Humility is needed for democracy and technology to coexist

By Helena Paul
  • Impacts from ‘Communication’ tools

It seems that applications such as Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram, Messenger, Signal, Twitter, YouTube etc etc, especially when several are owned by the same corporations and/or manipulated to enable targeted advertising, or to reach particular audiences only, or to reinforce only certain messages, may be having a serious negative effect on democracy. Public relations techniques and manipulation through advertising and other more subtle applications all urgently need our attention.

Examples of symptomatic impacts are recent suicides of young teens ascribed to targeted negative messaging. Also claims that the EU referendum result and the last US election were manipulated to target particular audiences that do not often vote and that see immigrants as a threat to their jobs and entitlements with particular messages.

High speed, remote ‘communication’ makes it easier to indulge in extreme remarks without respect for others. It may also be leading to polarization of opinion and could be helping to promote violence, for example among isolated and angry individuals. It also seems that the polarization and sense of impunity nourished by these technologies is helping to fuel extremism.

These technology applications also encourage narcissism and fragmentation of society since people are invited to present themselves as the stars of their own stories and people using them tend in general to be in touch mainly with those whose opinions or prejudices they share. While there may be particular instances where such communication technologies are helpful, eg: to people with serious and unusual illnesses who are able to contact others facing similar challenges, society overall is not benefiting.

We therefore urgently need to assess the impacts of these technology applications and regulate them accordingly, especially their effects on the development of those who have grown up with them.

To be genuine, democracy needs to be a deliberative process. This needs time and it must be genuinely inclusive. Currently Facebook, Twitter etc are pushing us in the opposite direction.

They are also intensely distracting, removing people from their presence in a location and disengaging them from the complexity of real interaction.

  • Impacts from other technologies

I have worked for many years on new technologies and techniques often proposed to ‘fix’ problems induced by previous technologies or our consumption-based model of development. These include genetic engineering, synthetic biology and the new genetic engineering techniques and also various types of geoengineering, broadly divided into greenhouse gas removal (GGR) and solar radiation management (SRM) plus some proposals to alter ocean currents.

Working on these over time has convinced me that our ability to manipulate materials, including living materials, has generated a sense of separation from and superiority to the rest of biodiversity, other species and the web of life on which we depend for our survival. Our desire to control living organisms so that they do our bidding even to the point of modifying impacts that our technologies have already had is dangerous. One example is the idea that genome editing can be used to make weeds that have become resistant to herbicides applied in huge quantities to GM crops vulnerable again.

Obviously the science is fascinating, and we are learning more and more about just how complex living organisms really are at every level, so that each time a scientist develops a new way of designing a gene drive for example, they uncover another complexity that may render the technique either dangerous or ineffectual or both. However, there are very different approaches, for example to agriculture, that involve equally profound knowledge of living organisms, but also how they interact within ecosystems, and how to encourage elements within that ecosystem that can act as allies, beneficial predators for example. Agroecology is the term I would use to cover all these.

The above is a summary whose purpose is to point at our somewhat pathological relationship with the rest of the biosphere. You may ask what this has to do with democracy and my reply, though not fully developed as yet, is to say that:

• I do not believe that democracy can truly exist if human beings forget that they are part of the biosphere and not external controllers of it.

• Nor can democracy operate if we have this attitude that we are easily able to control processes, whether those that make living organisms function or those of human interaction.

Some humility is necessary.

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