Technopessimism is easy to understand. Not too long ago, we believed that the Internet would connect the world and empower individuals. Now it seems that giant companies can allow us to spy on us, split us up and take our jobs away as the web turns into a time of misinformation, hideous pornography and political criticism.
The reasons for demopessimism are equally clear. A generation ago, when communism collapsed in most countries, liberal democracy seemed to be taking over the world. But freedom has declined over the past decade, authoritarian powers have become more assertive – and in countries that continue to be democratic, the system seems increasingly unable to achieve results.
The most obvious confluence of these two downward trends is the contradiction of what role technology should play in society.
One extreme is that surveillance totalitarianism is taking shape in China. On the Internet, there is no means by which people can express themselves freely, but the Communist Party can monitor and control people's views. In the world the party creates, every purchase, every move, 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 Internet to drown out, intimidate, harass and silence anyone who dares to resist.
In the meantime, you have in free societies – well, it's not clear what exactly. And that's a problem. If a democratic government were to work, we would use the virtues of the new technologies and at the same time identify and control elements we dislike – such as the flooding of private information.
After all, as the Economist emphasized in an editorial at the end of the year, this is hardly the first time that technological progress has spurred the underworld. Think of the industrial revolution, the invasion of the automobile, the advent of nuclear energy. In any case, over time, the democratic government has passed reforms (minimum wage laws, seat belts and unleaded petrol, power plant regulation) that have allowed us to reap benefits while mitigating (but never eliminating) risks and disadvantages.
But now we seem to be stuck. Last year's Congress promised a simple law that would have given consumers more control over the use of their personal information. A year of bipartisan talks in the Senate. , , Nothing.
And here the two pessimisms continue to intertwine. Social media aggravates partisanship and increases conspiracy theories about facts. In other words, the banishing influence of the Internet on democracy makes it difficult for democracy to get a grip on the banishing effects of the Internet.
And these effects, which are intertwined, are exacerbated and exacerbated by authoritarian societies (especially Russia and China) who understand the uses of the global technology clash. Of course they couldn't get involved without our help. They hunt down our local divisions. By manipulating our social media (and Taiwan, Britain, etc.), however, they exacerbate our paralysis by helping to elect a president who has no interest in defending the country against further interference or in any way closing the technology sector but regulate to his own political advantage.
None of this should arouse despair. On the contrary, if we understand what it is about, we have to be careful and do it right. It was important to reduce the number of fatalities and car pollution, but designing today's ubiquitous, intrusive technologies is an existential challenge. While Chinese companies are marketing total surveillance tools to dictators around the world, US companies need a contrasting model that, as originally hoped, will help individuals ennoble, start businesses, create communities, and take responsibility for your life.
Understanding the missions would also mean returning to the global fight for democracy. It has always been true that America's wellbeing depended on the spread of the rule of law around the world – that, as President Franklin D. Roosevelt understood, we were not "a desert island in a world dominated by the philosophy of violence" can survive. "
But that's twice as much today if technology makes it so easy for nations to reach each other and if the design of this technology stays in balance. Our current president, who is so enthusiastic about strong men and rejects the rule of law, does not understand these missions. In the meantime, while the rest of us are working to replace him with leaders who do, he must work to use these new tools to serve democratic empowerment.