Automation And Society: Will Democracy Survive The Internet Of Things?

Automation is disrupting society, but will it destroy or reaffirm our faith in democracy and its freedoms?

The far reaching potential of hyperconnectivity, the Internet of Things and automation is discussed in the media every day. The speculation on how society will be affected is wild, reserved, optimistic and pessimistic. It covers everything from the impact on jobs to infrastructure, standards of living and communication. But how will these rapid technological advances impact democracy? This blog discusses whether hyperconnectivity and automation will lead to a new utopia (autopia anyone?!) or a nightmarish Orwellian 1984 in which we can’t be truly free.

Automation and Freedom

When the internet first went live, many commentators assumed it would provide a pure form of democracy. Everyone was given the same platform; age, race and gender were no longer relevant and we were all anonymous. But the reality was more chaotic, as we struggled to comprehend the power of a new tool that would revolutionize human life. This strange world was somewhere we could get lost and detach ourselves from everyday existence, but often it was also a quasi-reality that proved overwhelming and dangerous.

Yet slowly we have found structure. Society has become inherently more intelligent – we can find the answer to almost anything at the click of a button. Those at the cutting-edge can now gain previously unimaginable insight into human tendencies and interests. From here they can make tangible benefits to our lives. We can order a taxi, monitor our home, obtain recommendations on new music that suit our tastes and even meet our future partner; all from our phone through automated data-driven processes.

Freedom, a fundamental tenet of democracy, is inherent to automation when implemented correctly. For instance, in the workplace many employees were previously shackled by tedious repetitive manual tasks, but they now have more freedom to work on creative, complex and specialized projects. This is also true outside the office; administrative tasks that constrain us and consume much of our time have been removed – just think of paying money to a friend on a mobile app compared to visiting a bank. So automation and the Internet of Things are already beginning to reconstruct our daily routines, providing us with more time and freedom to pursue new interests and engage with society on a deeper level.

Big Data and Big Change

The power of automation depends on our ability to harness the explosion in volume, variety, veracity, velocity and value of data. Big data has significantly changed what is possible and has immense potential if we can learn to understand it.

Traditional media, which has historically shaped society’s perspectives under the command of a few large corporations, has lost its stranglehold on information that has now been democratized. Examples of which extend to bloggers, vloggers and almost anyone who has been able to get an audience on a social media platform.

In the same way that savvy tech businesses can utilize data to better understand their customers, political and social groups will soon be able to understand human tendencies. Now interests and behaviors can be rationalized with precise data from large samples of society, rather than the guesswork and opinion of just a few who claim to represent diverse groups of people with only a postcode in common. Decisions can be made on analytics rather than emotions and instinct. At no point in history have governments had so much information available to make the correct decisions, or the public so much information to hold politicians accountable for their actions.

Empowerment Through Automation

Most definitions of democracy include the idea of empowerment: giving a voice, a right to vote, the right to free speech etc. The Internet of Things can and should be used to empower us. Everyone everywhere is gathering information at an exponential rate, and even if it does seem daunting at times it is a fantastic opportunity.

Critics would argue automation is destroying the labor market and sending collective organization into spiraling decline. However, technology provides a platform from which any disruption can be reordered. Automation will not take our jobs (scientific studies typically argue the reverse). Sure, it might restructure the way we work, the roles we take and the way our society functions. But we should use these incredible tools to enhance society and reconcile it rather than blame them for divisions.

Information is available to the public who can use it for good. Knowledge is power and we are seeing a dramatic shift in a transfer of knowledge. No longer should it be the exclusive property of small and privileged enclaves of society.

So What Does the Future Hold?

Clearly modern technology has disrupted society. The challenge therefore is to overcome our fears, embrace it and adapt in the right way. Because, never before have we had so much opportunity at our fingertips. It is, I would suggest, a cause for enormous optimism and the way it is used is up to us.

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