The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Why our pessimism about technology is linked to our gloom about democracy

The new Weber Connect smart grilling hub, consisting of a meat thermometer, wireless transmitter and app, is displayed at the 2020 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas on Thursday. (David Mcnew/AFP via Getty Images)

The new decade is dawning in a mood of profound pessimism about democracy, overshadowed only by the even deeper gloom about technology.

If the past is a guide, we may well look back a decade from now and find that our fears in both arenas were overstated. But that will prove true only if we respond to the intimate and intricate connections between these two depressions — between the challenges posed by rising authoritarianism and the challenges posed by new technology.

The technopessimism is easy enough to understand. Not so long ago, we believed the Internet was going to connect the world and empower individuals. Now it seems to be empowering giant corporations to spy on us, divide us and take our jobs away, while the Web devolves into a time suck of misinformation, vile pornography and political vitriol.

Reasons for demopessimism are just as clear. A generation ago, as communism crumbled in most countries, liberal democracy seemed set to sweep the globe. But for the past decade, freedom has been receding, authoritarian powers have been growing more assertive — and, in nations that remain democratic, the system seems increasingly unable to deliver.

The most obvious confluence of these two downward trends is in the contrasting visions of the role technology should play in society.

On one extreme, you have the surveillance totalitarianism taking shape in China. The Internet there is not a vehicle for people to express themselves freely but for the Communist Party to monitor and control people’s views. In the world the party is creating, every purchase, every movement, every online conversation can be tracked, and any deviation from approved norms can be punished.

Other dictatorships, such as Saudi Arabia, have learned to use the Web to drown out, intimidate, harass and silence anyone who dares dissent.

Meanwhile, in free societies, you have — well, it’s not clear what, exactly. And that’s a problem. If democratic government were working, we would be embracing the virtues of new technologies while identifying elements we don’t like — the oversharing of private information, say — and controlling those.

After all, as the Economist pointed out in a year-end editorial, this is hardly the first time technological progress has inspired doomsayers; think of the Industrial Revolution, the invasion of the automobile, the advent of nuclear energy. In each case, over time, democratic government adopted reforms (minimum-wage laws, seat belts and unleaded gasoline, power plant regulation) that allowed us to reap benefits while mitigating (though never eliminating) risks and downsides.

Now, though, we seem stuck. Congress last year promised a straightforward piece of legislation that would have given consumers more say over the use of their personal data. A year of bipartisan talks in the Senate delivered . . . nothing.

And here’s where the two pessimisms further intertwine. Social media exacerbates partisanship and elevates conspiracy theories over facts. The baneful influence of the Internet on democracy, in other words, is making it harder for democracy to tackle the Internet’s baneful effects.

And, intertwining even further, those effects are spurred and heightened by the authoritarian societies (above all Russia and China) that understand the stakes of the global clash over technology. Of course, they couldn’t interfere without our help; they prey on our homegrown divisions. But in manipulating our social media (and Taiwan’s, Britain’s and so on), they aggravate our paralysis, including by helping to elect a president who shows no interest in defending the country against their further intrusion, or in regulating the tech sector in any way but browbeating it to his own political advantage.

None of this should inspire despair. On the contrary, understanding what’s at stake ought to push us to pay attention and get it right. It was important to reduce highway deaths and car pollution, but shaping today’s pervasive, intrusive technologies is an existential challenge. As Chinese companies market the tools of total surveillance to dictators around the world, U.S. companies need a contrasting model to compete with — one that, as originally hoped, ennobles individuals, allows them to start businesses, find and form communities, and take charge of their lives.

Understanding the stakes also would mean returning to the struggle for democracy worldwide. It’s always been true that America’s well-being depended on the spread of the rule of law around the globe — that, as President Franklin D. Roosevelt understood, we cannot survive as “a lone island in a world dominated by the philosophy of force.”

But that is doubly so today, when technology allows nations so easily to reach into each other’s domains and when the shaping of that technology hangs in the balance. Our current president, so enamored of strongmen and dismissive of the rule of law, does not understand these stakes. The rest of us, while working to replace him with leaders who do, in the meantime must work to harness these new tools in service of democratic empowerment.

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Read more:

Jason Feifer: Why do we keep panicking over tech?

Ronald Bailey: Technology won’t undermine human dignity. Fear of change will.

Fred Hiatt: These journalists have confounded China’s massive propaganda machine

Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein: Here’s what will decide whether technology becomes a force for good, or evil

Christine Emba: Is the Internet evil?