25 March 2017

How Technology is Unravelling the Global Order

Technological progress is a systemic threat to democracy, rule of law, and open markets — but only because we lack ambition.

Across each pillar of the liberal international order — open markets, democracy, and the rule of law — we have been complacent about adjusting to technological change. We have spent the last decade attempting to improve upon a system created for another time, believing that protecting our institutions is equivalent to protecting the principles that underpin them. Positive trends that would facilitate democracy and an open global economy have unfolded without the support needed for their consolidation, while negative trends that undermine the rule of law, facilitate state control, encourage humanity’s worst instincts, and abuse consumer trust have been allowed to run rampant.

An Open Global Economy

In the period in which the United States and the Asia-Pacific negotiated the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and saw it collapse (2008–2016), the internet gained two billion new users. As two billion people acquired the capacity to talk to anyone, learn anything, and reach any market, the world’s most senior international economic negotiators talked about milk, cars, and whether pharmaceutical companies should have a monopoly on their drugs for five years or seven. Its efforts to address digitization and technology were largely announcements of intent, or guidelines to follow, rather than enforceable rules.

This is reflective of our broader efforts to create an economic and political framework for the digital age. For the most part, they have been about ensuring that vested interests and national boundaries don’t actively damage an increasingly open economy (see the U.S.-EU Privacy Shield, the European digital single market, net neutrality, etc, etc, etc — all valuable policy contributions, but none of which represent meaningful progress).

Despite the fact that the global economy is radically changing, we are using the same instruments and the same power structures to make, at best, incremental progress that lags behind: trade agreements, summits like the G7 and the G20, the WTO, the World Bank, or the IMF. Those structures alone cannot be repurposed for the large-scale systemic transformation needed to ensure that our principles continue to underpin the technological age.

To take but one example: within our current economic architecture, the increased efficiencies bought about by leaps forward in artificial intelligence and robotics will see power and finances accrue to the few rather than serving the public benefit. While automation should liberate humanity from drudgery, a lack of ambition in our political and economic thinking could instead see people’s lives become less materially comfortable, and perhaps even less meaningful as they become disconnected from the community and productivity that traditional modes of work have historically afforded.


Between June 2015, when Donald Trump announced his presidency, and November 2016, when he won, Facebook’s user base grew by about three hundred million people. While we were deciding what constitutes appropriate locker room talk, a population the size of America changed the way they engage with their communities and how they communicate. Politicians have sought to capitalize on new ways to reach people (as has the Russian government), but this has largely been about translating old modes for an online world: petition websites rather than a piece of paper; a Facebook post rather than a leaflet; e-voting rather than standing in line; e-mails rather than letters.

On the negative side, the aftermath of the U.S. election has seen a very engaged conversation about fake news, propaganda and hacking, filter bubbles, and manipulation of voter preferences. That discussion is important: those challenges pose an immediate threat to Western democracy. Underneath all of that, however, is a far more systemic change — a great deal of which should be enabling a level of democratic participation and civic responsibility unlike anything we have ever previously imagined.

As we complain about low voter turnout among millennials, that same cohort is having an intense conversation about the future on, for instance, Snapchat. They are also trying to address policy problems directly, many of which would historically have been the responsibility of government: homelessness, poverty and redistribution, traffic congestion, and even grief. Entirely new forms of democratic engagement and citizenship have emerged, from Code for America and Pantsuit Nation to /r/The_Donald and 4chan to Wikileaks and the vigilante hacker group Anonymous. Whether we think these are forces for good or evil, all are examples of people exercising power in very different ways, rather than simply replicating traditional political engagement through new means.

Rule of Law

Our national and international laws and legal systems are also being upended by technological advancement, partially because of enforcement challenges, and partially because of an outdated legal framework.The Silicon Valley mantra, “move fast and break things”, wants to change the world first and deal with policymakers and the inconveniences of democracy later. Uber’s “Greyball” tool misdirected police officers in cities where Uber is banned. Bitcoin and the dark net create rules of their own, or anarchistic spaces without laws. Various multi-national companies find ways to exist outside of laws, negotiating with friendly governments or taking advantages of the loopholes afforded by globalization — a trend that predates the current phase of technological change, but has been greatly accelerated by both technology companies and new technologies themselves.

Silicon Valley wants to change the world first and deal with policymakers and the inconveniences of democracy later.

From Russia to North Korea to the United States, nation states act in cyberspace with impunity, with the usual norms, rules and red lines around acts of war difficult to translate into an online world. Democratic governments now have the capacity to spy on their people and limit freedom of speech in ways that offline laws and norms have long forbidden. From privacy to data usage, technology companies create policies and rules that affect billions of people without any democratic oversight. This anarchical environment has fostered large scale innovation, but we cannot afford to see the rule of law become irrelevant as technology advances.

Looking Back and Moving Forward

Among the joys of living in Washington D.C. is that one is constantly reminded of how the great political experiment of American democracy came about, the intellects that underpinned the development of U.S. political structures, and the revolutionary nature of this country’s system. America has been at the vanguard of political thought for centuries. But even at the dawn of America’s creation, Thomas Jefferson wrote:

“I am not an advocate for frequent changes in laws and constitutions, but laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths discovered and manners and opinions change, with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also to keep pace with the times. We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors.”

The spate of breathless books about technology and the future, enjoyable though they are, only address a piece of the puzzle. They are — for the most part — either utopian or dystopian in nature, framing technology and technologies as powerful forces with an impact we cannot change. This represents a bleak view of humanity’s capacity to shape the things we create. In the aftermath of World War II, a number of great minds got together to think through the rules, norms, and institutions that should govern the world on the basis of international cooperation. There is no reason that we cannot be at least as ambitious today.

This moment could present an unparalleled opportunity to further the principles that underpin the liberal international order.

The internet and technological advancement are battle grounds for the future of the liberal order, between different forces, instincts, and human traits. This moment could present an unparalleled opportunity to further the principles that underpin that order: empowering democratic participation; facilitating global cooperation; further opening the global economy, and advancing the rule of law. Whether or not it does will depend on what we do and how quickly we are able to do it.

As you will no doubt have gleaned by this point, this is one of those unfortunate articles that offers few answers and lots of questions. How can we shape rules and norms in a way that supports democracy? What can the world’s superpowers — governments and corporations alike — do to support or undermine the liberal international order as technology advances? Are national governments and corporations the right actors to be having these conversations and creating these policies? If yes, how can they do better? If not, what is the right constellation of actors, and how can we create a framework that empowers them? Or will we ignore the debate altogether and allow illiberal forces to shape the future of citizenship and the internet? Is privacy a human right, and why? Who should own what data? Do we have the scope to generate solutions from the ground up?

One of the fundamental tenets of successful start-ups is the idea of human-centric design. Products are not created to efficiently achieve a utilitarian purpose, but to shape and respond to human behavior in a way that will make the start-up gain (and keep) users. A great deal of the success of both democracy and capitalism has been that they too are designed to work with the reality of humanity — with all of its good and bad — rather than some ideal version of it.

Rather than treating the world’s legislators and judges as nuisances to be avoided, the companies that can afford to should double down on efforts to work with governments and our legal system to develop frameworks that can better protect citizens without becoming stultified. Nation states need to work together to set norms and red lines — something that leaders are increasingly aware of but in which they are not yet investing sufficient political capital. Over the coming weeks and months, I’ll be using this space to explore how the principles of the liberal international order are being challenged by technological change — but even more importantly, how we might create a framework that ensures that change advances democracy, open markets and the rule of law rather than undermines them.

I’d love to hear from you. Please either share your thoughts in the comment section below — or, if you feel so inclined — submit a piece you’d like to see featured on Out of Order. I won’t promise we’ll run everything, but, if you take the time to write, I do promise to read and respond.

No comments: