The Chinese Communist party plans to collect centralised biometric and behavioural data on all living humans – a social credit rating for the entire world. Vladimir Putin wants to firewall Russia’s internet. Most dictatorships – including China, Iran, Russia, North Korea, and Venezuela – are building sovereign cryptocurrencies designed to evade human rights sanctions by transacting without the US dollar. With things like contact-tracing apps, which will soon be everywhere, it seems that tech-fueled global authoritarianism is all but inevitable.
Until it isn’t…
We once thought that the internet and cryptocurrencies were inherently democratic, transparency-oriented technologies. Now, many are seen as threats by free people – the tools of repression and authoritarian survival. How did we get it so wrong? Technologies are tools, similar to a hammer. They can be used to build beautiful things or they can be wielded as a weapon to do great harm. It depends on the user. That’s why we should focus on the user, not the tool.
A wide range of technology related threats faces the free world in 2020. Democracy’s response to an authoritarian tech assault is predictably slow: endless hearings, research, journalism, spirited debate, new laws, and bureaucracy. Good governance is rarely pretty.
The sluggish pace of freedom is often a source of anxiety for impatient voters, especially amid the snowballing speed of technological innovation. But slowness in governance is a strength, allowing free societies to adjust to the churn of the world before governments can step in.
For example, before the pandemic, free people were concerned about the effects of automation on workforces. Over the past two years, I have often heard people fret over the fact that driverless car technology will put millions of career truck drivers in America out of jobs. The coronavirus put hundreds of millions around the world out of work in a matter of weeks. Things change, fast.
But people adjust
Technology progresses faster than workers can be retrained or incentivised to undertake a career shift. As new technologies come online, everyone tries to capture their power and use it for their own advantage. This is as true for dictators and democrats as it is for local shop owners, farmers, or factory workers. It is the nature of tools. If someone invents a better hammer, you better bet I’m going to use it.
Democracies with the rule of law tend to incubate innovations because science and creativity favour open and transparent environments. People adjust because the individual rights that democracies ensure allow people to pursue their own future. Sadly, in dictatorships, people adjust just as easily to big brother tracking, monitoring, and shaping their choices.
In order to counter the authoritarian tech assault, people must recognise that technology does not inherently favour the dictator. It can alter the way we perceive authoritarian durability and strength, but it cannot change the fact that dictatorships will always be spectacles of corruption, horrific violence, and spectacularly sudden collapses. People in dictatorships can – and do – use those same technologies to speed up the demise of dictatorship.
Humans are naturally curious about the world. Because any form of technology comes from some sort of scientific process, it involves learning. That process generates data that spreads as more and more people gain experience with new technology. For example, the more the Communist party grows the surveillance state, the more China’s people will know how it works. The more people understand how that hammer works, the more likely they will be to use it to fight for their own self-interest – their freedom.
People in free countries face a similar problem when freely elected leaders are tempted to use technology to prolong their own time in office. However, the conservative nature of good governance means that by the time leaders in a democracy figure out how to use technologies for their own gain, the people have already invented something newer and better for themselves. Technology is not an end, it is the means. And it is up to each and every one of us to decide if history will end with global dictatorship or march on with freedom.