and smaller, understaffed nations. Natural language-processing tools in particular can cut down on research tasks, support the meaningful analysis of unstructured data at scale, make text easier to digest and facilitate the adoption of laws.”

Shahab Khan, CEO at PLANWEL, based in Karachi, wrote, “In Pakistan we can FEEL the movement. It is quite logical and a foregone conclusion that in the years ahead proliferation of digital tools will definitely improve the governance and efficiency of democratic institutions.”

There are many more answers about all of these themes beginning in Part 3 of this report.