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Do Democratic Practices Stunt Technological Growth?

03/01/2017 17:19 GMT | Updated 03/01/2017 17:19 GMT
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Technological progress has moved faster in the 21st Century than previously in history. Already this century we have seen explicit, revolutionising technological advancements, such as contactless payment, Facebook and smart phones. Political implementation is a long process, meaning legislation is often trying to keep up with technology, not the other way around. It is even more difficult when aspects of the product defy the nation state. The Internet, for example, encounters different legislation in different territorial regions because its service extends beyond territories. However, governments, despite appearing to invest heavily into STEM and other technological areas, will stunt technological growth.

Across the Western world, from the UK's vote to 'Brexit', to Donald Trump's election victory, the rise of the National Front in France and Alternative for Germany, voters are increasingly telling politicians they want similar things. Typically the low-skilled, non-educated workers are warning government they are dissatisfied with the establishment and want change. They are also telling government that they want more job prospects, which is being construed as anti-immigration policy. However, this same policy will also be the beginning of an anti-technology strategy for government.

Linking lower immigration to greater job prospects is perhaps more damaging that it seems. The next wave of technological advancement aims to replace the need to have a human complete a job a robot will be able to do instead. This has already begun in niche areas, such as manufacturing, where a robot can be programmed to create a product quicker and more efficiently than a human can. This has led to regional unemployment in certain areas at different times in the modern era, but this gradual process has not been examined as a snapshot. Technology has also eroded traditional skills humans have had to learn for millions of years. Humans no longer need to read a map or remember directions because a smart phone or computer can do this for them.

Nevertheless, technology is on the brink of eliminating prominent professions from the world. Autonomous vehicles are perhaps the greatest example of this. Uber, Google, Tesla and many other large corporate names are rapidly trying to become the first company to create a completely safe, driverless vehicle. However, this could mean taxi drivers, truck drivers, school bus drivers, ambulance drivers and many other unskilled professions could be eliminated from the globe in a matter of decades if the political and technological priorities matched. Millions could become unemployed across the globe very quickly, which is unfavourable to politicians. Similarly, they can see advantages in having fewer accidents on the road to the tune of a lower cost to health services and a much lower environmental impact.

Politicians cannot ignore their voters to this extent and cannot embrace advantages of this. It is the mass unemployment issue that will cause most concern to politician's short-lived careers. Donald Trump cannot promise the Rustbelt States that voted for him that he would bring back jobs from foreign countries and replace these unskilled workers' jobs with machines. Similarly, Theresa May could be considerably damaged if she were to promote Britain post-Brexit as a free-trade economy that allows cars to drive themselves at the expense of the work force behind it, not to mention the huge hit to the economy as unemployment benefit surges.

Conversely, however, other interest groups could also prevent technology in this form from coming to fruition. Trade unions would make this transformation to a technological-based economy difficult. As a champion of workers' rights, they would make it increasingly difficult for a government to install machines to replace workers. Technology would have to co-exist with workers for decades and slowly begin to take over their jobs. This would not only slow down the entire process of the technological transformation, but perhaps change the direction of the technological progress. It would increase the price to the private company or the government who would buy the product, as it would constantly need updating. Furthermore, a structured dismissal of the workforce would not make the headlines and could go unnoticed like previous implementations of technological devices. However, trade unions, like politicians, would have a lot to lose from the increase in technology and could fight against it for their interests, failing to view advantages to the growth in technology.

Although not all technology will be beneficial, much of it will be. Returning to autonomous cars, the decreased impact on the environment and improved safety among roads will benefit society, as well as the ability to mobilise and enfranchise parts of society that are disenfranchised currently. The elderly and visually impaired, for example, are just two groups in society that a driverless car could improve lives for.

Society, however, has demonstrated that it is not ready for this through the rise of anti-immigration campaigns and elections as such. These new political tendencies will force all political routes against technology that will complete a job a human can do, thus stunting technology in the short-medium term. It is only when technology can prove itself that technology will prosper. However, for now, democratic practices could stunt technology in the short-term.