As you begin your day, you likely check your email, social media accounts, various app notifications, and even breaking news alerts that came in as you slept. Every morning most of us encounter the onslaught of innovation before we even have our first cup of coffee. We live in an unprecedented time of technological innovation that is often masked by the ubiquity of these digital tools in our lives. And the sheer pace of change can be overwhelming, even for the most technologically savvy among us. It is easy to lament the changes technology has ushered in over the last few decades. Scrolling our social media feeds, we encounter “fake news,” cancel culture, and jeremiads about our fragmenting democracy, all within a few tweets in our timelines. But as with every era of technological innovation, these new tools reveal unforeseen possibilities for human flourishing as well as the possibility of breakdown in society.
In recent weeks, there has been a good deal of buzz surrounding how technology is changing our democracy, ranging from the rise and support of the Hong Kong protestors to calls from both sides of the political aisle for antitrust measures to further regulate or break up tech giants like Amazon, Facebook, and Google. At the same time, there has been a quiet movement calling for a new piece of federal privacy legislation in response to the coming implementation of the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA), which goes into effect on January 1. And in light of this looming deadline, the American Enterprise Institute’s (AEI) Jim Harper penned a recent essay where he made the case that the golden state’s CCPA is poised to usurp many of America’s long-cherished democratic ideals.
But for all of the hand-wringing about the power technology holds over our society, it is indisputable that immense good has flown from such innovations. And to truly understand their impact upon our democracy and way of life requires careful and balanced thinking. As we consider the problems posed by these technologies, we must keep the facts at the forefront in order to safeguard the future of democracy.
In principle, being a citizen of a democracy means having a say in the laws one is governed by—at least indirectly—because in a democracy government is accountable to the people. Citizens in the United States regularly participate in free and fair elections in order to express their opinions concerning not only who should represent them but what policies they wished to governed by. The ideals of democracy are grounded in a vision of human dignity. Because every person matters, every person has the opportunity to participate in the democratic process. And in our federal system of government, the goal has always been to keep the connection between citizens and representatives as close as possible, thus ensuring that every citizen has maximal influence in the formation and direction of the laws they are subject to. But as our nation and our world becomes increasingly interconnected through commerce and advanced technology, the democratic ideals that have undergirded our democracy for more than two centuries are at risk of erosion.
It isn’t difficult to understand how this happens. As Harper pointed out, the CCPA that was signed into law by Governor Jerry Brown in June 2018 provides a perfect example of this phenomena. California has a population of nearly 40 million people, not to mention the world’s fifth largest economy. When the state adopted these new regulations concerning consumer privacy, the rest of the country was put on notice. Not only do major technology companies such as Facebook, Google, and Apple have their headquarters in the state, but countless American companies do business in California and are therefore subject to these new regulations. And as many have pointed out, this means that California’s CCPA has essentially become the de facto law of the land. But don’t miss the upshot here: because of California’s outsized economic influence, these companies will spend whatever money is necessary to comply with the CCPA, while the cost and burdens of compliance will be passed onto consumers across the nation who voted for neither these regulations nor the lawmakers responsible for them.
It is also worth noting that this action in California followed similar regulatory efforts by the European Union (EU), which passed the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) in May 2018. The compliance costs associated with implementing the GDPR’s immense regulations totaled in the billions, and multiple “reputable US businesses” were blocked online in European countries for failing to comply. But even more consequential than the cost of implementation was the concentration of power enabled by the GDPR. In pushing through these regulations, the EU not only further amassed control over businesses within the borders of its 28 member states but effectively began to dictate terms of business to institutions across the globe. And in the cases of both the GDPR and the CCPA, millions of people are affected by laws in which they had no say or representation.
But even if one is unconcerned about the future of consumer privacy regulations, the trajectory here is alarming. In recent weeks, we’ve watched the NBA struggle to articulate a coherent position when it comes to China, Hong Kong, and human rights for the very same reasons. China is an enormous economic power and represents billions of dollars in annual revenue for the NBA. As this recent incident has made clear, China’s communist government is not at all reluctant to use its economic muscle to silence dissent, especially about its human rights abuses. And as we’ve seen, the Chinese regime has no scruples about policing criticism of its government, even when a statement is made in the United States where such freedoms are protected. For almost a month, NBA officials have been attempting to find a way forward that recognizes an American vision of human rights and democratic liberties, without doing further damage to its business interests in China. More than a clash of liberty versus profits, the imbroglio is but another example of our interconnectedness threatening traditional democratic freedoms.
Benefits of connection
Even so, it is hardly the case that the effects of innovation necessarily portend doom for democracy. Speaking of federalism, technology has the ability to increase government accountability by eliminating the distance between citizens and the lawmakers who represent them. Not only that, but it also has the potential to enhance participation in the democratic process by streamlining the distribution of information and allowing citizens to connect and organize or share and debate ideas—all of which has the potential to help our democracy flourish as never before.
Technology is a tool, but a tool that can be used to bring about massive changes in our society. For example, our constant connectedness through the use of smart phones, social media, and email lead many to bemoan the breakdown of our social bonds, but they often do so using these methods to make their voices heard. We frequently miss the irony of hearing from minorities and the disenfranchised about the suppression of their voices or a lack of free expression, even as they freely espouse these views online for the world to see. Whether one is sounding the alarm or shining a light upon oppression, technology can clearly advance the common good.
In the not so distant past, information exchange on such a grand scale was unfathomable. But technology has actually helped foster a proverbial megaphone for repressed and minority voices that would have gone unnoticed by the masses before the rise of social media. We now hear, see, and experience the plight of Uighur Muslims in Chinese internment camps, Coptic Christians in the Middle East, and even the pain of those driving down the street who bear the scars of the racial divide that has plagued our nation since its founding. Without technology, we would often remain ignorant of these important stories.
Technology has led to the deepening of democracy as it allows even the minority voices a seat at the cultural conversation table to be heard by the masses. These tools have also led to the creation of countless jobs and freed many from the monotony of repetitive tasks through the rise of automation and artificial intelligence (AI) that by and large make our daily lives easier and more enjoyable. But just as these tools can bring about immense good and recognition of the dignity of each human being, they will also be mishandled, abused, and ultimately used in malicious ways that seek to subjugate the weak into the hands of the few.
There is a reason the United States is called a democratic experiment. For nearly 250 years, our nation has attempted to prove the thesis that the power of government resides in the hands of the people. Clearly, technology and innovation can advance that goal in many ways. But if we are not careful, it is possible that technology will continue to be leveraged in ways that separate the people from the mechanisms of government and power. And such separation will surely come at the cost of liberty. We must fight to maintain the ideals of our democracy. And we must never allow technology or other innovations to reduce or eliminate government’s accountability to the people.
As we pursue this laudable goal, we must do so with the foundational understanding of the dignity of every person as created in God’s image (Genesis 1:26-27). Some of the practical ways we can keep these things in mind is by preparing ourselves for the future that is already here. This past April, a group of over 70 evangelical leaders signed a statement of principles outlining how we can engage the rapidly changing landscape of technology and artificial intelligence. This document provides an ethical framework to address these pressing issues raised by emerging technology as we seek to model a tone of civility and human dignity in our daily lives, even with those who sit across the political aisle.
To paraphrase the famed evangelical scholar and statesman, Carl F.H. Henry, democracy hasn’t had its day as long as we retain a sense of shared identity and moral framework. In our hostile and tribal age, it is easy for us to neglect civil discourse in favor of hot takes and caricatures of our opponents. We can blast them on social media for a few extra likes and retweets, or we can seek the good of our neighbor by reclaiming the mantle of a civil and mature citizenry. Democracy is indeed changing, and important questions need to be addressed in light of modern innovations. Our norms and processes will need to be updated to reflect this reality, but the foundations of democracy can handle those challenges, just as it has met the innumerable challenges and disruptions of the past. Advanced technology does pose a threat to democracy, but there is a path forward for the two to coexist. To retain our democracy, we must keep the dignity of all people at the forefront and champion the rights of our fellow man.