Technological Influences on Politics

By Nicolas Zahn

It often seems that people interested in technologies and people interested in politics don’t get along too well. The scientists behind technologies struggle with the rules of the „political game“, while politicians rather rely on rhetoric than science to appeal to their voters. When politics and technologies do come together, the discussion often centers on one of two extremes: either politics demand that certain technologies be promoted no matter the consequences in the long run or politics deals with a very specific and urgent problem, for example when a new technology has led to a socially inacceptable catastrophe, in turn leading to political pressure. These are extremes because they lack one important thing: a reflected, holistic debate. Very seldom do we see politicians – or voters for that matter – engage in this more general, holistic kind of discussion of the relationship between technology and politics and the political consequences of a given technology.

There is no denying that technologies shape our everyday lives. Given the importance of technologies one has to wonder why general discussions on the influence of technologies are not taking place more often in everyday politics. Do politicians and voters not care? Don’t they have the time? Do they think it wouldn’t pay off to discuss something abstract?

Looking at the contemporary political discourse, one could argue that it would be hard to convince a politician of the merits of philosophizing about the impact of a technology in general. After all, voters would seem to demand politicians that solve their concrete problems of today. However, this rationale is shortsighted as a better general understanding of the abstract relationship between technologies and politics could help us maximize the social utility of technologies, primarily by making us ask the right questions regarding technologies and politics. So, if a general debate about technological influences on politics would be desirable, is it not taking place because the subject is too complex and complicated? Maybe, but complexity cannot stand as a good reason not to engage in a debate. Hence, to facilitate the discussion, this text will postulate some propositions on the interplay of technologies and politics and derive some principles for political discussions on technologies.

 

Before we try to unpack the relationship between technologies and politics we need to specify what we mean when talking about these subjects.

Technology is a popular theme in philosophy and even created its own sub-genre of technological philosophy. From the Greek philosophers to the age of the Enlightenment to the industrial revolution, philosophers have debated about technology and humans. For example, Nietzsche postulated that humans are by nature in need of technologies. The term technology derives from the Greek phrase “science of craft”. On a basic level, technologies could be understood as black boxes that turn inputs into outputs. They can also be combined in such a way that the outputs of one technology provide the input for another technology. Turning inputs into outputs happens all the time, also in nature without human interaction. What makes technologies what they are, is that we specifically employ them and that we are aware of their existence. That means, that at least some humans can take a look inside the black box of technology and understand it – although there is considerable philosophical debate about the magical appeal of technology. Just one example for a technology would be the technology of printing, as personified by Johanes Gutenberg. This technology allowed humanity to turn paper and lead into books. Notice that the scope of the technology definition in a concrete case is a subject of debate. To come back to the example of printing: are the lead letters the technology or is it the printing press? Often, technologies are defined too narrowly, so when discussing technologies, we should not focus on the smallest component but rather look at the bigger picture.

As other bodies of knowledge, technologies evolve over time. Existing ones get refined and new ones get invented, possibly making existing technologies obsolete. This was the case with the technology of printing that made the old technology of knowledge transfer by manually copying texts obsolete. This evolution of technologies is technological progress. Technological progress has several drivers. A key driver of technological process is linked to the characteristic of technologies mentioned above: that humans employ them specifically. We use technologies for a certain purpose, e.g. to facilitate our work. Knowing that technologies could address a given problem in turn creates demand to actually invent the needed technologies.

Another driver of technological progress is simply chance. Humans sometimes discover technologies by accident while actually looking for something different. For this type of technological progress the causal chain is reversed. Humans have not first identified the problem and then created a technology to solve it, but the other way around.

In sum, technologies widen the options for human activity, e.g. by making things possible that were previously unattainable or by facilitating them. Notice, however, that it is the position of the author that technologies are morally neutral, i.e. there is no per se saying that they are either good or bad. This stands in contrast to some schools of thoughts that see technologies and technological progress as inherently beneficial for humanity.

 

Let’s now turn back to what we mean by politics. Just as is the case with technology, politics has created a vast amount of philosophical thinking. Broadly speaking politics deals with the issue of how humans organize their coexistence on a given territory and within a given group. For more clarity, politics can be broken down into three sub-areas: polity, policy and politics in the narrow sense.

Polity deals with the “form”, that is institutions, that govern society. What institutions do we need? Do we have separation of the different powers of the state? What are the checks and balances between the institution creating new laws and the institution applying them? As institutions tend to be very inflexible we seldom see great changes in the polity with the notable exclusion of revolutions that, e.g. rewrite constitutions and break up previously existing structures.

Policy refers to the “content”, that is the actual proposal on how to deal with a given issue. How should a good law on the welfare state look like? Are we supporting a certain free trade agreement? Policies adapt to various situations and can be actively shaped by stakeholders with the respective power. This is, however, dependent on the polity. In a democracy, citizens have much more possibilities of influencing policies, whereas in a dictatorship policies are most likely not based on public opinion.

Finally there is politics in the narrow sense understood as the everyday “process” of creating policies in a given polity. The polity sets the stage but politics is the actual play. Politics covers not only the everyday work in the government and the parliament but also elections and votes.

 

Politics – composed of polity, policy and politics in the narrow sense – organizes society by defining, implementing and monitoring rules. We turn to politics for such basic needs as survival – think of Hobbes’ Leviathan for example. But we also turn to politics to regulate everyday lives, e.g. by creating EU wide norms on food safety. We turn to politics with our desires but also with our fears in the hope of addressing these issues successfully in the political sphere. To this end, the concept of power becomes relevant, sometimes also referred to as the currency of politics. After all, if you are to achieve a certain objective, you need the capacity to do so, i.e. the necessary power. Depending on your political views, power can be understood as an end in itself or simply as a means to achieving your goals. Notice also that, just as is the case with money, you don’t necessarily need to spend it for it to have the desired effect.

If the above description of politics sounds familiar it is because we have already described technologies in a similar fashion: also in politics we have inputs, a black box and outputs. However, politics is not a technology due to an important difference: politics is not morally neutral. In the political sphere, we look beyond the simple “technical” questions of how to achieve a certain output given a certain input. We ask ourselves questions like: is this just, is this right? These questions are not primarily interesting for people working on technologies. However, we also see the absence of moral discussions in the political sphere in systems we, rather fittingly, label technocracies.

 

Let’s now turn to some propositions on the influence of technology on politics:

I. Technology is power

We have stated that technologies widen the options for humans and allow them to either do things they were already doing in a better way or even allow them to do things they have not done before. As such, technologies become part of the political sphere where we are looking for means to achieve our politically defined goals. The knowledge of a technology allows its possessor to do things other people without that knowledge are not capable of. This difference in the sets of options available to the two groups constitutes an imbalance in power. This imbalance, in turn can be used in the political sphere. As we stated above, technologies themselves are morally neutral, but within the political sphere – where we decide for what end we will use a technology – we see that this is different. The power vested in technologies can be used for the good of society, e.g. by providing them with needed goods, but it can also be used to suppress society.

 

II.Technologies influence politics and vice versa

Through politics, society or a politician can set out to identify a particular problem or define a certain objective that requires the respective technology. Politics can hence stand at the beginning of technological progress by creating the demand for technologies. A prime example would be military technologies where politics set out to create more and more sophisticated technologies with the aim of increasing their power. Politics can also influence technologies and its progress by deciding not to support a certain technology. For example, some countries are banning the technology of genetically modified organisms due to public health concerns.

However, this can also work the other way round. Technologies can, through intended or unintended consequences, raise new issues that need to be addressed in the political sphere. For example, nuclear energy has created political troubles that remain largely unresolved to this day, from how to deal with nuclear waste to the efforts to curtail the proliferation of nuclear technology around the globe. Sometimes, technologies can have such a massive effect, that they completely redefine the political agenda. However, such instances are usually only identified as such after the fact.

 

IIa. All three areas of the technology definition are political

We stated above that the concept of technology could be understood as the interplay of inputs, the technology itself and its outputs. All of these three parts are potentially political, meaning that they can play a role in the political sphere.

Consider the inputs: if a technology requires certain resources and it has been decided that this technology is needed for the good of society – a political decision – it follows logically that access to the inputs needed in order to make this technology work is also socially desirable and a political goal. This pattern has led to tremendous suffering in the past. Think for example of all the conflicts conducted in the name of access to “strategic” resources.

A technology itself can also become political, e.g. when we talk about who owns the rights to a certain technology. Is a certain political system built in such a way that it encourages technological progress, e.g. by letting inventors reap benefits from their technologies?

Lastly, but also very importantly, the outputs of technologies often become political, e.g. they can cause problems that society wants to address through politics such as pollution. Technological outputs can also become political by changing the status quo of the societal setup in a given political system. Think back to the age of industrialization: this completely changed how society is set up and hence also had a massive impact on politics.

 

IIb. Technologies influence all three aspects of politics

Not only are all three aspects of technologies potentially political, they also affect all three areas of politics, albeit in different ways.

The technological impact on polity is often relatively small. A technology might change the way an institution conducts its everyday business by making it more effective at its work but seldom do technologies completely change the institutional landscape. From time to time, however, technologies change society so fundamentally that also institutions need to adapt, as was the case after industrialization that changed how states organize.

Policies are much more often affected by technologies. Whenever we want to make a decision on whether and how to use a given technology, we need the respective policy. The technological influence on policies goes even beyond simply creating demand for policies in that technologies can also change the way policies are created. For example, data analysis technologies have enabled us to devise policies based on facts instead of hunches.

Technologies also influence politics as a process, for example by giving politicians new options of presenting themselves to voters – from the radio to Facebook. Or technologies could be used by citizens to get transparency on their politician’s work. Also, technologies can change the political process by adding new players to it. Think for example about how communication technologies have facilitated the organization of groups and hence their representation in the political process.

 

III. Technological progress is only controllable to some degree

As previously stated, technological progress is driven by several factors. Given that we just outlined the complex interplay between technology and politics and the importance of technologies for politics, the issue of controlling technological progress becomes relevant. As this proposition states, the capability of politics to control the technological progress is not absolute but in fact limited.

The control is limited because, first, as stated above, technological progress is not always intentional and arguably something that is not planned can hardly be controlled in advance. Notice also, that certain effects of technologies only become visible after a long time, hence we have to deal with a great deal of uncertainty. Second, political decisions have per definition their limitations either in their scope or in their implementation. For example, a national law curtailing the development of a certain technology is limited in scope, as it does not necessarily apply to other nations. Additionally, even if a technology is in scope there is no guarantee that a given political decisions will be fully implemented. Just one example is the proliferation of nuclear technology, that continues even in that face of global political decisions to stop it.

Notice, however, that limitations on the political ability to control technological progress are not an argument for the position that technological progress should not be controlled. It merely serves as a reminder that the effectiveness of such control is limited.

 

From these propositions, the following two principles for political discussions on the influence of technologies are proposed.

  • Politics needs to debate technologies holistically
  • This debates needs to be aware of the limitations of politics over technologies and design politics accordingly

The first principle states that technologies need to be on the political agenda not only when it is convenient for a politician or when social pressure is big enough. Instead, technologies and their influence on society should continually be discussed by representatives from both worlds, i.e. politicians and scientists. The starting position for the debate is very important, so as a first step of a discussion, it needs to be specified, what technology we are actually talking about. Once the scope of the debate is defined, the discussion should reflect the complexity of the relationship between technologies and politics as outlined propositions postulated above. If we are looking at the Internet, we soon realize – as outlined by Evgeny Morozov – that there is not the Internet but rather various technologies that have political consequences. What are the inputs and the associated politics for these technologies? What are their outputs and respective political issues? How do they affect our institutions? How do they affect our political processes? Should politicians uncritically accept all suggestions from the IT sector representatives? These questions are the kind of questions we mean when we demand a holistic debate.

As for the second principle, recognizing the importance of a debate might lead one to overemphasize the importance of the results of the debate, i.e. to overstate the capability of politics to control technological effects on society and to steer technological progress. This capability is limited for a number of factors outlined above, ranging from pure chance to lack of political will. This leaves us with a potential dilemma: we know we should do something, but we cannot know if what we are doing is actually helping. We can address this dilemma through one of two ways: do nothing at all or do something to the best of our knowledge and try to mitigate the residual risks.

With the ongoing high speed of technological progress, politics will get plenty of opportunity to engage in debates on the effects of new and existing technologies. Hopefully, following the principles outlined above can lead to more and better discussions of this subject.