Authoritarianism and the Future of Technology

October 20, 2020 Updated: October 22, 2020

Commentary

Scarcely a day goes beyond without another warning about how technology is transforming our lives, economies, and world. Innovation has become a central theme for national governments the world over, with hundreds of billions of dollars being invested in nanotechnology, IT, biotechnology, information management systems, e-commerce, 3D printing, and alternative energy technologies.

In an age of technological euphoria, society has become remarkably uncritical and unobservant about the pace and reach of technological developments. Consumers want faster and better smartphones, tablets, and computers and more digital entertainment and games. There’s great enthusiasm about automated vehicles, remote health monitoring, and home surveillance systems. Governments race to expand the reach of high-speed Internet, just as families struggle to keep abreast of the latest technological improvements.

In the consumer-driven democratic world, the focus remains on personal services and technological enhancements and very rarely on the intrusive potential of emerging technologies. The reality filters into our collective thoughts on occasion: digital manipulation during the Brexit referendum in the United Kingdom, allegations of Russian-led misinformation campaigns, private shaming by jilted lovers, and social media mobbing. Consumers should be appalled by the intensity of efforts by criminals to intrude into their lives.

Little attention has been given to the distinct advantages held by authoritarian states in the implementation of contemporary scientific innovations. Less is known about how some of the most deeply held principles of the democratic nations—personal privacy, limits on the power of the state, legal oversight of companies—put these countries in a serious technological deficit.

Recent accounts of technological surveillance of the People’s Republic of China worry international observers. While much of the concern has focused on the oppression of the Uyghur ethnic minority, the challenge is much greater. Social credit, the name given the China’s wide-ranging digital oversight of its citizens, gives the state extraordinary abilities to monitor individual actions.

Digital surveillance in China is ubiquitous and growing in intensity and reach; facial recognition technologies in China are way advanced both in technology and application. Many international observers worry about China’s international use of its digital reach. Global concerns about Huawei, for example, focus largely on the perceived surveillance potential of the company’s 5G technologies. The wide reach of the Internet, the technical complexity of embedded technologies, and the voracious appetite for software means that digital and technological capabilities are well ahead of the capabilities of individuals and even states to fully protect themselves.

In the West, criticism of intrusive digital technologies has been described as “surveillance capitalism.” Large companies, particularly Twitter, Facebook, and Google, have been called before congressional hearings to defend company actions. In Europe, government interventions have been relatively mild and focused largely on securing tax revenue.

But the confusion about current technologies masks a more serious problem. In democratic nations, researchers are constrained by ethics requirements, copyrights and patents, and legal obligations. Politicians are notorious for shying away from controversial topics, such as cloning and stem cell research, and focusing funding on “safer” topics. Innovation operates with major barriers.

Authoritarian states have fewer such constraints. Many of the things that China is doing or has been accused to doing would not be possible in the democratic states. As actions by Russia and North Korea have shown, authoritarian states are unfettered by bothersome rules. Civil liberties and the rule of law—the absolute foundation of democratic systems—may actually be a significant impediment to innovation and technological implementation, which seems like the cruelest cut of all.

In the past few decades, technological innovation was driven by two forces: massive state intervention (especially through military and space spending, the nuclear sector, and university researchers) and a free-wheeling business sector that drew on billions of dollars in private equity. More recently, national governments in the authoritarian regimes have stepped up their innovation spending and using, in China’s case, their ownership or influence over major Chinese firms to extend the new technologies into the consumer markets.

In a time of rapid technological change, the world may well divide into two distinct streams: authoritarian innovation and democratic innovation. The latter operates with serious constraints that can add years and considerable cost to development processes. The former, with China and Russia being the most obvious examples here, have opportunities in biotechnology, cloning and genetic modification, medical monitoring, social media, embedded technologies, surveillance systems, and many other fields.

Ominously, the current concerns about state-based misinformation, surveillance capitalism, and the monitoring of citizens may well prove to be the opening salvo in an innovation contest of global significance.

To the degree that the economic future belongs to countries with the best-advanced technologies and cultures of innovation, the balance may well tip from the democratic nations, where freely available capital and intellectual freedom created a major advantage, to authoritarian nations, where concerns about individual freedom, the rule of law, and the protraction of intellectual and property rights play much less of a role.

To flourish in the world of authoritarian innovation, democratic nations will have to rethink their approach to scientific and technological transformation.

Ken Coates is a senior fellow at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute and the Canada research chair in regional innovation at the University of Saskatchewan.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.